May 25, 2024

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Carla Bley, Jazz pioner and expansive jazz pianist, dies at 87: Video, Photos

Carla Bley, the pianist behind some of the most beloved compositions in the jazz canon, who recorded over two dozen albums between 1966 and 2019, died. Her death was confirmed by her husband and longtime collaborator, bassist Steve Swallow; the cause given was complications from brain cancer. She was 87.

Her death was announced by longtime partner and musical collaborator Steve Swallow, who said the cause was complications from brain cancer.

Bley was a force in jazz even before she made her first albums, as her compositions were recorded by notable modernists of the 1960s. Within several years, she became both a recording artist in her own right and an activist for independent musicians, co-founding the group The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra (JCO) in 1965 and the nonprofit distributor New Music Distribution Service in 1972, both with her second husband, trumpeter Mike Mantler.

Carla Bley pictured in 2006.

Carla Bley was born Lovella May Borg on May 11, 1936, in Oakland, Calif. Her father, Emil Borg, was a piano teacher and church organist, and gave Bley her first lessons. She left high school before her junior year and soon was in New York, where she found work — and valuable exposure — as a cigarette seller at the Birdland Jazz Club.

Bley’s impish, blithe yet pointed approach to her craft meant she recorded right across the jazz spectrum, from straightforwardly lovely piano pieces (the likes of Lawns became standards and hits on streaming services) to stridently political big band works and an acclaimed 1973 triple-LP jazz-rock opera, Escalator Over the Hill, with a supporting cast including country-pop singer Linda Ronstadt, Cream bassist Jack Bruce and Manfred Mann’s Paul Jones.

Born Lovella May Borg in Oakland, California in 1936, she learned piano from the age of three but dropped out of school at 14 and picked up work as a pianist in Bay Area jazz clubs. Bley then moved to New York aged 17 and worked as a cigarette girl at jazz club Birdland, later saying: “I was the one who took a picture of you and your girlfriend at the table to commemorate your being there with someone who wasn’t your wife usually. I hardly sold anything because I was listening to the music,” which included Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Count Basie and more.

Carla Bley performing in 2009.

It was during her time in New York that she met her first husband, fellow pianist Paul Bley, who encouraged her to begin composing. Her first recorded piece, “Bent Eagle,” came courtesy of George Russell in 1960 for his Riverside album Stratusphunk. Over the next decade-plus, artists including Jimmy Giuffre, Don Ellis, Art Farmer, Steve Kuhn, Gary Burton and Tony Williams would all record her work. Her pieces could be ethereally beautiful or subversively brash, but always found a grandeur without tilting into pretension, a quality reflected in her economical piano playing.

Her own recording career began in 1966 with an album for Fontana, featuring Mantler and soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy. Next came the mammoth three-LP set Escalator Over the Hill, co-credited to Bley and poet Paul Haines, and released by the JCO house label. Recorded between 1968 and 1971, the album featured more than 40 contributors, among them bassists Charlie Haden and Jack Bruce, saxophonist Gato Barbieri, guitarist John McLaughlin, trumpeter Don Cherry, keyboardist Don Preston and vocalist Sheila Jordan.

Bley and Mantler founded their own record company, WATT, in 1972, and it became her main outlet from 1974’s Tropic Appetites through 2009’s Carla’s Christmas Carols, the latter made with the Partyka Brass Quintet. Throughout the years, she kept evolving — recording three albums for ECM in a trio with Swallow and British saxophonist Andy Sheppard, and leading a horn-heavy ensemble in the 1980s and ’90s, one of her most enduring projects.

In addition to Swallow, Bley is survived by her daughter with Mantler, the pianist and vocalist Karen Mantler. Her compositions have continued to be recorded by numerous artists well into this millennium: In 2022, guitarist Steve Cardenas, saxophonist Ted Nash and bassist Ben Allison released the tribute Healing Power: The Music Of Carla Bley on Sunnyside Records. “It seemed to me her ears were always open to what was happening at each point in time,” Cardenas reflected in an email, “and her compositions reflected this, while always still recognizably Carla Bley.”

Beyond her consistency, Bley was known for her humor. In a 2003 conversation with New Music USA, she mused that her chosen genre sometimes allowed her to play fast and loose with the role of the composer, leaving the heavy lifting to her ensembles: “You can leave a huge hole and they just fill it right up. … When I started, I used to write this tiny snippet of an idea and then they would play free for a half an hour and then they’d play the snippet again at the end. And that was my piece.”

At the same time, her commitment to adventurous craft was rarely in doubt. One of Bley’s most significant alliances was with Charlie Haden and his Liberation Music Orchestra, intermittently active from 1969 until Haden’s death in 2014. When the group’s final album, Time/Life, was released by Impulse! in 2016, she told Nate Chinen at The New York Times that she’d exerted a little extra compositional force onto the notes of the title track.

“I’m trying to stretch my harmonic palette to a few notes that don’t belong,” Bley said. “In the piece I wrote for Charlie Haden, there’s one note that’s really wrong. That’s the wrongest note I ever wrote. And I made it right.”

She met pianist Paul Bley, marrying him in 1957 and moving back to California together, with Bley composing music for him and an LA group to improvise off of, its members including Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry.

The Bleys returned to New York, and Carla became deeply involved in the city’s free jazz scene: “I wanted to object to as many things as possible that were wrong in the world of jazz and change the whole system that existed in the music world,” she later explained.

She was a key component of the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra and its associated Guild, a union who campaigned on behalf of musicians’ working conditions. Equally politically minded was the Liberation Music Orchestra, helmed by bassist Charlie Haden who was inspired by Spanish civil war songs, Che Guevara and more – Bley was the group’s arranger and conductor, with Rolling Stone magazine’s Lester Bangs hailing her “miracles of dynamics” in a review of their self-titled 1970 album.

Having had her head turned by the Beatles, Bley also explored a fusion with pop and rock. As well as recording Escalator Over the Hill across five years with around 50 personnel, she wrote the music for the debut album by Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason and collaborated with Robert Wyatt. Having amicably divorced Bley (and kept his name), she also made a number of 1970s collaborations with second husband, trumpeter Michael Mantler; the couple also had a daughter, Karen.

She continued to reconnect with Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra (and helmed it after his death in 2014) and worked with her own self-titled big band. She released a steady stream of solo releases with German label ECM from the late 1970s onwards, culminating in a trio of albums with Swallow and saxophonist Andy Sheppard, most recently Life Goes On in 2020.

She was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2018, explaining: “Sometimes I don’t know the answer to a question, so I think they must have taken something out by mistake, because ever since the operation I no longer have perfect pitch.”

Carla Bley performs in Nice, France, in 2009.

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