Carla Bley

Composer, Arranger, Bandleader, Keyboardist
Profile of woman.

Photo by D. D. Rider


"To receive the NEA Jazz Masters award is a great and unexpected honor. I can think of many musicians who deserve this award, and won't be getting it. Luckily, I'm not one of them."

One of the premier composers of the last 50+ years, Carla Bley wrote music for big bands, choirs, chamber orchestras, and small combos. Her work demonstrated a wide compositional range as well as a healthy sense of humor. Bley’s skills were in demand even outside of jazz, including performing and recording with Jack Bruce, Robert Wyatt, and Pink Floyd’s drummer Nick Mason.

Bley’s father, Emil Borg, was a church organist and piano teacher—he first introduced her to music when she was three, and she first heard jazz when she was 12. She moved to New York at age 17, working as a cigarette girl at the jazz club Birdland, where she met pianist Paul Bley, whom she married in 1957. Immersed in the city’s jazz scene, she began to write compositions, which Paul Bley and a number of other musicians, such as Art Farmer, Jimmy Giuffre, George Russell, and Tony Williams, began to record.

In 1964, with her second husband, trumpeter Michael Mantler, she formed the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra and subsequently founded the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra Association, an independent record label focusing on more avant-garde forms of jazz, such as Bley’s collaboration with poet Paul Haines on the groundbreaking work Escalator over the Hill.

Bley’s compositions and arrangements reached wider audiences through such recordings as Gary Burton’s A Genuine Tong Funeral, an album dedicated to Bley’s first extended composition, and Charlie Haden’s The Liberation Music Orchestra.

In 1972, Bley and Mantler started a new record label, Watt, on which she has since issued recordings of her work. She also began experimenting outside of jazz, joining Jack Bruce’s band in 1975, writing all the compositions for and performing on Nick Mason’s 1981 album Nick Mason’s Fictitious Sports, and recording the soundtrack to the 1985 film Mortelle Randonnée. In 1997, a live production of Escalator over the Hill was staged in Germany, then toured Europe the following year.

Among the awards bestowed upon Bley were a Guggenheim Fellowship for music composition (1972), the German Jazz Trophy "A Life for Jazz" (2009), and honorary doctorates from l’Université de Toulouse-Le Mirail (2012) and the New England Conservatory (2014). Bley toured all over the world, including Brazil, Japan, South Korea, and just about everywhere in Europe. 

Selected Discography:
Carla Bley/Paul Haines, Escalator over the Hill, JCOA, 1968-71
Fleur Carnivore, Watt, 1989
The Carla Bley Big Band Goes to Church, Watt, 1996
The Lost Chords Find Paolo Fresu, Watt, 2007
Trios, ECM, 2012


Writing for big bands, choirs, and small ensembles, Carla Bley remains a graceful and innovative voice for progressive jazz.
Music Credits: Carla Bley. "08 Death of Superman _ Dream Sequence#1 - Flying" The Lost Chords Find Paolo Fresu. Watt, 2007. Carla Bley. "Who Will Rescue You" Carla Bley's Big Band Goes to Church. Watt, 1996. Carla Bley. "Escalator Over The Hill" Escalator Over The Hill. JCOA, 1970. Carla Bley. "why" Escalator Over The Hill. JCOA, 1970.  Carla Bley. "Ginger And David Theme" Escalator Over The Hill. ACOA, 1970. Carla Bley. "The Girl Who Cried Champagne" Trios. Watt, 2012 Carla Bley. "Vashkar" Trios. Watt, 2012 <musical intro> Carla Bley:  Now that I look back, boy, I was so lucky. Everything was exciting! Always listening to everything that was going on. And making great strides ourselves in bringing music into a new place. I'm glad that that all happened, and I realize now it was a big deal. Jo Reed:  That's composer, pianist, and 2015 NEA Jazz Master, Carla Bley. And this is Artworks, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed. Carla Bley is one of the great jazz composers. Prolific and agile, she's written music for Big Bands, choirs, chamber orchestras, small combos, trios and duos. Her work has a wide compositional range, as well as a healthy sense of humor. She enthusiastically embraced the avant-garde. She's written music for her first husband, Paul Bley, as well as for Art Farmer, Gary Burton, George Russell and Steve Swallow, to name a few. As much as she loves jazz, Carla has never been content to situate herself inside any musical genre. She collaborates with musicians outside jazz, who push musical boundaries in their own ways. She's performed and recorded with Jack Bruce, Robert Wyatt, and Pink Floyd's drummer, Nick Mason. In fact, she wrote all the music for, and performed on the album, Nick Mason's Fictitious Sports. Wanting to create an outlet for progressive musicians, Carla Bley and her second husband, trumpeter, Michael Mantler, founded The Jazz Composers Orchestra Association, an independent record label focusing on more avant-garde forms of jazz, including Bley's groundbreaking jazz opera, Escalator Over the Hill. She and Mantler then went on to form their own label, WATT Records, which is one of the first independent artist-owned record labels, and it's still going strong. Born and raised in Oakland, California, Carla's upbringing didn't exactly predict a career in jazz. Her father was a piano teacher and church organist. He began teaching Carla music when she was just three, which is when she started performing, in church. Carla Bley:  I played first for a charge affair when I was three-years-old, and then I sang, This Little Light of Mine, and held up a tin cup and collected money from the audience. And I had to give it to my parents. But I was a professional at three. Jo Reed:  Well, the other thing that really struck me was how young you were when you started composing. What made you want to learn this language of music and notation? Carla Bley:  I asked my father, "Where did this music come from that you're teaching me?" And he said, "Well, a composer wrote it." And I said, "Well, I would like to do that." And he said, "Well, here's a piece of blank music paper and a pencil. Write something, and I'll play it." So it took me a while, and I wrote just hundreds of notes. Hundreds of little black spots on this page in all the different spaces and lines. And I handed it into him, and he said, "Oh, I couldn't play that. It's much too difficult. You have to get rid of all of those notes. Get rid of most of those notes." So that was my first lesson in not having extra dots if you didn't need them. Just you pare it down to the important stuff. Jo Reed:  You also wrote an opera called, oddly, enough-- Carla Bley:  Over the Hill. Yes, I did. I started it. I didn't finish it. And it was about-- it took place in the South Pacific. There are no big hills there. I don't know why I did that. I just wrote compulsively, not knowing what I was doing. And didn't really play that stuff for anyone, I just did it for myself. Jo Reed:  When did you first hear jazz? I first heard jazz live. I went to the Oakland Auditorium, an saw Lionel Hampton, and was just knocked out, and thought, "This is the most exciting thing I've ever heard in my whole life." Then a month later, I wanted to check some more kinds of jazz out, and went with a friend to the Blackhawk Nightclub in San Francisco, and heard Jerry Mulligan and Chet Baker. So those were the first two, and probably the only two influences. I don't think I went to another club or to another concert venue to hear jazz until I ended up ten years later at the Café Bohemia. Jo Reed:  How old were you when you came to New York? Carla Bley:  Seventeen, I have determined. Jo Reed:  Did you come for the music? Carla Bley:  Yeah, totally. By that time, I heard Miles Davis, and I just had to sort of pursue that. And I'd heard about the Café Bohemia. Sounded like really exciting. Because I was from, you know, California, from the Bay Area, and we had San Francisco. And I had gone over there. I would just take the train and go to North Beach, and they had a jazz club over there, and they had a scene over there. It was poetry, and all kinds of music, not just jazz. All kinds of arts in general. So I knew that there were types of people that weren't going to my church that were more interesting to me. And I knew that most of them were in New York. So that's where I went. Jo Reed:  Did you know anybody there? Carla Bley:  No, not a soul. And I had nowhere to live and no money. So I got a job at Birdland selling cigarettes. Jo Reed:  I'm just so curious, before you got the job at Birdland, what did you do? Carla Bley:  I slept on a bench in Grand Central Station. And I met other homeless people, and we would all say, "We know a place we could sleep tonight," and we would all go there. There was only six of us. But we'd go to that place and sleep, and some of us had fits, and some of us were probably addicted to something, but I was just a little girl from Oakland, and I had a little green and white dress and that's all I had is that one dress, and a pair of shoes, I think. And <laughs> I could have gone barefoot, and just no one would have noticed. It would have been the least interesting aspect of me. But I just knew I wasn't right. I didn't fit in. And I didn't care whatsoever. That's what I what I wanted to do. And I don't think I was an especially brave person, it was just like a calling. It was just I was driven to do this. Jo Reed:  Tell me about your first night in New York. I went that first night after I arrived, having hitched a ride with someone, to the Café Bohemia, and I sat there and watched-- don't know if it was Wooten Kelly, or-- I didn't pay much attention to anyone but Miles. <music> Carla Bley:  Everyone has always asked me who was in the band? And I just knew Miles. And I still go anywhere to hear him, you know, I just-- I would cross the country in a minute, if I could. Jo Reed:  And you knew enough to go to Birdland. Carla Bley:  Yep, I'd heard about Birdland. And I went there, and immediately got a job selling cigarettes or selling rabbits. Selling stuffed animals, not real rabbits. Jo Reed:  What was the jazz scene like in New York then? Carla Bley:  From my viewpoint, when I first started working in those clubs, it was people that I wouldn't think of trying to talk to. I mean, they were a special different people from a different planet than mine. But I wanted to be like them, and that's why I like, I don't know, I just wanted to, and nobody said I couldn't. Jo Reed:  Fair enough. Carla Bley:  Yeah. Jo Reed:  Birdland is a place I always have wanted to go to, and missed that opportunity. Can you take me back? What was it like to be there? What was it just like to be there? Carla Bley:  You'd go down the stairs, and Peewee Marquette would be at the bottom of the stairs and he'd try to show you dirty photographs. That's one problem, getting around Peewee. You know this, "Check this one out," you know? "Oh, man! Not me! Wrong person!" And then I would go into the club and I still didn't have anything but that one dress. And it was green and white striped. I'd made it myself. I was out of place, but it didn't matter. They tried me at various things. The stuffed animals, I never sold a single one. The cigarettes, I would just stand there, and if someone asked for a pack, I would say, "Wait till the end of that solo, please." They'd say, "Are you kidding me?" And then they would stand there looking at me. And at the end, between tunes, maybe I would sell them a pack. But I was at church, you know, and they were asking to smoke cigarettes? Made no sense. So I was like keeper of the challis in my own impertinent way. It was really exciting. I got to hear everybody! Everybody but Charlie Parker. That's the one person I never saw live. I once stood outside of the club he was playing at, but couldn't get in. It was crowded, in mid-'50s or something like that. But I saw everybody else over the period of the year or two that I worked there. Jo Reed:  And were you composing then? Carla Bley:  Yeah. Because as soon as I worked at Birdland, I-- Paul Bley came and bought a pack of cigarettes form me a couple of months into the gig. And I started writing for him immediately. And he wanted me to write for him. He would say, "I have a record date tomorrow, and I need six tunes." So I would sit down and write them. Just small little ideas. Not complete symphonies. And then other people started asking me to write for them, and eventually I was just known as someone who had-- if you needed a waltz or something, come and see me. Or if you needed a blues in F, I probably had a couple of those. Or the musicians would think of what they needed for the band, and they didn't have time to write it themselves, so they would come to a writer, I think. Just like Count Basie went to all the guys in his band for arrangements. Jo Reed:  So you're composing more regularly, and other people are beginning to ask you for music. Carla Bley:  Yeah. Jo Reed:  And Steve Swallow was also pretty instrumental in that. How did you meet Steve? Carla Bley:  I met him through Paul Bley. A lot of bass players passed through Paul Bley, and would, if they came to town, they'd look him up, because he always needed a bass player, and he always gave them a lot of room and so Steve just came to Paul Bley, and then I was in the room. So that's how I met him. Jo Reed:  And he loved your music? Carla Bley:  Yeah, he was one of the guys that brought my music around wherever anyone needed anything, he's say, "Well, Carla wrote this. Maybe you'd like it." Jo Reed:  What's your process for composing? Carla Bley:  It's a habit. I do it every day, unless I'm on the road. I start right after breakfast, before I even get dressed or bathe, I just go with my cup of coffee up to the desk, and I start working right away. And then maybe take a break a couple hours later. Switch to tea. Take a bath. Get dressed. By that time, it's almost midday. But I've got the morning's work done. It might even be like writing a book. You often listen to writers talk about they feel they have to turn out 500 words a day. You know? And they just go to their desk until they have 500 words. And I don't let it go. I grab the tune by the horns, and just work on it all morning. There's no such thing as, "Oh, I'm not inspired," or, "I don't feel like it." That's the absolutely strangest thing that I could ever say. "I'm not really into it," or something like that. I just do it almost like cutting my fingernails. <music> Jo Reed:  I understand that you don't wait for inspiration, but are you motivated by sound, or are you motivated by ideas, or what gets the juices flowing? Carla Bley:  Sometimes it's an emotional reason. Somebody that you liked died or something. But mostly, it's just, "How does that note sound next to that other note? And how long should it be held?" And just like, you know, baking a cake of something. It has to come out right. And that's what I do. Make sure it comes out right. I've never used that metaphor before. I once used, "Once you put the chocolate chips in the cookie, and put it in the oven and take it out, you can't move those chips anymore. They're right where they are!" <laughter> But other than that, I've never thought of it in terms of-- Jo Reed:  Of baking. Carla Bley:  Baking a cake. Jo Reed:  Your first long piece was called, A Genuine Tong Funeral. It was recorded by Gary Burton. What inspired that? Carla Bley:  I once saw a Chinese movie, a really B-grade movie, I like to think. It was, you know, like shaky camera work, and black-and-white. And it had a funeral in it, and the word "tong" and the musicians were playing instruments, Chinese, I guess, instruments, and they weren't playing very well. And I thought, "Boy, that's the new thing for me! Chinese instruments that don't sound too good!" It could have been one of my 100 infatuations. And so I made it into another little opera. And I started trying to sell it. Not a single bite. And so I just gave it to Steve, and he gave it to Gary Burton. But I had to rewrite. I had to put Gary Burton into it, 'cause it was just horns at the beginning. You know, horns and rhythm section. So I wrote some pieces for Gary Burton's Band, and put them in there. And spent a long time doing that, making it into a nice cake. <music> Jo Reed:  Another, well, cake, this is the wedding cake, Escalator Over the Hill. Carla Bley:  Oh, definitely. Three tiers. Jo Reed:  Three tiers, easily. Carla Bley:  Five tiers. Jo Reed:  Can you describe how this came together? Carla Bley:  That happened because I was writing a piece of music-- this is a little bit unbelievable. I was writing a piece of music, and a friend of mine, a poet, Paul Haynes, was living in India, and sent me a poem. And I just put it on the piano accidentally. And as I was playing the piece I was working on, I looked at the words, and the words just fit right in. Whatever didn't fit, I soon made fit. And I wrote back to him and I said, "Unbelievable thing just happened to me. I think it's a sign that you and I should write an opera together." He said, "Okay." So he started sending me pages of poems. I guess they would be called lyrics, but he didn't write them as lyrics. And sent them, and I put them all on the piano, and wrote music to them. And that took a couple of years. <music> Jo Reed:  This was your first album! And for your first album, it's a two-hour album, with like-- Carla Bley:  Oh, yeah! It was my first album! Jo Reed:  With 50-something people! Carla Bley:  Oh, my god! That's big. I had been saving it up. Jo Reed:  <laughs> You must have been! Carla Bley:  Yeah! 'Cause when I couldn't sell that, it got bigger. You know, when I first tried to sell it, it was only one record long. And then it just kept growing and growing. It was something I couldn’t do anything to repress. By the end, when we recorded it, it was hours and hours. Jo Reed:  Logistically, getting this together, what was that like?! Carla Bley:  Oh, that was so easy. Everybody wanted to be in it. "You want to be in it?" I said, "Okay." Everybody that wanted to be in it could be in it. I didn't turn down a single person. And then there were some people that I asked, and nobody turned me down. Except Randy Neumann turned me down. He was the one person on earth. It was so easy doing it that way where you don't audition people, or make them feel bad. "Just be in it. I'll figure out what you can do. Or you figure it out! And then tell me!" And then that's the way it happened. Jo Reed:  And it was both jazz people and rock people. It was music. Carla Bley:  Yeah, everybody I knew. Just my friends. Just the people I knew. They were from the rock world. Bruce-- Jo Reed:  Jack Bruce. Carla Bley:  Jack Bruce! He could have been from any world. He had such a talent. And Linda Ronstadt also was a great talent, general talent. <music> Carla Bley:  And I started trying to sell it. And once again, not a single bite. I'd go to anyone who had a kind heart for jazz or had ever smiled at me, and nobody wanted it. They say, "Well," some of them would say like the guy at Blue Note, Francis Wolf, he would say, he said, "I love it! But I can't sell that! Sorry. I mean, it's wonderful. I can't sell it, and so I can't take it." So I finally said, "That's it. I'm going to have to start my own record company." And I couldn't do that personally. I had to do that by starting a label for the Jazz Composers Orchestra that didn't serve just me, although I was the first person to use it. But then I had to repay that socially by making sure all other composers at that moment that I knew could record for that label, could write for that label, and could record for that label, and do their own big project, and raise money for myself first. And then raise money for them. Jo Reed:  And you and Michael Mantler also started your own record label, called WATT, W-A-T-T. Carla Bley:  I think what happened was that after everyone who wanted to write for this label, for The Jazz Composers Orchestra, did. I had another album ready, but I felt that it wouldn't be right for me to record it for this label. So then I had to start my own label. That was a big change in my life. And then I started working solely for myself and my people, my friends. But that was musically necessary. Jo Reed:  And that's what works. Carla Bley:  That's what works. Jo Reed:  Was your earlier music meant to be read verbatim off a score? Carla Bley:  I never wrote it well, so it couldn't be. It would have sounded very funny. Jo Reed:  How did you write it? Carla Bley:  I wrote quickly and left out a lot of stuff. When I started writing for a Big Band, that was a different phase in my life. Then I had to write out everything perfectly. And I learned to not just leave the piano part blank. I had to put in chord changes and stuff like that. But that happened a lot later. When I first started, I just-- I was pretty loose, until I met Steve Swallow, and that's when I learned how to play the piano, and how to read chord changes. But before, you know, I didn't. I was just a loner and didn't know much, except what I heard in my head, and that came out onto the page. Because I never studied in a school. After my father gave up on me at about eight/ten maybe, I never studied. Until Steven. Then I didn't study like at my desk without him. But I played with him. We were living together and so I had a bass player like all day long, any time I wanted one. And we still do. When he's home, we play, every day. I'm very lucky that way. Jo Reed:  You've said, in terms of your own playing, you're a composer who plays the piano. And so that's why doing the duos with Steve, there you are, you're out there. Carla Bley:  Strange, yeah. We didn't intend to do that. We were thinking about getting a gig in some little dive in the Caribbean, and just playing for fun. And someone found out about it, and said, "Oh, you've got to do this in Europe. And said, "Oh, no, we're just doing it for fun." Then finally, we started doing it in Europe, and then it was all over, it was no longer "fun." But it was possible to do. And then I got told by Steve that even, you know, Bach had to play, and Beethoven had to play. You know, they couldn't stay home and write all day long. They had to play it. And if they didn't play it, nobody would hear it. So I became a player, and I'm getting good, I think. Slowly, very slowly. I've got a long way to go. Jo Reed:  Do you enjoy performing? Do you find joy in it? Carla Bley:  Hm mm. I find joy in when it's over. Jo Reed:  Hm, yeah. Carla Bley:  And if it hadn't happened, that joy wouldn't be