Composer, pianist and activist Carla Bley was, from an early age, a rebel, turning her back on music at 14 to take up roller skating. By 17, she was working as a cigarette girl at Birdland. Having been given a solid background in piano by her father, it was only a matter of time before she’d return to music. Falling under the spell of ‘free jazz,’ she began composing, and established herself in the male-dominated jazz world, cementing her legacy with the opera Escalator Over the Hill. She’s worked with Jimmy Giuffre, Don Ellis, Don Cherry, Gato Barbieri, Jack Bruce, the Golden Palominos, Dewey Redman, Roswell Rudd, and Charlie Haden. At 84, she is still working on new compositions. John Pietaro caught up with Ms. Bley recently at her Woodstock home studio.
“When my career began, no one would hire me as an accompanist. I wasn’t that well behaved,” Carla Bley was saying in her upstate New York home office, surrounded by a treasure trove of scores, files and concert posters traversing a half century. It was late June and the sun was already a pulsating beacon hanging over Woodstock. Inside the modern rustic home Bley shares with bassist Steve Swallow, her partner of many years, the legendary composer and arranger spoke frankly about life and career, her place as a woman in the jazz spectrum, the activism she’s engaged in for decades, and a current project which re-establishes the Liberation Music Orchestra in a time when the nation needs it most.
Carla Bley was born Lovelia Borg on May 11, 1936 in Oakland. Her father, Emil Borg, was a church choir leader and her first and only piano teacher. Though she began as a promising student, by age 14, the rebellious youth walked away from both religious and musical studies, focusing instead on, yes, roller skating. Three years later, she’d relocated to New York City, working as a cigarette girl at Birdland.
“I didn’t study music in college”, she now recalls. “I never made it to college. I never made it through high school! But I grew up listening to my father’s students playing in our living room. Music was like walking to me. You walked and you played an instrument. It was that natural.”
At Birdland, she became immersed in progressive trends in jazz but also had up-close exposure to the more mainstream: Bley was enamored with the spaciousness on which Count Basie, a frequent performer, built his piano playing. Such an atmospheric approach would remain with her. In this time, she also came to know pianist Paul Bley, who’d later become her husband. While Carla wasn’t getting many gigs as a pianist, Paul quickly recognized a certain budding genius in her compositions. “At that time, we were into free playing,” she said. “There might be a motif or melodic idea or figure, and then it was whatever comes to mind. Eighty per cent could be good and twenty bad. Or the opposite. It encouraged me to write for musicians whom I thought needed something”.
Perhaps the overly used term “third-stream” slights these early compositions, but the influence of modern classical music was always inherent in her work. Paul Bley’s renderings of pieces such as “0 Plus One” (her first to be recorded, 1957), “Ictus” and “Ida Lupino” (1964) were rapidly gaining notice, and other forward-looking artists began to seek them out.
George Russell, Jimmy Giuffre and Don Ellis featured her compositions on their albums in 1960, ’61 and ’62, a turning point in the expansion of jazz as an art form. With Paul Bley’s recordings showcasing her growing repertoire (his album Barrage was comprised entirely of her pieces), and as she was employed as a copyist for Russell, Carla was highly encouraged to compose and orchestrate; her music already carried that haunting quality she’s known for, where lingering, open chords leave room necessary for both the listener’s and improviser’s journey through them. “My balance has always been in writing it and leaving space. At the time, I didn’t know any other women doing this, but then, I didn’t actually know any men either. Frankly, I never had any problem with male musicians or any other musicians…er, only the journalists”, she added with an amused shrug.
Having taken on the moniker Karen or Carla Borg, and then finally, with marriage to Paul, Carla Bley, the budding composer sought out opportunities for a wider audience. By ’64, she was an early member, initially the only female member, of Bill Dixon’s Jazz Composers Guild. “I was a fly on the wall. Mostly, I sat there and listened to these guys arguing,” she recalls.
At the time, I didn’t know any other women doing this, but then, I didn’t actually know any men either. Frankly, I never had any problem with male musicians or any other musicians…er, only the journalists
Our interview moves accordingly to the basement studio where Carla has access to the baby grand. “I didn’t consider myself an instrumentalist until about 4 years ago”, she states firmly, hands gliding over the keys. She releases a sigh as the stiffness of arthritis becomes a glaring reminder of aging. “These hands; they just don’t do what I want them to do sometimes. But I realized in the early ‘60s that you must have a lot of faith in yourself because no one else is going to help you. It’s okay. It’s a strengthening thing.”
