Carla Bley, Provocative Composer-Pianist, Dies at Age 87


​Bley told DownBeat in 1984: “I’m just a composer, and I use jazz musicians because they’re smarter, and they can save your ass in a bad situation. … I need all the help I can get.”

(Photo: Mark Sheldon)

With her iconic bangs, sharp features and free-flowing sense of the absurd, Carla Bley, who died Oct. 17 of brain cancer at age 87, was unable to go unnoticed in the male-dominated jazz world of the ’70s and ’80s. Her distinctive, sometimes-absurdist/always-adventurous compositions made her impossible to forget.

From early songs like “Jesus Maria” and “Ida Lupino” through her landmark jazz opera Escalator Over The Hill to her later works — open-ended landscapes for impressionistic collaborators like her third husband, bassist Steve Swallow, and saxophonist Andy Sheppard — Bley distinguished herself as a singular composer. She was elected to the DownBeat Hall of Fame in the 2021 Critics Poll.

While she claimed to only play “composer’s piano” at best, she studied the instrument from the age of 3 with her father, an Oakland, California, church organist, and later was heavily influenced by Count Basie.

Born Lovella May Borg, she dropped out of high school at 15 and moved to New York in 1953 to experience live jazz firsthand. Her primary vantage point was her job selling cigarettes inside Birdland, the Midtown Manhattan jazz club. It was there she met Canadian pianist Paul Bley, who she married after relocating to Los Angeles in 1957.

With her husband’s encouragement, the rechristened Carla Bley began writing music, including “O Plus One,” which appeared on Paul’s 1958 album Solemn Meditation. Returning east, she continued to compose while working in the coat check rooms at New York’s Basin Street and the Jazz Gallery, and her songs began to attract the attention of artists like Jimmy Giuffre, who featured two of her compositions on Fusion (1961) and George Russell, who recorded “Dance Class” and “Beast Blues” for George Russell Sextet At The Five Spot (1960).

Bley’s membership in the Jazz Composers Guild introduced her to Austrian trumpeter Michael Mantler, whom she married in 1965. Their daughter, musician Karen Mantler, was born in 1966, and survives her. Bley and Mantler formed the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, which brought together a broad range of musicians, including Cecil Taylor, Steve Lacy, Archie Shepp and Don Cherry, and an affiliated supporting organization — the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra Association — which commissioned work, sponsored performances and functioned as a record label.

Bley’s breakthrough came with three major works that were released in the late ’60s: Gary Burton’s A Genuine Tong Funeral (1967), Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra (1969) and the sprawling Escalator Over The Hill (1971), which was released under the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra name but featured 36 musicians, stretching from singer Linda Ronstadt to guitarist John McLaughlin and a young Karen Mantler on vocals.

With lyrics by poet Paul Haines, Escalator drew wide praise, including an influential review in Rolling Stone that called it “an international musical encounter of the first order” and a French Oscar du Disque de Jazz award.

In 1972, Bley was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for composition and, with Mantler, founded a new label, WATT. Its first release, Tropic Appetites (1974) was Bley’s debut as a leader. Following a brief sojourn in the U.K., where she worked with bassist Jack Bruce and Rolling Stones guitarist Mick Taylor, she formed the Carla Bley Band and entered a very active period of touring and recording, using a core that included her husband, trombonist Roswell Rudd, Swallow and drummer D. Sharpe.

In the mid-’80s, Bley downsized to a sextet and made a shift to more amplified music with Swallow, guitarist Hiram Bullock and drummer Victor Lewis. She and Swallow also formed a duo, which toured and recorded frequently for five years, during which time Bley left Mantler and formed a 32-year relationship with the bassist.

In spite of achieving a higher profile, with tours that took her to Europe and Japan, Bley remained circumspect about her talent. As she told DownBeat in 1984: “I’m just a composer, and I use jazz musicians because they’re smarter, and they can save your ass in a bad situation. … I need all the help I can get.”

Saxophonist Sheppard rejoined Bley and Swallow for Songs With Legs (1994) and they continued as a trio for more than 20 years. The ’90s also saw Bley working more often in a big band setting — both with her own unit and as a guest composer — and with Haden in a reformed Liberation Music Orchestra, which released four additional recordings and continued to be active after Haden’s death in 2014.

During their later years, Bley and Swallow became the most celebrated couple in the jazz world, touring in various formations and appearing as special guests on the festival circuit. In 2015, she was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts, and the following year, to celebrate her 80th birthday, ECM Records organized a special event at Steinway Hall in New York. DB

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