Remembering Carla Bley

Volume 123, No. 10November, 2023

John Pietaro

Carla Bley in 2009. (Photo by Dietmar Liste via Wikipedia)

CARLA BLEY WAS, BY HER OWN ACCOUNT, A BORN RADICAL. Throughout a career spanning generations, disciplines, genres, and countless struggles against just as many injustices, Carla’s impact on the cutting edge of music resounds well beyond any singular lifetime. The pianist, composer, activist, band leader, indie arts pioneer and Local 802 member passed away on Oct. 17, 2023 near Woodstock NY in the home she shared with husband, partner and bassist Steve Swallow. She was 87 years old, though discreetly suffering from the effects of brain cancer. Bley, characteristically, maintained music activities into her final days. The following article is largely the result of an in-person interview I held with her in early summer 2020 at her home.

Carla Bley was born Lovella May Borg, 1936, in Oakland. Her father, Emil Borg, was a church choir leader and her sole piano teacher. Though she began as a promising student, by age 14, the rebellious youth rejected both religious and musical studies (“I wanted to roller-skate”). Three years later, she’d relocated to New York City, working as a cigarette girl at Birdland.

“I didn’t study music in college,” she recalled in our 2020 interview. “I never made it to college. I never made it through high school! But I grew up listening to my father’s students playing in our living room. Music was like walking to me. It was that natural.” Sitting within her home office on a particularly bright June day, surrounded by a treasure trove of scores, files and concert posters traversing a half century, Bley spoke frankly about life and career, her place as a woman in the jazz spectrum, the progressive fight-back she’s engaged in for decades, and the re-establishment of the Liberation Music Orchestra as the nation was experiencing brutal division.

Even with the passage of many years, the vital memories of such turbulent and exciting times resounded. “At Birdland, I spent more time listening to the musicians onstage than to the patrons. Not good for business, I know, but…” Bley became immersed in the progressive trends rapidly developing in jazz but also had up-close exposure to the more mainstream: as a pianist, she was enamored with the spaciousness Count Basie, a frequent performer, exhibited in his playing. Such an atmospheric approach would remain with her. In this time, she also came to know pianist Paul Bley, who’d become her first husband. “When I began, no one would hire me as an accompanist. I wasn’t that well behaved.” Navigating the sexism most women are besieged with in the music industry (“I never really had a problem with male musicians…only the journalists,” she added with a grin), Carla first caught wider attention not through the improvisation she was drawn to, but as a composer. “At that time, we were into free playing,” she recalled. “There might be a motif or melodic idea or figure, and then it was whatever comes to mind. Eighty per cent could be good and twenty bad. Or the opposite. It encouraged me to write for musicians whom I thought needed something.”

Perhaps the overly used term “third-stream” slights these early compositions, but the influence of modern classical music was always inherent in her work. Paul Bley’s renderings of “0 Plus One” (her first to be recorded, 1957), “Ictus” and “Ida Lupino” were rapidly gaining notice, and other forward-looking artists began to seek them out. Her music already carried that haunting quality where lingering, open chords leave room necessary for both the listener’s and improviser’s aural journey. “My balance has always been in writing it and leaving space. At the time, I didn’t know any other women doing this, but then, I didn’t actually know any men either.”

While employed as a copyist for George Russell, and with her works increasingly on recordings by Paul Bley, Jimmy Giuffre, Don Ellis and Russell (1960, ‘61 and ‘62), Carla was at the center of this expansion of jazz as an art form. With Paul Bley’s recordings particularly showcasing her repertoire (his “Barrage” album was comprised entirely of her music), the budding visionary was encouraged toward composition and orchestration.

After taking on the moniker Karen Borg or Carla Borg, and then, with marriage to Paul, Carla Bley, by 1964, she’d become an early member — initially the only female member — of Bill Dixon’s Jazz Composers Guild. “I was a fly on the wall. Mostly, I sat there and listened to these guys arguing,” she recalled.

