Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Bley, Carla (Lovella May Borg)

Bley, Carla [Lovella May Borg], composer, pianist; b. Oakland, CA, 11 May 1936. Her father Emil Borg (1899 - 1990) was a self-employed pianist, church choir director and organist. Her mother Arline Anderson (1907 - 1944) died when Bley was eight.  Bley's parents met at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. According to Bley, she dropped out of school at age fifteen, and began performing around the Bay Area in clubs such as the Hungry i and the Purple Orchid.  She played piano, sang and composed songs for a time with Randy Sparks, who later formed the New Christy Minstrels.

Bley arrived in New York in the mid-to-late 1950s, and worked at the jazz clubs Birdland and Basin Street as a cigarette girl, where she met Paul Bley in the 1956.  As Karen Borg, Carla Bley toured with Paul Bley through Montreal to Los Angeles.  In the summer of 1957, Bley changed her name to Carla Borg and eventually married Paul Bley.  Carla Bley's first recorded jazz composition, "O Plus One," appeared on Paul Bley's recording Solemn Meditation (1958), for which Carla Bley also wrote the liner notes and took the cover photograph.

Paul Bley's association with Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry in Los Angeles led the Bleys to travel to the Berskshires for the last session of the Lenox School of Jazz.  The Bleys then settled in New York City in the fall of 1960.  Carla Bley began to get her compositions recorded, notably by Jimmy Giuffre and George Russell, with whom she studied briefly.  This work culminated with Art Framer's recording of Bley's "Sing Me Softly of the Blues" in 1965.

Bley was also active in the growing Greenwich Village cafe and Free Jazz scene.  These associations led to her involvement in the October Revolution concerts of 1964 and Bill Dixon's Jazz Composer's Guild.  With the other non-leader member of the Guild, Michael Mantler, Bley formed the Jazz Composer's Guild Orchestra, which opened the Guild's Judson Hall performance series in December of 1964.  With a name change to the Jazz Composers Orchestra, this activity culminated in performances at the Newport Jazz Festival and the Museum of Modern Art in the summer of 1965.  Carla Bley separated from Paul Bley and toured Europe with Mantler, whom she married.  Bley and Mantler had a child, Karen, in 1966.  Upon their return to America, Bley and Mantler formed the Jazz Composers' Orchestra Association.

Through Steve Swallow, Gary Burton became interested in an hour-long composition Bley had been working on.  With additional writing for Burton's quartet, it was released as A Genuine Tong Funeral.  Bley was then commissioned by Charlie Haden, whom Bley had known from Los Angeles, to arrange and contribute material for his album, Liberation Music Orchestra. Since the release of Tong Funeral in 1968, Bley had been working on a longer opera, Escalator Over the Hill, in collaboration with the poet Paul Haines.  It brought together a large cast of singers and musicians including Jack Bruce, Linda Ronstadt, John McLaughlin, Viva, Roswell Rudd, Jeanne Lee and Howard Johnson.

In 1973, Bley and Mantler formed Watt Works to record their own music, building a recording studio in the basement of their home in the Catskill Mountains.  They also began the New Music Distribution Service which distributed independently produced recordings by artists ranging from the JCOA, to Gil Scott-Heron and Philip Glass.  In 1974, Bley was commissioned by The Ensemble (the quondam Juilliard Ensemble) to compose a piece for their "New and Newer Music" festival.  Entitled "3/4," it featured Keith Jarrett and was conducted by Dennis Russell Davies.

In 1975, Bley toured Europe with the Jack Bruce Band, featuring Mick Taylor, for six months until the group broke up.  Bley then started writing for and touring with a ten-piece band whose regular members were Gary Valente, Tony Dagradi, Michael Mantler, Bob Stewart, Steve Slagle, D. Sharpe and Steve Swallow.  Over the next six years the band appeared in Europe, Japan and the United States, recording five albums for the Watt label.  Bley also was invited to arrange and write material for Hal Willner 's Nino Rota, Kurt Weill and Thelonious Monk tributes.  Bley also performed on a recording of John Cage's music for Brian Eno's Obscure label, arranged and performed material for Kip Hanrahan's album of Ishmael Reed texts and fronted her own punk rock band, Penny Cillin and the Burning Sensations.

