Born May 11, 1938, in Oakland, CA; daughter of Emil Carl Borg (a piano teacher and choir director) and Arlene Anderson (a musician); married Paul Bley (a jazz pianist), 1959 (divorced, 1967); married Michael Mantler (a composer and trumpeter), 1967 (separated); children: Karen. Education: Attended public schools until age 15. Addresses: c/o Ted Kurland Associates, 173 Brighton Ave., Boston, MA 02134.

Carla Bley has been a vital force in the jazz world for more than 30 years. As a musician and composer, her flair for the outrageous and her engaging sense of humor, combined with a profound dedication to her art and audience, have continually placed her on music's cutting edge. As an entrepreneur in the recording and publishing businesses, her creativity and financial savvy have nurtured the careers of many new artists who, because of their reluctance to conform to set standards of commerciality, found difficulty securing financial support from traditional channels. That she accomplished her success with no formal training--and in a male-dominated field--is proof of her talent and perseverance.

Bley was born Carla Borg in Oakland, California, in 1938. Her mother died when Carla was eight years old, and Bley was raised in a strict religious atmosphere by her father, a choir director and piano teacher. Bley's earliest musical experiences revolved around the church; as she recalled Contemporary Keyboard, "I spent the first 15 years of my life playing music only for Jesus." But even in this environment her witty and irreverent approach to music began to take shape. According to an interview in Jazz, she composed "twelve variations on 'Onward Christian Soldiers,' one a march, one a waltz, a polka version, ending up with a dirge and a 'Hallelujah Chorus.'"

Bley quit school at age 15, worked briefly at a music store, and then moved to New York City, where she found a job as a cigarette girl at the famed Birdland jazz club. In those surroundings she first began seriously listening to jazz, and the influences of the musicians she heard at the time--pianist Thelonius Monk, trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie, saxophonist John Coltrane and many others--can be detected in her compositions and solo improvisations. It was also at Birdland that Bley met her first husband, Canadian pianist Paul Bley. They were married in 1959 and moved back to the West Coast, where they kept company with some of the most important avant-garde jazz musicians of the 1960s, notably saxophonist Ornette Coleman, bassist Charlie Haden, and trumpeter Don Cherry. During this period Bley began composing, mainly through her husband's prodding. "He'd come in and say, 'Well, I got a record date tomorrow and I need six hot ones,'" she divulged in Contemporary Keyboard. "I'd sit down and write six of them. I just functioned like that. Instead of cooking the dinner, that would be my job."

Bley first came to the attention of the general public in the late 1960s. In 1967 vibraharpist Gary Burton recorded her cycle of pieces, A Genuine Tong Funeral. Two years later Bley provided both arrangements and original compositions for Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra, an album celebrating the spirit of the Spanish Civil War. Bley finished a five-year project, Escalator Over The Hill, a kind of surreal opera that she subtitled "a chronotransduction" in 1970. The piece, one of her most ambitious works, was subsequently issued by the Jazz Composer's Orchestra Association (JCOA), which Bley cofounded to produce her own work as well as that of other jazz composers.

During the 1970s and 1980s Bley toured extensively with her ten-piece band, a group founded specifically to perform her own music, and she recorded several albums for her own label, Watt. In the early 1990s, while continuing her work as composer and bandleader, Bley also focused on her talents as an improvisor at the piano, both as soloist with her band and in a duet setting with bassist Steve Swallow, with whom she toured extensively in 1988.

Bley's method of composing and arranging is considered among the most eclectic of all jazz artists. Her work has displayed an instantly recognizable style that combines musical elements of swing, bebop, marches, rock and roll, waltzes, and even German cabaret music. Yet in spite of her unconventional style, she has always remained something of a conservative in her melodies and harmonic structures; as Gary Burton told a Down Beat correspondent, "I know a Carla Bley tune the minute I hear it. It's direct. It is not complicated. It is not layer upon layer of subtle interaction. It's very strong melody, very strong harmony, simply constructed. Carla wants her music to hit you square between the eyes."

Although Bley's keyboard improvisations are strongly influenced by such jazz pianists as Thelonius Monk and Bill Evans, in many ways her solo work is as striking and individual as her compositional style. Because she received no formal training, she has developed an idiosyncratic method of fingering that produces a unique tone and manner of phrasing. Her improvisations are notable for their economy; she relishes a sense of space while improvising, and the listener has the sense that every single note is meaningful. In fact, Bley once asserted to Down Beat writer Don Palmer, "When I do a solo and when it's good, there's a word for every note I play. I speak the solos while I play."

Although Bley has occasionally made concessions to commercial trends in music--her 1985 album Night Glo would easily fit on the playlists of most adult contemporary radio stations--she has for the most part remained true to her unique musical ideals. Her 1991 release The Very Big Carla Bley Band, for example, features a 15-minute work titled "United States," in which big band jazz, blues, salsa, polka music, snatches of John Philip Sousa marches, and even "The Star Spangled Banner," are combined to provide an amazingly cohesive portrait of the 50 states.

Carla Bley's musical accomplishments alone warrant her acceptance as a crucial figure in modern jazz. Yet her success offstage, as a leader in the intensely competitive music industry, has been equally remarkable and has profoundly affected the careers of many innovative artists. In 1965, along with Austrian musician--and future second husband--Michael Mantler, Bley helped found the Jazz Composer's Orchestra, an ensemble dedicated to the performance of new works by aspiring jazz composers. "The Jazz Composer's Orchestra was everybody's band, the community's band. All the composers who wanted to write for a large orchestra got to write for one," Bley informed Linda Dahl, author of Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazzwomen.

Bley and Mantler subsequently founded the Jazz Composer's Orchestra Association--a nonprofit organization that produces, records, and distributes jazz considered too experimental by the major recording companies for the mainstream market--and New Music Distribution Service, a branch of JCOA serving as an umbrella organization that supports more than two hundred independent record companies. The work of these organizations has been financed largely by copyright royalties from Bley's compositions.

For Bley, these business ventures remain an enormous source of pride. She has been able to lend a hand to fellow struggling artists and also maintain her artistic integrity. As she told Jazz' s Sy Johnson, "I feel proud and sort of like a shining example, mainly because I'm independent. I don't belong to a stable. I'm not a pet of the recording industry. I put out my own records. We book our own band. I have my own publishing company. I have my own recording studio. Everything I do is totally controlled by me." It is this fierce self-reliance that has made Carla Bley an innovative and influential figure in American music.

by Jeffrey Taylor

Carla Bley's Career

Began composing in the late 1950s, writing pieces for George Russell, Jimmy Giuffre and Paul Bley; cofounded the Jazz Composer's Orchestra with Michael Mantler, 1964, the nonprofit Jazz Composer's Orchestra Association (JCOA), 1966, and New Music Distribution Service; founded own recording label, Watt, 1973; composed "3/4" for piano and orchestra, 1974, which subsequently premiered in New York City with Keith Jarrett as soloist; toured Europe with the Jack Bruce band, 1975; formed the Carla Bley Band, 1977, and again toured Europe; toured and recorded with the Carla Bley Band, as well as smaller ensembles, during the 1980s and early 1990s.

Carla Bley's Awards

Grants from Cultural Council Foundation, 1971 and 1979, and National Endowment for the Arts, 1973; Guggenheim fellow, 1972; seven-time winner of Down Beat' s international jazz critics' poll; named best composer of the year, Down Beat readers' poll, 1984.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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