In 1965, Carla joined Local 802. By then, the nascent Jazz Composers Guild had expanded, with trumpeter Michael Mantler becoming a force within. “Michael and I met at the Guild. He was Cecil Taylor’s trumpet player at the time. A good-looking young kid,” she smiles. “And I just moved in.” Following divorce from Paul Bley, Carla and Mantler were married and together built the Jazz Composers Orchestra and its loosely governing Jazz Composers Orchestra Association (JCOA). Both allowed for Bley’s expansive concepts. “I’m still learning orchestration,” she said. “Every band is different and if you know the musicians, you learn how to write for them.” The development of JCOA also solidified her place in the community. “Well, I gave the musicians jobs. That’s a big secret — if you give them jobs, if you pay them, they’re your friend for life.”

Two years later, she stood as composer/orchestrator of Gary Burton’s renowned “A General Tong Funeral,” the large ensemble recording including many of the JCO musicians. This noteworthy multi-movement work demonstrated Bley’s leadership within the progressive music canon, and in 1969 she became musical director of Charlie Haden‘s Liberation Music Orchestra. The band’s eponymous first album launched a revolution in sound, carving aural dissent against the draft, U.S. imperialism, police brutality and racial injustice. The ensemble boasted leading avant-gardists Don Cherry, Gato Barbieri, Dewey Redman, Roswell Rudd, Paul Motian, Howard Johnson, Andrew Cyrille, and clarinetist Perry Robinson (the son of leftist composer Earl Robinson), French hornist Bob “Brother Ah” Northern, guitarist Sam Brown, as well as Haden, Bley and Mantler. The unique repertoire consisted of bold new music alongside Spanish Civil War songs including “Viva La Quince Brigade” arranged to illustrate the vastness of the people’s movement. Music composed by Bertolt Brecht and Hanns Eisler (“Song of the United Front”) as well as traditional songs (“Los Cuatro Muleros,” collected by Federico García Lorca) and new works, particularly Haden’s stirring “Song for Che,” made a burning impact in an unstable time.

Our interview at this point moved from her attic office to the basement studio where Carla had access to the baby grand.

“I didn’t consider myself an instrumentalist until about four years ago,” she stated firmly, hands gliding over the keys. She released a sigh as the stiffness of arthritis becomes a glaring reminder of aging. “These hands; they just don’t do what I want them to do sometimes. But I realized in the early ‘60s that you must have a lot of faith in yourself because no one else is going to help you. It’s okay. It’s a strengthening thing.”

At the piano, Bley began one of her latest. “This is something called “Blue Palestine.” I just finished it for Arturo O’ Farrill,” she offered, barely glancing at the manuscript sitting atop the piano. The music falls in cascades over the perfectly tempered, hardwood room, a recording as well as rehearsal studio. It’s a moving, driving work with sweeping two-handed harmonies yet it, too, carries the Bley spirit, that noir center.

As Carla began softly improvising on the piece’s thematic material, she smiled at Steve Swallow who was never far off and stated: “I’d still like to qualify to fit into the jazz world. I write for jazz musicians but I’m really not one myself. When I have an idea, it’s very slow. One bar can take two or three weeks. As a jazz musician you must respond immediately, but I wander and I ponder. That’s my process.”

This all makes sense when you consider that her 1971 opus “Escalator Over the Hill,” a veritable jazz opera, was years in the composing. The ensemble on the recording comprised 36 improvisational masters including Bley, Don Cherry, Mantler, Jimmy Lyons, Haden, John McLaughlin, Gato Barbieri, Leroy Jenkins, Karl Berger, and Paul Motian, plus electric bassist Jack Bruce. With lyrics by poet Paul Haines, the work featured the vocals and spoken word of Jeanne Lee, Sheila Jordan, Bruce, Cherry, Roswell Rudd, Howard Johnson and Linda Ronstadt, plus the composer herself and her then four-year-old daughter Karen Mantler.

In 1972, Bley and Michael Mantler founded the New Music Distribution Service (NMDS), an umbrella organization international uniting independent record labels. Well before BandCamp, prior to the punk DIY movement, NMDS offered a major platform to indie artists, especially those excluded from the commercial labels. “It was political then. I believed everyone deserved to make records and if they didn’t have the money, make it without a shiny cover.” From its office on Lower Broadway, and within the pages of its thick color catalogs, some of the most relevant and cutting-edge sounds were introduced to the world. Bley stood as its presiding officer.

