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In Remembrance: Carla Bley

Carla Bley performs in Berlin
Dietmar Liste/Jazzimage
CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Carla Bley performs in Berlin in November 2009.

An important figure in the free jazz movement, pianist and composer Carla Bley passed away this year at 87.

We knew her as Carla Bley, though she was born Lovella May Borg. Bley was an American jazz composer, pianist, organist, and bandleader, and rare as a woman was an important figure in the free jazz movement of the 1960s.

Whatever configuration she was writing and playing in, big band, full-blown operas, duets and sextets, her wry sense of humor and tonal harmony was in play throughout.

Bley was a highly original composer, arranger and pianist. Professionally, she was better known and proud of her work as a composer and arranger. Her playing on both organ and piano was always a bit quirky. Partly that wry and, at times, subversive attitude and partly her style.

She once told a German journalist: “I’m a composer who also plays piano, and I sometimes feel I should wear a sign onstage saying ‘She Wrote the Music.’”

When Bley hitchhiked across the country to New York City at age 17, she landed as a cigarette girl at Birdland, where the Count Basie Orchestra was often in residence. It’s where she met her husband of many years, pianist Paul Bley, who encouraged her to write. Much of her early work as a composer appeared on his albums.

Her portfolio grew to include leading a big band of fellow New York musicians, a soulful sextet including Hiram Bullock on guitar, and an acoustic trio featuring long-time partner and bassist Steve Swallow and saxophonist Any Sheppard.

Bley also had a deep connection to the Liberation Music Orchestra, which was formed by bassist Charlie Haden. First as the original conductor and arranger and later leading the group after Haden’s death.

She may be best known for her jazz opera, Escalator Over The Hill, released as a triple album set, as well as a book of compositions that have been performed by many other artists, including Gary Burton, Art Farmer, John Scofield and late ex-husband Paul Bley.

She started the JCOA record label, which issued a number of historic recordings, and developed independent artist-owned record labels. Bey also started the now-defunct New Music Distribution Service, which specialized in small, independent labels releasing improvised music.
Bley was recognized as a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 2015. In recent years, as a composer and performer, she worked mainly with her trio, with Swallow and Sheppard. They toured internationally and released several albums for ECM records, including her last album, Life Goes On, released in 2020.