Carla Bley was born in Oakland, California in 1936. Her father Emil Borg, a piano teacher and church organist, began giving her music lessons when she was three years old and she was soon playing at church functions. But her musical education ended at the age of eight. Her formal education stopped entirely when she dropped out of high school after completing the tenth grade.
During her adolescence Carla was drawn to jazz and moved to New York City to be closer to the musicians she admired. She resumed her musical education by working as a cigarette girl at the notorious Birdland jazz club, where she was able to hear the greatest jazz musicians of the day. She met pianist Paul Bley and eventually relocated to Los Angeles, where Paul and his quartet had a steady gig at the Hillcrest Club. She began to write music. When saxophonist Ornette Coleman came on the scene in the mid-fifties, Paul Bley immediately hired him and Carla was exposed nightly to ‘free’ playing, a powerful influence that was to affect her writing for many years.
In the early sixties Paul and Carla returned to New York. Soon George Russell, Jimmy Giuffre, Tony Williams and others began to play and record her compositions. During this period she also worked in the cloakrooms of Basin Street and the Jazz Gallery in order to hear as much music as possible. She was a member of The Jazz Composer’s Guild and met composer Michael Mantler at the meetings. They formed a group called The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, and soon became personally involved; she left Paul Bley and moved in with Michael Mantler. In 1966 they had a daughter, Karen, who was to be Carla’s only offspring.
At the end of the sixties Gary Burton recorded Carla’s first extended work, A Genuine Tong Funeral. Shortly after, Charlie Haden asked her to arrange and write for The Liberation Music Orchestra. Her next major work, with words by Paul Haines, Escalator Over The Hill, was recorded on the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra Association’s label, JCOA. It received the French award Oscar du Disque de Jazz. Soon she and Michael Mantler founded The New Music Distribution Service, which distributed independent recordings.
In 1972 Carla received a Guggenheim Fellowship. She and Mantler started their own record company, WATT. Its first release was Carla’s Tropic Appetites, another project with poet Paul Haines. In 1974 The Ensemble, a group of New York players, commissioned a piece for chamber orchestra. Titled ¾, it was conducted by Dennis Russell Davies and featured pianist Keith Jarrett. It was later performed by Speculum Musicae featuring Ursula Oppens, and recorded for the WATT label with Carla as the soloist. In1975 she was in a band with Jack Bruce and Mick Taylor, and lived in London for six months. After the band prematurely broke up she returned home and decided to start her own band. Over the next six years the Carla Bley Band, which consisted of six horns and a rhythm section, toured Europe and Japan, and made five albums on the WATT label. The band also recorded a movie soundtrack for the Claude Miller film Mortelle Randonee and played Carla’s arrangement of Nino Rota’s music for 8 ½ on Hal Willner’s Fellini tribute album. During this period she also did recording projects for other labels with Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason, Stuff, and Charlie Haden.