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Amy C. Beal: Carla Bley

Chris May By

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Carla Bley
Amy C. Beal
Softcover, 114 pages
University of Illinois Press
ISBN: 9780252078187

Remarkably, this is the first detailed, published study of the career and music of Carla Bley, the distinguished composer, keyboardist, band leader and activist. It is the seventh volume in the University of Illinois' American Composers series, following studies of Lou Harrison, John Cage, Dudley Buck, William Grant Still, Rudolf Friml and Elliott Carter.

It is ironic, but also gratifying, that Carla Bley has been published by a university press and that it is written primarily for college music students. For Bley, like so many great jazz musicians, is an autodidact. Born Lovella May Borg in Oakland, California, in 1936, she learnt the rudiments of music from her piano playing father; but her jazz education came in the clubs—first, as a "cigarette girl" (the only way as a young woman she could afford to hear jazz live), and, later, on the bandstand.

As Jazz Studies departments become increasingly central to the development of young musicians, it is salutary for academics to be reminded that three years on campus is not the only way to learn jazz—and not necessarily the best way, either.

Bley's music has been relatively well documented because early on she took her career under her own control, co-founding Watt Records and the self-help distributor, New Music Distribution Service. Landmark recordings include Escalator Over The Hill (JCOA, 1971), Fleur Carnivore (Watt, 1989), The Carla Bley Big Band Goes To Church (Watt, 1996) and Looking For America (Watt, 2003), all composed for big or little big bands. A quartet album, The Lost Chords (Watt, 2004), is another highpoint. Beal discusses all these works, and more.

Carla Bley is less concerned with Bley's personal history. She has worked with such fellow luminaries as pianist Paul Bley (her first husband), trumpeter/trombonist Michael Mantler (her second husband), bassist Charlie Haden (in the Liberation Music Orchestra), multi-instrumentalist Don Cherry, singer/composer Robert Wyatt, bassist Steve Swallow (her longtime and continuing partner) and vibraphonist Gary Burton, whose A Genuine Tong Funeral (RCA, 1968), Bley composed. With only 114 pages at her disposal, Beal has little space to go into anything other than Bley's music.

Carla Bley benefits from interviews the author—a professor of music at the University of California, Santa Cruz—conducted with Bley, her daughter, Karen Mantler, Swallow and other key collaborators. This is, primarily, a textbook, but is commended to the general reader.


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