Carla Bley - Biography



With influences ranging from the hymnal music of her youth to tangos, bebop, free jazz, classical music and beyond, the music of Carla Bley is gloriously unclassifiable and uniquely her own. An outstanding post-bop composer and orchestrator, her pioneering body of work harnesses unpredictable melodies, resourceful arrangements, and a pungent wit. Bley is also important for her roles as a label owner and as a musician who has had full control over her releases on the Watt label, which she started with her second husband, Michael Mantler.

Carla Bley, neé Borg, was born on May 11, 1938 in Oakland, California. Her father, Emil Borg, was a piano teacher and church organist who began to give his daughter music lessons at the tender age of three. Soon she was playing at church functions. Her musical education ended when she was just eight, and at the end of tenth grade, she dropped out of high school.

With an interest in jazz kindled by hearing the Lionel Hampton band, she left for New York at the age of nineteen. She managed to support herself by working as a cigarette girl at Birdland and Basin Street. “I heard everybody,” she later told interviewer Ben Sidran, “and I hardly ever sold any cigarettes.” She met pianist Paul Bley, eventually relocating to Los Angeles. Paul had a steady gig at the Hillcrest Club in 1958, with a band that included saxophonist Ornette Coleman. Paul and Carla married in Los Angeles, and encouraged by her new husband, Carla concentrated on composition.

Carla went back in New York as the Sixties began, where her compositions were being played by Paul Bley as well as by other progressive musicians like George Russell and Jimmy Giuffre. To soak up even more of the music that was being performed in New York, Carla worked in the coat-rooms of jazz clubs. As a member of a new organization called The Jazz Composer’s Guild, she met trumpeter and composer Michael Mantler. Together, they organized The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra. They also became personally involved. She left Paul Bley, and moved in with Mantler. The pair left for Europe in August 1965, where Bley participated as pianist and composer in a jazz workshop in Hamburg. With soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, bassist Kent Carter, and drummer Aldo Romano, they formed the briefly-lived Jazz Realities quintet, which made one album for the Fontana label in January 1966. Later that year, the couple had a daughter, Karen Mantler, now a recording artist in her own right. The two were also involved in forming the the Jazz Composers' Orchestra Association, a non-profit organization designed to present and distribute unconventional forms of jazz.

It was bassist Steve Swallow who introduced Bley to vibraphonist Gary Burton, which led to the recording of her first extended work, A Genuine Tong Funeral (1967 RCA Victor). Not being a composer himself, Burton was in constant need of fresh material. Anxious to do something other than another quartet project, Burton talked it over with Swallow. “Although I didn’t know Carla personally at the time, I was aware of her music,” Burton later reminisced, “and this definitely sounded intriguing.” Bley described her “Dark Opera Without Words” as “a dramatic musical production based on emotions towards death - from the most irreverent to those of deepest loss.” Performed by Burton’s Quartet With Orchestra, the album was quite well received by the jazz public and critics alike, establishing Bley as a composer and conceptualist. In its idiosyncratic voicings, oblique humor, consciousness of the role of music and ritual in society, and dramatic bent, the suite prefigured much of the music to come--Burton would later record another album of Bley compositions, Dream So Real (1975 ECM), with a quintet that included a young Pat Metheny.

Bley’s next big project was with bassist Charlie Haden, who she knew from Los Angeles. For his first release as a leader, Haden commissioned her to write and arrange for his Liberation Music Orchestra (1969 Impulse), a big band whose music was, according to Haden, “dedicated to creating a better world....” Bley has continued to collaborate with Haden over the decades, arranging, composing, and/or conducting subsequent releases by successive editions of the Orchestra.

Even before her involvement with the Haden project, Bley had been writing and recording bits and pieces of an operatic collaboration with poet Paul Haines, Escalator Over The Hill, which they called a “chronotransduction.” The sprawling work used such disparate talents as Haden, Mantler, trumpeter Don Cherry, saxophonists Jimmy Lyons and Gato Barbieri, trombonists Roswell Rudd and Jimmy Knepper, guitarist John McLaughlin, drummer Paul Motian, electric bassist/vocalist Jack Bruce, and vocalist Linda Ronstadt. It was finally completed in 1972. Bley and Mantler established their own JCOA Records to release the utterly impossible-to-describe 3-lp set. With the distribution of avant-garde music being as big a problem as getting a label interested in the first place, the pair also established The New Music Distribution Service, a business which lasted for two decades.

In 1972, Bley received a Guggenheim Fellowship. That same year, she and Mantler started another label, Watt Records, for their own music. The initial release was another collaboration with Haines, Tropic Appetites (1973 Watt), played by an octet featuring vocalist Julie Tippett. Commissioned by The Ensemble in 1974 to compose a piece for chamber orchestra, Bley delivered ¾, which for its first performances was conducted by Dennis Russell Davies and featured pianist Keith Jarrett. Bley recorded it herself in 1975. Also that year, she moved to London for six months, playing in a sadly unrecorded band with Jack Bruce and former Rolling Stones guitarist Mick Taylor.