there. So I think I need to perform in order to feel the happiness of having performed. But I just want to be at home. And I just want to write. But that's not the way it works. <music> Jo Reed:  Well, do you find the more you perform, does it affect the way you compose as well? Carla Bley:  No! Not at all! Jo Reed:  Okay. Carla Bley:  I write myself almost impossible things. Nothing that ever starts with playing. And I think most improvising musicians write themselves vehicles. Like, "I just learned this kind of chord scale, so I'm going to write a piece in that mode. And it'll give me some way to start, and stop my solo." But I never do that-- I'm not kind to myself. I write things I can hardly play. And I think I'm not kind to the bass player either. Steve is struggling, saying, "Oh, my god." I think the only people that don't have a problem with my music are players in a Big Band, because then I can spread the notes out and give people what they can do, and what they would like to do, and write, you know, little exposures for the soloists in my band. And try to think in terms of them. I don't know if I always succeed. Sometimes they have a problem, too, with the music. <music> Jo Reed:  When did you start with your Big Band? Carla Bley:  That was another interesting story. The band leader at Harvard, he had a marching band, and he had a jazz band. And he got a couple of writers in the jazz world to write music and bring it to his Big Band and play it. And he asked me. And I said, "I can't. I can't write for a Big Band. I do know a teacher at Berkeley who's smart and does really good arrangements and I'll give my 13-piece band music to him, and he can write a regular, readable, playable Big Band arrangement of it." And he did that! And after he finished, I thought, "Man, I could do that?! What was I thinking?! I see what he's doing? I understand the sections and stuff like that. I can do that myself." And from that point on, I just started doing it. I didn't want to think I couldn't do it. I was given the chance again to do a Big Band piece, and that time I did it great! But that's over now. No one can afford a Big Band. I'm working almost exclusively with a trio nowadays. And I'm putting all my effort into writing for a trio with a few exceptions. <music> Jo Reed:  And that's you and Steve and Andy Shepherd. Carla Bley:  Yeah. Jo Reed:  Yet, you've recently worked with an orchestra, no? Carla Bley:  The last album that I did, which won't be out until next year is the Liberation Music Orchestra album. And I just came up with most of that after Charlie Hayden died, and sort of put myself to the task of preparing an album that he would like to hear, if he could. And sort of dedicated it to his wife, Ruth. And I've been doing that for, I guess that's taken up most of the last six months or more, since last June. Jo Reed:  You mentioned the Liberation Music Orchestra. And the projects you did with your lifelong friend, and great collaborator, Charlie Hayden. How did this begin? Carla Bley:  Every time Charlie was politically unhappy, he'd make a record. And this just kept happening every five/ten years. And I did the arrangements, and we recorded it. But the new one is about the environment, not about politics. Jo Reed:  I'm not going to ask you about your favorite music, because I think that's like picking a favorite child, but I am going to ask you about your favorite format? Do you prefer, as a composer, composing for a duo, a Big Band, the opera, chamber music? You've composed for so many different permutations/groups. Carla Bley:  My last big group was for a Big Band and Boys' Choir. And boy, was that great! I got to hear it once at the Moore's Festival in Germany with the 60-voice boys' choir and a Big Band. It was killin'! And I wanted to record it, but I couldn't. It's too many people! But I was thrilled by that! And that was my favorite format; that'll probably never happen again. And who knows what my favorite format will be? I don't think it's anything I can say, because it's always changing, as you can tell from my history. What I want to say about myself is that I really don't care what the package is, what the container is, what the format is. I just accept it and do it. If it's renaissance music for instruments that only play five notes, I can figure that one out. I'll do it! <music> Jo Reed:  That is 2015 NEA Jazz Master, Carla Bley. Carla Bley and the other 2015 Jazz Masters will be honored with a concert and ceremony on April 20th at Jazz and Lincoln Center in New York City. The event is free and open to the public. You can go to for information. And if you can't make it to New York, not to worry. The NEA is broadcasting the event live. Go to for details. You've been listening to Artworks, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening. <musical outro> #### End of Carla_Bley_Podcast_Final_041515.mp3 ####

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