Carla Bley, jazz composer and pianist, 1936-2023

Photo of author


Unlock the Editor’s Digest for free

When Carla Bley was a child in Oakland, California in the early 1940s, her parents, having identified their daughter as a musical prodigy, tried to give her piano lessons. The experiment did not go well.

“I bit my mother when she told me I needed to put a sharp in front of the G,” Bley remembered years later. “I didn’t have the patience for lessons, so I developed on my own in an unsupervised way.”

At the age of eight or nine she became obsessed with the French composer Erik Satie, whom she described as her “only influence” at the time. But it wasn’t until almost a decade later that her musical education began in earnest — although not in a formal pedagogical setting.

She worked as a cigarette girl at several clubs in New York, where she had moved because that was “where jazz was a big deal”. At one of them, Birdland in midtown Manhattan, she saw many of that era’s greats: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus and Lester Young.

It was also at Birdland that Bley, who has died at the age of 87, met her first husband, the pianist Paul Bley, whose surname she would keep for the rest of her life. (She changed her first name to Carla on her 21st birthday.)

“I consider Birdland my entire education,” she said. “I was a great listener, long before I was even an adequate musician.”

Bley would go on to establish herself in the 1960s and ’70s as one of the leading composers in jazz, writing with equal facility and sophistication for both small groups and big bands. The critic Nat Hentoff wrote that her scores for large ensembles “are matched only by those of Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus for yearning lyricism, explosive exultation and other expressions of the human condition”.

Lovella May Borg was born in Oakland in May 1936 to Swedish-American parents. Her father Emil was a piano teacher and church organist. But seeing the trumpeter Chet Baker and saxophonist Gerry Mulligan play in a bar in San Francisco in the early 1950s proved a pivotal moment. “That show was a big deal in my leaving church music behind and going to the music of the devil.”

Bley pursued that profane vocation with enthusiasm, dropping out of school at 15 and playing piano in jazz joints around the Bay Area. When she was 17, she hitched a ride to New York and got her first job in a club after lying about her age.

Bley plays the piano in 1989. She was noted for her ‘remarkable and commendable loyalty’ to a core group of collaborators
Bley plays the piano in 1989. She was noted for her ‘remarkable and commendable loyalty’ to a core group of collaborators © Frans Schellekens/Redferns/Getty Images

In the late 1950s, the Bleys moved back briefly to Los Angeles, where Paul was playing a string of club dates with a quintet comprising saxophonist Ornette Coleman, trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins. Cherry and Haden would go on to become long-term collaborators of hers.

The LA shows were a kind of primal scene for what became known as “free jazz”. Bley sat beneath her husband’s piano and made primitive recordings of the performances, which included many of her own compositions, as well as Coleman’s.

She was not an uncritical camp follower of the emerging avant-garde in jazz, however. “Just as it was, I thought free jazz needed work,” she said.

After she and her husband moved back to New York, Bley’s reputation as a composer blossomed. Many of the leading jazz artists of the day recorded her compositions — including George Russell, Gary Burton and Jimmy Giuffre. And in 1960, she also started performing in a duo with the bassist Steve Swallow, whom she would later marry. (She was married three times.)

By the late 1960s, Bley began to focus on arranging for larger groups. Three albums from this period — Burton’s A Genuine Tong Funeral (1967), Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra (1970) and Escalator Over the Hill (1971), a jazz opera (or “chronotransduction”) that she wrote with her friend Paul Haines — cemented her standing with both her peers and the critics.

In the mid-1970s, Bley and her second husband, the trumpeter Michael Mantler, founded WATT Records. She also toured intensively as a performer, leading the Carla Bley Band with Mantler, Swallow, the trombonist Roswell Rudd and drummer D Sharpe.

The English composer Gavin Bryars once noted Bley’s “remarkable and commendable loyalty” to a core group of collaborators. “I’m just a composer,” she told DownBeat magazine in 1984. “I use jazz musicians because they’re smarter, and they can save your ass in a bad situation . . . I need all the help I can get.”

Leave a comment