Discussing her origins, Bley is driven to play not an early composition, but her latest. “This is something called “Blue Palestine”. I just finished it for Arturo O’ Farrill,” she offers, barely glancing at the manuscript sitting atop the piano. The music falls in cascades over the perfectly tempered, hardwood space, a recording as well as rehearsal room. It’s a moving, driving work with sweeping two-handed harmonies yet it, too, carries the Bley spirit, that noir center.
By 1965, the nascent Jazz Composers Guild had expanded, with trumpeter Michael Mantler becoming a force within. “Michael and I met at the Guild. He was Cecil Taylor’s trumpet player at the time. A good-looking young kid,” she smiles. “And I just moved in”. The two were married that year and together built the Jazz Composers Orchestra and the loosely governing Jazz Composers Orchestra Association (JCOA). Both allowed for Bley’s expansive vision as an arranger, one she continues addressing modestly.
“I’m still learning orchestration,” she says. “Every band is different and if you know the musicians you learn how to write for them”. The development of JCOA also solidified her place in the community. “Well, I gave the musicians jobs. That’s a big secret—if you give them jobs, they’re your friend for life”.
But it didn’t just stop there. In ’67 she stood as composer to Gary Burton’s renowned large ensemble recording, A General Tong Funeral, which included many of the JCO musicians. It was a multi-movement work which demonstrated Bley’s leadership in the progressive music canon. Two years later, Bley became musical director of Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, its eponymous first album launching a revolution in sound, carving aural fight-back against the draft, U.S. imperialism, police brutality and racial injustice. The ensemble boasted Don Cherry, Gato Barbieri, Dewey Redman, Roswell Rudd, Paul Motian, Howard Johnson and Mantler, among others in its ranks. Haden and Bley not only included new music but Spanish Civil War songs including “Viva La Quince Brigade” which she arranged to illustrate the vastness of the people’s movement. Music composed by Brecht and Eisler (“Song of the United Front”) as well as traditional songs and new works (particularly Haden’s “Song for Che”) made a burning impact in a turbulent time.
Charlie Haden & Liberation Music Orchestra (with Carla Bley on pianoforte), 1969: “Song for Che”:
As photographer Sherry Rubel steps forward to capture Carla in the moment, I took the opportunity to ask Steve Swallow about the large iron rooster standing by the sliding glass doors in the studio’s corner. He chuckles, explaining, “Carla is obsessed with roosters. You may have seen the smaller ones she has upstairs. When we saw this one for sale just down the road”, he says, pointing to the bulky metallic bird standing four-feet high, “I knew we had to have it. The challenge was getting it into our car and then from the car to this room!”
I gave the musicians jobs. That’s a big secret—if you give them jobs, they’re your friend for life.
Carla, now softly improvising on the piece’s thematic material and smiling at Swallow, looks upward, stating: “I’d like to qualify, to fit into the jazz world. I write for jazz musicians but I’m really not one myself. When I have an idea, it’s very slow. One bar can take two or three weeks. As a jazz musician you must respond immediately, but I wonder and I ponder. That’s my process.”
This all makes sense when you consider that her opus Escalator Over the Hill, a veritable jazz opera, was composed between 1968 and ‘71. With lyrics by poet Paul Haines, the composition featured the vocals and spoken word of Jeanne Lee, Sheila Jordan, Jack Bruce (also the ensemble electric bassist), Don Cherry, Roswell Rudd, Howard Johnson and Linda Ronstadt, plus the composer herself and her then 4-year-old daughter Karen Mantler. The ensembles on the recording comprised some of the top free jazz artists of the day, totaling 36, included Bley (organ, piano, celeste), Cherry (pocket trumpet), Mantler (trumpet, prepared piano), Jimmy Lyons (alto saxophone), Charlie Haden (upright bass), John McLaughlin (guitar), Gato Barbieri (tenor saxophone), Leroy Jenkins (violin). Karl Berger (vibes) and Paul Motian (drums).
In 1972, Bley and Mantler founded the New Music Distribution Service (NMDS), an umbrella organization uniting independent record labels. Well before Spotify and BandCamp, prior to the punk DIY movement, NMDS was a major platform for indie music. “It was political then. I believed everyone deserved to make records and if they didn’t have the money, make it without a shiny cover.” From its office on Lower Broadway, and within the pages of its thick catalogs, some of the most relevant and cutting-edge sounds were introduced to the world. Bley stood as its presiding officer.
