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Carla Bley

Carla Bley is an NEA Jazz Master

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.

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Radio & Podcasts

Carla Bley, Phil Haynes, & Dan Phillips

Read "Carla Bley, Phil Haynes, & Dan Phillips" reviewed by Maurice Hogue

I pay tribute to the magnificent Carla Bley in this episode before moving on to drummer Phil Haynes and music from the extensive compilation he assembled to accompany his new memoir “Chasing the Masters: First Takes of a Modernist Drumming Artist." There's music from new releases by the Berlin-based Aut Records, a new two-drummer release by Chicago guitarist Dan Phillips, and drawing upon the ability to record asynchronously from far-off locations, drummer John Hollenbeck (in Montreal) plays with the Monash ...

Radio & Podcasts

Carla Bley: A View from her Hill, Part 2

Read "Carla Bley: A View from her Hill, Part 2" reviewed by Ludovico Granvassu

Artistically ambitious, a rare woman in a male dominated scene, taking the road less travelled, or even the road never travelled, and with her feet well on the ground business-wise to ensure her artistic independence, Carla Bley played a key role in shaping today's music scene. This week we concentrate on some of her signature compositions, focusing on her “church" side, her big band side, her catchy side, her electric side, and some of the musicians that embraced her work ...

Radio & Podcasts

Carla Bley: A View from her Hill, Part 1

Read "Carla Bley: A View from her Hill, Part 1" reviewed by Ludovico Granvassu

We could spend hours talking about the many things that made Carla Bley unique, and made her passing a huge loss for the jazz world. This week we decided to focus on her songbook, as interpreted by many of the peers that admired her work. Playlist Ben Allison “Mondo Jazz Theme (feat. Ted Nash & Pyeng Threadgill)" 0:00 The Gary Burton Quartet “Real Life Hits" Real Life Hits (ECM) 0:16 Host talks 8:44 Henri Texier Transatlantik Quartet “Ups ...

Radio & Podcasts

More Fall Releases, Jazz Birthdays, A Celebration of Carla Bley & More

Read "More Fall Releases, Jazz Birthdays, A Celebration of Carla Bley & More" reviewed by Mary Foster Conklin

This broadcast includes new releases from Angelica Sanchez, Nabou Claerhout Trombone Ensemble, Ramona Horvath, the Affinity Trio (Eric Jacobson, Clay Shaub, Pamela York), with birthday shoutouts to lyricist Dory Previn, Andy Bey, Emily Braden, Dame Cleo Laine, Magos Herrera, Amanda Monaco, Beat poet Fran Landesman (Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most), Dianne Reeves and Jay Clayton, among others. In the first hour a tribute to mark the passing of Carla Bley. Thanks for listening and please support the ...


Remembering Carla Bley: Jazz Innovator Extraordinaire

Read "Remembering Carla Bley: Jazz Innovator Extraordinaire" reviewed by Ian Patterson

Carla Bley, composer, arranger, free-jazz pioneer, band leader, pianist and independent, whose compositions became jazz standards, has died at the age of 87. She had been diagnosed with brain cancer in 2018. Bley's most famous recording was her sprawling, genre-elusive triple album Escalator Over the Hill (JCOA Records, 1971). On the back of this album, in 1972, Bley won a Guggenheim Fellowship for composition. In a sixty-year career her music covered a wide arc, from large-scale ...

Radio & Podcasts

Carla Bley Tribute, Bartók Jazz, Hot Sax LPs

Read "Carla Bley Tribute, Bartók Jazz, Hot Sax LPs" reviewed by David Brown

This week includes jazz takes on Bela Bartók, a Set of Hot Sax and a look at Philly arranger Lee Lovett. The second half of the show will be dedicated to the compositions of Carla Bley who passed this week. Welcome friends and neighbors to The Jazz Continuum. Old, new, in, out... wherever the music takes us. Each week, we will explore the elements of jazz from a historical perspective. PlaylistThelonious Monk “Esistrophy (Theme)" from Live at the ...


Carla Bley: Shoe Leather, Mystery & Moxie

Read "Carla Bley: Shoe Leather, Mystery & Moxie" reviewed by Ian Patterson

This article was first published at All About Jazz on July 28, 2016. With the passing of time. That's roughly how the title of Carla Bley's second trio album for ECM translates. Bley turned eighty a few months before the release of Andando el Tiempo but the passing years, if anything, have sharpened her composer's claws and whetted her playing appetite, judging by the music on this, her third collaboration with Steve Swallow and Andy Sheppard following the ...

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