By the mid-1980s, Bley's reputation had grown to support regular tours and artistic residencies, principally in Europe, and jazz and classical commissions.  At this time, Bley downsized her touring band to a sextet.  A mini-operatic version of her composition, "For Under the Volcano," was staged at the Mark Taper Forum as part of the New Music America Festival.  Bley wrote "Coppertone" for the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society, a suite of piano pieces for Ursula Oppens and a short fanfare for the Houston Symphony. 
At the beginning of 1991, Bley and Mantler separated.  Bley and Swallow were resident artists at both the Glasgow and Umbria Jazz Festivals in 1992.  These opportunities enabled her to work on a composition, "Birds of Paradise," for violin and big band which was eventually recorded on the album Big Band Theory, nominated for a Grammy Award in 1995.  Bley also accepted a commission from the Lincoln Center Jazz Band for "Beads," which was premiered in 1994.  Late summer of 1996 was the first time Bley appeared leading a big band in the United States, at the Detroit and Chicago Jazz Festivals.

Bley was persuaded by a German producer to prepare a concert staging of Escalator Over the Hill for the Musiktrienannale in Cologne in 1997.  The performance featured her big band musicians and Phil Minton, Syd Straw, David Moss, Linda Sharrock, Karen Mantler, Emily Strode and Paul Haines.  There were four performances and a tour on 1998 at festivals in France, Germany, Austria and Italy.

Bley and Swallow were the subject of a French television documentary in 2000 filmed partially in concert in Woodstock and in Verona, Italy where they performed Bley's compositions from Fancy Chamber Music.  Bley continues to tour and record.

Gary Burton Quartet:  A Genuine Tong Funeral (by Carla Bley) (1967); Carla Bley & Paul Haines:  Escalator Over the Hill (1970); Tropic Appetites (1974); Carla Bley and Michael Mantler:  13 and 3/4 (1975); Dinner Music (1976); European Tour 1977 (1977); Musique Mecanique (1978); Social Studies (1980); Live! (1981); Charlie Haden/Carla Bley:  The Ballad Of The Fallen (1982); Mortelle Randonnee (original soundtrack) (1982); I Hate To Sing (1983); Heavy Heart (1983); Carla Bley With Steve Swallow:  Night-Glo (1985); Sextet (1986); Carla Bley / Steve Swallow:  Duets (1988); Fleur Carnivore (1988); The Very Big Carla Bley Band (1990); Carla Bley / Steve Swallow:  Go Together (1992); Carla Bley/Andy Sheppard/Steve Swallow:  Songs With Legs (1994); Carla Bley Big Band:  Goes To Church (1996); Fancy Chamber Music (1998); 4 x 4 (1999); Carla Bley / Steve Swallow:  Are We There Yet? (2000); Looking for America (2002); Carla Bley, Steve Swallow and Andy Sheppard: The Lost Chords (2003)

As a composer or contributor:
Paul Bley Quartet:  Solemn Meditation (1958); George Russell Sextet:  Sextet at the Five Spot (1960), Stratusphunk (1960), George Russell Sextet in K. C. (1961); Jimmy Giuffre 3:  Thesis (1961), Fusion (1961), Flight (1961), Emphasis (1961); Don Ellis:  Essence (1962); Paul Bley Trio:  Floater (1962); George Russell Sexet:  The Outer View (1962); Paul Bley Quartet:  Turning Point (1964), Barrage (1964); Jazz Composer's Orchestra:  Communication (1964); Attila Zoller Quartet:  The Horizon Beyond (1965); Art Farmer Quartet:  Sing Me Softly of the Blues (1965); Paul Bley Trio:  Closer (1965); Jazz Realities:  Jazz Realities (1966); Gary Burton Quartet:  Duster (1967), Lofty Fake Anagram (1967); Betty Owen and Mary McEwen:  A Wreath of Carols: Selections (1968); NRBQ:  NRBQ (1969); Charlie Haden:  Liberation Music Orchestra (1969); Tony Williams Lifetime:  Emergency! (volume one) (1969); Nick Mason:  Fictitious Sports (1981); Various Artists:  Amarcord Nino Rota (I Remember Nino Rota) (1981), That's the Way I Feel Now (a Tribute to Thelonious Monk (1984), For Taylor Storer (1984), Lost in the Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill (1985), Darn It! Poems by Paul Haines (Music by Many); Orchestra Jazz Siciliana:  Orchestra Jazz Siciliana Plays the Music of Carla Bley (1989); Charlie Haden and the Liberation Music Orchestra:  Dream Keeper (1990); Various Artists:  Jazz to the World (1995), NPR: a Jazz Piano Christmas (2000)

As sideperson:
Jazz Composer's Orchestra:  The Jazz Composer's Orchestra (1968); Alejandro Jodorowsky (director:  The Holy Mountain (soundtrack) (1973); Don Cherry:  Relativity Suite (1973); Michael Mantler:  No Answer (1974); Clifford Thornton and the Jazz Composer's Orchestra:  The Gardens Of Harlem (1974); Grachan Moncur III and the Jazz Composer's Orchestra:  Echoes of a Prayer (1974); Jack Bruce Band:  The Weird of Hermiston (1975), The Jack Bruce Band Live '75 (1975), Live on the Old Grey Whistle Test (1975); Jan Steele /John Cage:  Voice and Instruments (1976); Michael Mantler:  The Hapless Child (1976), Silence (1976); Central Park Sheiks:  Honeysuckle Rose (1976); John Greaves (Peter Blegvad (Lisa Herman:  Kew. Rhone (1976); Michael Mantler: Movies (1978); Gary Windo:  His Master's Bones (1978); Michael Zentner:  Present Time (1979), Michael Mantler:  More Movies (1979); Kip Hanrahan:  Coup de Tete (1980); Michael Mantler:  Something There (1982); Kip Hanrahan:  Conjure (1983); Golden Palominos:  Visions of Excess (1985); Michael Mantler:  Alien (1985); Golden Palominos:  Blast of Silence (1986); Steve Swallow:  Carla (1986); Victoria Williams:  Happy Come Home (1987); Karen Mantler:  My Cat Arnold (1988); Wolfgang Puschnig:  Pieces of the Dream (1988); Karen Mantler:  Karen Mantler And Her Cat Arnold Get The Flu (1990); Golden Palominos:  Drunk with Passion (1991); Steve Swallow:  Swallow (1991); Michael Franks:  Abandoned Garden (1995); Glen Moore:  Nude Bass Ascending... (1999); Steve Swallow:  Always Pack Your Uniform On Top (2000)

Selected films and videos:
Atwood, David, director:  "A Genuine Tong Funeral" (television production) (1969); Steve Gebhardt, director:  Escalator Over the Hill (documentary) (1971); Carla Bley/Steve Swallow:  very very simple (video) (1995); Carlo Bevilacqua, director:  Robert Wyatt: Little Red Riding Hood (documentary) (1998)

Selected commissions:
Serious Productions, "Wolfgang Tango," 1996
Grenoble Jazz Festival, "Les Trois Lagons," 1996
Carnegie Hall Jazz Band, "Beads" (aka "Coconuts"), 1994
L'Art Pour L'Art (Hamburg), "Tigers in Training," 1994
Glasgow Jazz Festival, "Birds of Paradise," 1992
Berlin Contemporary Jazz Orchestra, "All Fall Down," 1989
Houston Symphony, "Continuoso," 1988
Ursula Oppens, "Romantic Notions," 1988
Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society, "Coppertone," 1986
The Ensemble (Juilliard), "3/4," 1974
Charlie Haden, Liberation Music Orchestra, 1969

Published Compositions and Arrangements:
Numerous scores and leads sheets are available through the Watt web site at:
Schiff, Ronny S.  The Music of Carla Bley, 1981
Bley, Carla.  Volume 1, Early Short Pieces (1958-1964), 1976
Bley, Carla.  Volume 2, Songs without Words (1961-1975), 1976
Bley, Carla.  Volume 3, Songs from a Genuine Tong Funeral (1967), 1969
Bley, Carla.  Volume 4, Escalator Over the Hill (1970), 1976
Bley, Carla.  Volume 5, Tropic Appetites (1973), 1976
Selected Features and Interviews from Magazines and Books:
John Corbett.  "Feeding Quarters to the Nonstop Mental Junction. Carla Bley and Steve Swallow in Conversation."  Down Beat (May 2001)
Larry Blumenfeld.  "Girl Talk."  Jazziz (July 2000)
Claudio Dona.  "Carla Bley."  Musica Jazz (May 2000)
Paul Bley & David Lee.  Stopping Time:  Paul Bley and the Transformation of Jazz, 1999.
Gerald Arnaud.  "Histoire de Couples.  Carla Bley, Feminin Singulier."  Jazzman (July/August, 1998)
Stuart Nicholson.  Jazz Rock:  a History, 1998.
Ben Young, comp.  Dixonia: a Bio-Discography of Bill Dixon, 1998.
John Fordham.  "Going Straight. Carla Bley is Back with Music that Stretches the Jazz Envelope to the Limit."  Jazz UK (May/June 1997)
Karen O'Brien.  Hymn to Her:  Women Musicians Talk, 1995.
Michael Jarrett.  "Big Bands Theory. A Very Big Interview with Carla Bley and Steve Swallow." Jazziz (August 1995)
Lewis Porter & Michael Ullman.  "Large Groups in America and Europe" in Jazz:  From Its Origins to the Present, 1993.
Bob Young and Al Stankus.  Jazz Cooks:  Portraits and Recipes of the Greats, 1992.
Michael Bourne.  "Carla Bley & Steve Swallow.  Making Sweet Music."  Down Beat (April 1991)
Coen de Jonge.  "Hogepriesteres van de Vrije Muziek Carla Bley. Nooit een saai moment."  Jazz Nu (November 1990)
Philippe Carles.  "Carla & Steve:  Passion Flower."  Jazz Magazine (Paris) (October 1990)
Gudrun Endress.  "Gesprach mit Carla Bley." Jazz Podium 38/7 (July 1989):  14-7.
Titus Levi.  "Under the Volcano:  A Conversation with Carla Bley, Steve Swallow, Mike Mantler & Jack Cumming."  Coda (February/March 1987)
Michael Jarrett.  "The Satirical Carla Bley." Jazziz (October/November 1986)
Linda Dahl.  "Carla Bley" in Stormy Weather, The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazzwomen, 1984.
Don Palmer.  "My Dinner with Carla." Down Beat (August 1984)
Carla Bley.  "Autobiographie d'une Autodidacte."  Jazz Hot 408 (March 1984):  20-1.
Mary Unterbrink.  "East Coast Pianists:  Carla Bley" in Jazz Women at the Keyboard, 1983.
Erik van den Berg.  "Carla Bley en de Kunst van de Oppervlakkigheid." Jazz Nu (July 1982)
Jerome Reese.  "Dinner Music, Un Souper avec Carla." Jazz Hot 48/394 (April 1982)
Stan Britt and Charles Fox.  "Carla Bley."  The Wire (1982/3)
Rafi Zabor.  "Carla Bley: the Toast of the Continent."  Musician (August 1981)
Valerie Wilmer.  As Serious as Your Life:  The Story of the New Jazz, 1980.
Gunter Buhles.  "Die Jazzkomponistin Carla Bley-Kurzbiograhie, Werkanalyse, Wuerdigung."  Jazz Podium (January & February issues, 1979)
Ted Fox.  "Success Story:  Self-made Records."  Jazz Magazine (U.S.) (Summer 1978)
Howard Mandel.  "Carla Bley:  Independent Ringleader." Down Beat (June 1978)
Sy Johnson.  "And Now, the Emerging Wacko Countess... Carla Bley!!!" Jazz Magazine (U.S.) (Spring 1978)
Bill Smith.  "3:  an Interview with Carla Bley and Michael Mantler." Coda (October 1972)
Carla Bley.  "Accomplishing Escalator Over the Hill."  Impetus (June/July 1976)
Alain Dister.  "The Jazz Composer's Orchestra."  Jazz Hot (March 1972)
Gerald Merceron.  "L'Art Multiforme de Carla Bley." Jazz Hot  (February & March issues, 1970)
No Author.  "26 Jazzmen Nouveaux a la Question." Jazz Magazine (Paris) (December 1965)
Bill Caylor.  "Gesprach mit Musikern. Carla und Paul Bley."  Jazz Podium (October 1965)
J. Hutton and B. Houston.  "Carla Bley:  Good Looks of the New Wave (from Vienna)." Melody Maker (18 September 1965)

Contact information:
In Europe, Thomas Stoewsand:
In the United States, Laurel Wicks.  She can be reached at Ted Kurland Associates:
The Official Carla Bley web site:
The Warden
Watt Works
P.O. Box 67
Willow, NY  12495

Entry By  Charles Turner

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