“I was making it up as we went along and probably made myself look like something more important than I was,” she said, laughing. “So many of us within the experimental music genre were producing our own records after the major labels had gotten too slick. The only missing ingredient was distribution and accessibility. NMDS provided that globally”.
I realized in the early ‘60s that you must have a lot of faith in yourself because no one else is going to help you.
Over the ensuing years, Bley has continued writing and releasing important music of change for groups large and small, 1981’s Social Studies (featuring “Reactionary Tango”) being among the most noted. Further, she and Haden found good reason to revive the Liberation Music Orchestra in later times of political strife, releasing Ballad of the Fallen (1982) with many of the original musicians, engaging not only in the recording of the album but lengthy tours. Dream Keeper was released in 1990, maintaining Dewey Redman and Paul Motian but with a variety of newer musicians including Branford Marsalis, Tom Harrell, Amina Claudine Myers, Joe Lovano and Mick Goodrick, as well as a youth chorus performing Langston Hughes’ poetry. Not in Our Name (2005) featured Bley’s piano, orchestrations and conducting alongside Haden and a cast of still newer musicians performing a glowing repertoire by James Weldon Johnson, Samuel Barber, Ornette Coleman (“Skies of America”), Antonin Dvorak, Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell and Gary McFarland as well as works of Haden and Bley.
“Not In Our Name”, Liberation Music Orchestra, arranged and conducted by Carla Bley:
One may wonder how such a forward-looking artist as Carla Bley continues progressing in this conservative national climate. “I don’t know but it keeps going. I compose music every day,” Bley said. “A good habit may be harder to acquire than a bad habit.” Like all other musicians, the COVID lockdown has hit Bley and Swallow hard, though her good habit has become relentless. “I just start working as soon as I wake up in the morning”. Steve Swallow reaffirms this. “Yes, she keeps writing. It’s a daily routine; Carla’s not happy when she’s not working. We get up early around here.”
As it turns out, the early-rise practice is uncommon in Woodstock or its hamlet, Willow, where the pair have resided many years. The area has long been a draw to the arts community with a major influx of jazz musicians during the early 1970s. “We all lived in a row at one point,” Swallow explains. “Dave Holland and I were neighbors and Jack DeJohnette was across the street.” Charles Mingus, Anthony Braxton, Gary Burton, John McLaughlin, Howard Johnson, Warren Bernhardt, Chris Parker and many others were residents; Holland, DeJohnette, Karl Berger and Ingrid Sertso are still nearby.
Regardless of location, Bley’s activities have been tireless. Through the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s, her collaborations with Cherry, Hal Wilner, Jack Bruce, Nick Mason, Steve Lacy, Grachan Moncur III, the Golden Palominos and a range of others stand strong, as surely as her own releases. A treat of the past twenty years has been the trio recordings with Swallow and saxophonist Andy Sheppard including 2020’s Life Goes On (ECM), an affirmation if ever there was one.
As of late, Bley and Swallow have had to contend with performance cancellations including her recently completed Oratorio which was set to tour internationally before pandemic. However, during this anxious moment, and even following the loss of Charlie Haden, “I came to realize that it’s time again for the Liberation Music Orchestra,” she stressed. “The new piece, “Time/Life” makes use of various themes and closes with ‘We Shall Overcome’, the perfect lead-sheet for that tune. I wanted to make it something as tonally small as possible. I intended to write the perfect large-scale piece for the Black Lives Matter movement but haven’t been able to get there yet.”
Bley is in constant touch with the widow of Charlie Haden, Ruth Cameron, in an attempt to coordinate the project. According to Steve Swallow, “We don’t know yet who will be playing on the rest of the recording as that’s Ruth’s business, too. I know she’ll try to get the A-Team from our most recent gigs, but we don’t know for sure just yet.” Combining influences such as Nelson Mandela and traditional dance, with quotes from the National Anthem and various spirituals, the work seems a prideful aspect of the LMO legacy. It would be important to see its completion and release by Election Day.
Appropriate for these two veterans of the music’s post-modernist lunge, current technology has made it all possible. Carla clarified: “I wrote the arrangements. Click track music. Steve and I recorded the bass and piano parts here, but everyone will be remote. It’s a chance to come up with new ideas. New visions for all of us.”