“I was making it up as we went along and probably made myself look like something more important than I was,” she said, laughing. “So many of us within the experimental music genre were producing our own records after the major labels had gotten too slick. The only missing ingredient was distribution and accessibility. NMDS provided that globally.” Sadly, the organization was shuttered in 1990 due to declining funds.

Carla Bley conducting her band at the 1978 Pori Jazz Festival in Finland. (Photo by Kotivalo via Wikipedia)

Over the ensuing years, Bley has continued writing and releasing important music of change for groups large and small, 1981’s “Social Studies” (featuring “Reactionary Tango”) among the most noted. Further, she and Haden found good reason to revive the Liberation Music Orchestra in later times of political strife, releasing “Ballad of the Fallen” (1982) with many of the original LMO musician engaging not only in the recording of the album but the resultant tours. “Dream Keeper” was released in 1990, maintaining Dewey Redman and Paul Motian but with a variety of newer musicians including Branford Marsalis, Tom Harrell, Amina Claudine Myers, Joe Lovano and Mick Goodrick, as well as a youth chorus performing Langston Hughes’ poetry. 2005’s “Not in Our Name” featured Bley’s piano, orchestrations and conducting alongside Haden and a cast of still newer musicians performing a glowing repertoire by James Weldon Johnson, Samuel Barber, Ornette Coleman (“Skies of America”), Antonin Dvorak, Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell and Gary McFarland as well as works of Haden and Bley.

“I don’t know how, but it keeps going. I compose music every day,” Bley said. “A good habit may be harder to acquire than a bad habit. I just start working as soon as I wake up in the morning.” Steve Swallow reaffirmed this. “Yes, she keeps writing. It’s a daily routine; Carla’s not happy when she’s not working. We get up early around here.”

Through the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s, Bley’s collaborations with celebrated new music producer Hal Wilner, as well as those with Cherry, Bruce, Nick Mason, Steve Lacy, Grachan Moncur III, the Golden Palominos and a range of others, stood strong, as surely as her own album releases. And a primary project of Bley, her trio with Swallow and saxophonist Andy Sheppard, produced deeply memorable performances and recordings including 2020’s “Life Goes On” (ECM), an affirmation if ever there was one.

IN THE PERIOD SURROUNDING OUR INTERVIEW, Bley and Swallow, like all performers, had to contend with the pandemic’s fallout including the rash of closures and cancellations. Her oratorio “La Lecon Francaise” was set to tour internationally but was left unrealized beyond the lockdown. Still, the pianist remained firmly committed, stating “I came to realize that (during these Trump years) it’s time again for the Liberation Music Orchestra,” even following 2014’s devastating loss of Charlie Haden.

The new piece “Time/Life,” which became the LMO’s last, was inspired by memories of Haden, expounding various themes, most profoundly “We Shall Overcome.”

“It’s the perfect lead-sheet for that tune,” Bley explained. “I wanted to make it something as tonally small as possible. I intended to write the perfect large-scale piece for the Black Lives Matter movement but haven’t been able to get there yet.”

“Time/Life” is a fitting reminder of the LMO’s breadth. The outcome was released in late 2020, featuring saxophonist Tony Malaby out front, with Bley, Swallow, drummer Matt Wilson, along with alto saxophonist Loren Stillman, trumpeter Michael Rodriguez, French hornist Vincent Chancey, tenor saxophonist Chris Cheek, trumpeter Seneca Black, trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, tubist Joseph Daly, and guitarist Steve Cardenas.

Within the year following our day spent together, Carla began to demonstrate increased symptoms including points of confusion and great weakness. If she’d appeared frail before this, my later correspondence with Swallow indicated a somber downhill trajectory, but, he stated, on good days she continued to work.

The pair’s communication, like their musical collaborations, was absolutely visceral. It seems only fitting to end this piece with a quote from Steve captured on the day of our interview. It’s a testament not only to the reach of artistry but to the potential for triumph in lives spent in unison:

“There’s something that happens when you spend 60+ years in someone’s music. This is something you have to wait a lifetime to experience. The wonders of it and of living with her are equally astonishing.”

Also see: “Everything Comes Together,” our 2007 Allegro interview with Carla Bley by Matt Weiers.