The nation’s top jazz honor is awarded each year by the National Endowment for the Arts. Out of this year’s four winners, two are longstanding members of Local 802, and we are pleased to publish exerpts from their NEA profiles below. For more information, or to nominate a musician, see www.arts.gov/honors/jazz. (Other winners this year included Charles Lloyd and Joe Segal.)
One of the premier composers of the last 50 years, Carla Bley, a member of Local 802 since 1965, demonstrates a wide compositional range as well as a healthy sense of humor. She moved to New York at age 17, working as a cigarette girl at Birdland, where she met pianist Paul Bley, whom she married in 1957. Immersed in the city’s jazz scene, she began to write compositions, which Paul Bley and a number of other musicians – such as Art Farmer, Jimmy Giuffre, George Russell and Tony Williams – began to record.
In 1964, with her second husband, trumpeter Michael Mantler, she formed the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra and its associated record label, focusing on more avant-garde forms of jazz, such as Bley’s collaboration with poet Paul Haines on the groundbreaking work “Escalator over the Hill.” Bley’s compositions and arrangements reached wider audiences through such recordings as Gary Burton’s “A Genuine Tong Funeral” and Charlie Haden’s “The Liberation Music Orchestra.”
In 1972, Bley and Mantler started the record label Watt, on which she has since issued recordings of her work. She also began experimenting outside of jazz, joining Jack Bruce’s band in 1975, writing all the compositions for and performing on Nick Mason’s 1981 album “Nick Mason’s Fictitious Sports,” and recording the soundtrack to the 1985 film “Mortelle Randonnée.” In 1997, a live production of “Escalator over the Hill” was staged in Germany, then toured Europe the following year.
Among the awards bestowed upon Bley are a Guggenheim Fellowship for music composition (1972), the German Jazz Trophy “A Life for Jazz” (2009), and honorary doctorates from l’Université de Toulouse-Le Mirail (2012) and the New England Conservatory (2014).
Bley has toured all over the world. She continues to perform and record frequently, both with her own big band and a number of smaller ensembles, notably the Lost Chords, which includes bassist Steve Swallow, saxophonist Andy Sheppard and drummer Billy Drummond.
The spectrum of George Coleman’s musical career extends from playing blues in the Beale Street clubs of Memphis to blowing modern jazz on New York stages. Coleman, a member of Local 802 since 1959, grew up in Memphis alongside jazz musicians such as Booker Little and Harold Mabern. Intrigued by the music of Charlie Parker, Coleman taught himself to play alto sax. In 1952, at the age of 17, he got his first big break with B.B. King, with whom he toured and recorded for several years. Coleman switched to tenor when King needed a tenor man in his band (and bought Coleman the instrument).
In 1956, Coleman moved to Chicago and joined Walter Perkins’ group MJT+3. In 1958, he attracted the attention of drummer Max Roach and was offered a position in his band. In 1959, he signed on with trombonist Slide Hampton’s octet, which afforded Coleman opportunities to tour Europe for the first time and develop his composing and arranging skills.
In 1963, Miles Davis came calling, and Coleman was soon part of the groundbreaking quintet that included Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. In addition to the group’s four classic albums, Coleman also played on Hancock’s landmark “Maiden Voyage.”
Coleman next freelanced as a composer and arranger for Betty Carter, Chet Baker, Lionel Hampton, Lee Morgan, Elvin Jones, Charles Mingus and Cedar Walton. He began to focus on his own groups, working in quartet, quintet and octet settings, and adding soprano to his instrument repertoire. These days, Coleman continues to perform, usually with his son George Jr. on drums.
Coleman has taught at Mannes, the New School, Long Island University and NYU, in addition to conducting master classes nationwide. In 1997, Coleman received the Life Achievement Award from the Jazz Foundation of America, and in 2012 was inducted into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame.