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Carla Bley at 85: In Praise and Awe of an Unfettered Genius

Carla Bley
Jonathan Chimene
Composer, conductor and pianist Carla Bley at the Town Hall, on a 2015 memorial for her longtime collaborator Charlie Haden.

When Carla Bley hitchhiked from Oakland, Calif. to New York City at age 17, it was one in a series of renegade actions that have defined an irrefutably original career. She found her way to Birdland, landing a job as a cigarette girl — and a perfect perch to absorb musical lessons from the likes of Count Basie, Miles Davis and Horace Silver.

Largely self-taught as a pianist (having learned the basics from her father), Carla was first and foremost a composer. She began to earn a reputation when her pieces turned up on albums by equally free-thinking artists like George Russell, Gary Burton and Jimmy Giuffre, along with her first husband, pianist Paul Bley. She then helped organize an avant-garde collective called the Jazz Composers Guild with another partner, Michael Mantler.

Carla Bley conducting
Jonathan Chimene
Carla Bley conducting the Liberation Music Orchestra in 2015.

Bley’s compositions were equally at home within an emerging avant-garde and in the tradition. Record companies spurned this both-sidedness for years, but her outsider stature proved a creative boon. With her own label, WATT, she built a body of work that defies easy categorization and welcomes myriad interpretations. In truth, we could have devoted a whole episode to her mind meld with bassist and life partner Steve Swallow; their most recent collaboration is Life Goes On, an album by their trio with British saxophonist Andy Sheppard. Likewise Bley's work with the Liberation Music Orchestra, whose baton she has continued to carry since the death of its founder, bassist Charlie Haden.

So in this episode of Jazz United, as we bear down on Carla Bley’s 85th birthday, we’re celebrating her genius. We’ll talk about what makes her such a standout composer, and touch on a few of her triumphs — like Escalator Over the Hill, the unclassifiable jazz opera she released in 1971, with contributions from librettist Paul Haines and vocalists Jack Bruce and Linda Ronstadt, among others. And we’ll hear a few choice quotes from Bley herself, including a line about the jazz pianist she wishes she could be. (The name she drops might surprise you.)

Carla Bley Music in This Episode:

  • "Bent Eagle," from George Russell's Stratusphunk (1961)
  • "Vashkar," from Paul Bley's Footloose! (1963)
  • "Ida Lupino," from Paul Bley's Closer (1966)
  • "Why?" from Carla Bley's Escalator Over the Hill (1971)
  • "On the Stage in Cages," from Carla Bley's Big Band Theory (1993)
  • "The National Anthem: OG Can UC?/Flags/Whose Broad Stripes?/Anthem/Keep It Spangled," from Carla Bley's Looking For America (2003)

This I Dig

Greg: “When it comes to musical instruments, I’m the last person to identify as a gearhead. As an electric bassist, I keep things straightforward — a four-string Fender gets the job done for me. While I’ve yet to purchase the vintage instrument of my dreams, I recently acquired the Fender Vintera Jazz Bass, and it’s great. Having played on several original vintage 1960s Fender Jazz Bass models, and then on newer reissues made in that tradition, I think this bass satisfactorily replicates the original. Although the player truly creates his or her sound, the Vintera is a cost-effective way to have the look, feel and vibe of its collector-driven counterparts.”

Nate: “I’ve recently spent a good many hours immersed in the film music of Ennio Morricone, who died last year at 91. He’s best known, of course, for his work with Sergio Leone and other spaghetti western directors — but at the invitation of The Criterion Collection, I just wrote a piece about the genius of his scores beyond the western genre. It was a real pleasure to dive into his vast filmography, brushing up on some classics and filling some gaps. And the whole exercise made me surer than ever of Morricone’s genius. Like Carla Bley, he was a total original who wasn’t afraid to honor the past as he hurtled toward the future.”

This episode of Jazz United was produced by Simon Rentner. Special thanks to Sarah Geledi and Jazz Night in America.


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Greg Bryant has been a longtime curator of improvisational music. At the age of 3 in his hometown of Nashville, Tennessee, he was borrowing his father’s records and spinning them on his Fisher Price turntable. Taking in diverse sounds of artistry from Miles Davis, Les McCann, James Brown, Weather Report and Jimi Hendrix gave shape to Greg's musical foundation and started him on a path of nonstop exploration.
A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, Nate Chinen is editorial director at WBGO and a regular contributor to NPR Music.