Returning to New York, the determined composer put together the Carla Bley Band, an ensemble of six horns plus rhythm. The group, which included at various times Mantler, Swallow, Rudd, saxophonists Elton Dean, Gary Windo, and Carlos Ward, bassist Hugh Hopper, and drummers Andrew Cyrille and D. Sharpe, toured Japan and Europe, and made five albums for Watt. Bley also participated in a number of Mantler’s projects, including The Hapless Child and Other Inscrutable Stories (1976 Watt), based on the writings of Edward Gorey; Silence (1976 Watt) with texts by Samuel Beckett; and Movies (1977 Watt), a quintet with Swallow, guitarist Larry Coryell, and drummer Tony Williams. She also contributed to projects by art rockers John Greaves and Peter Blegvad (Kew Rhone, 1977 Virgin) and Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason’s Fictitious Sports (Spot the Player, 1981 Columbia). The Mason album is really a Carla Bley Band album with vocalists Robert Wyatt and Karen Kraft singing Bley’s lyrics.

Around 1980, Watt began an association with the famed ECM label, assuring the label a world wide presence. The next regular band featured an expanded rhythm section, often with Bley taking on the organ and synthesizer parts, leaving the acoustic piano chair to be filled by other players including Kenny Kirkland, Terry Adams of NRBQ, and Larry Willis. There were also high-profile contributions to tribute albums devoted to Italian composer Nino Rota (Amarcord Nino Rota, 1981 Hannibal), Kurt Weill (Lost In the Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill, 1985 A&M), and Thelonious Monk (That’s The Way I Feel Now: A Tribute to Thelonious Monk, 1984 A&M). Her arrangement of Monk’s “Misterioso” was nominated for a Grammy award. The Carla Bley Band also recorded Bley’s original music for the soundtrack Mortelle Randonnée, a 1983 film by Claude Miller (1983 Mercury).

Bley was also becoming ever more involved with Steve Swallow on both a personal and professional level, writing the Night-glo (1985 Watt/ECM) for him. After 1986 European tour with the sextet, Bley slimmed the band down again. The recreational musical pursuit of duets with Swallow slowly turned public, and for a number of years, the pair toured and recorded as a duo. Bley’s compositions from this period include Romantic Notions for pianist Ursula Oppens, a fanfare (Continuum) for the Houston Symphony, and Coppertone, a piece commissioned by The Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society and featuring Fred Sherry, Paula Robison and Ani Kavafian.

Bley can’t seem to stay away from the big band, no matter how hard she professes to try. In late 1988, she brought a big band into Copenhagen’s Montmartre Club to record Fleur Carnivore (1989 Watt/ECM). Another Liberation Music Orchestra project won the Down Beat Record of the Year award (Dreamkeeper, 1990 Blue Note). In the fall of 1990, Bley was visiting professor at The College of William and Mary, although she managed to get to Germany in October for a Very Big Carla Bley Band project. Separated from husband Michael Mantler in early 1991, Bley was soon living with Steve Swallow. Their second album of duets, Go Together (1992 Watt/ECM) was followed by Big Band Theory (1993 Watt/ECM) the following year and an ensuing European Big Band tour. The album was nominated for a Grammy award in the Best Jazz Big Band category. The rest of the year was devoted to performances by the Bley/Swallow duo, with the eventual addition of British saxophonist Andy Sheppard making it a trio. The live album Songs With Legs (1994 Watt/ECM) was culled from a May 1994 tour of Europe.

Commissions for European and American jazz and classical ensembles, along with residencies and tours, plus ample down time for fresh composing, continue to keep Bley active and on the go. There were commissions in Hamburg and New York in 1994, duets in Brazil in 1995, followed by work with local big bands in Norway and Seattle, and another duets tour, this time in Europe. Early 1996 found Bley working with Swallow and Sheppard in Grenoble. Then it was back to the big band, which toured and recorded The Carla Bley Big Band Goes To Church that July (1996 Watt/ECM) before Bley spent the fall writing chamber music. The first live production of Escalator Over the Hill was presented in Germany in 1997. Later that year, Bley and Swallow recorded and toured with Fancy Chamber Music (1998 ECM), an octet devoted to Bley’s music written for non-improvising musicians. A month in Denmark and a July tour with a 24-piece group performing Escalator Over the Hill, and another duets tour were the highlights of 1998. Bley then spent the rest of the winter preparing music for her new band, 4 X 4, shorthand for a line-up of four horns and four rhythm instruments. The group, with Sheppard, Swallow, trumpeter Lew Soloff, trombonist Gary Valente (a veteran of the Big Band), alto saxophonist Wolfgang Puschnig, organist Larry Goldings, and drummer Victor Jones, premiered in Tokyo in April, 1999. During a July tour of Europe, they made their first self-titled CD (1999 Watt/ECM).

The duets concept was retired after an April 2000 concert in Sao Paulo. The 4 X 4 band went back on the road that fall. Over the next few years, Bley, along with Swallow, worked with big bands, both local organizations and her own group, and in the trio with Sheppard when she wasn’t writing music. The 2002 Big Band album Looking For America (Watt) earned her a third Grammy nomination. When the Big Band’s drummer Billy Drummond joined the trio for some dates in August 2003, the Lost Chords was born, which has become her vehicle for small band music. Her most recent project, as of this writing, is a quintet, The Lost Chords Find Paolo Fresu, the Sardinian trumpeter (2007 Watt/ECM).

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