Carla Bley

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Carla Bley
Bley in 2007
Bley in 2007
Background information
Birth nameLovella May Borg
Born (1936-05-11) May 11, 1936 (age 85)[1]
Oakland, California, U.S.
GenresPost bop, jazz fusion, free jazz
Occupation(s)Musician, bandleader, composer
InstrumentsPiano, organ
Years active1960–present
LabelsWATT, ECM, Universal
Associated actsMichael Mantler, Steve Swallow, Paul Bley, Nick Mason, Johnny Griffin, Gary Burton, Jimmy Giuffre, George Russell, Art Farmer, Liberation Music Orchestra, Jack Bruce, Charlie Haden, Jazz Composer's Orchestra, Paul Haines

Carla Bley (born Lovella May Borg, May 11, 1936) is an American jazz composer, pianist, organist and bandleader.[2] An important figure in the free jazz movement of the 1960s, she is perhaps best known for her jazz opera Escalator over the Hill (released as a triple LP set), as well as a book of compositions that have been performed by many other artists, including Gary Burton, Jimmy Giuffre, George Russell, Art Farmer, John Scofield and her ex-husband Paul Bley.

Early life[edit]

Carla Bley at Keystone Korner, San Francisco 1979

Bley was born in Oakland, California, United States, to Emil Borg (1899–1990), a piano teacher and church choirmaster,[2] who encouraged her to sing and to learn to play the piano, and Arline Anderson (1907–1944), who died when Bley was eight years old. After giving up the church to immerse herself in roller skating at the age of fourteen,[3] she moved to New York at seventeen and became a cigarette girl at Birdland, where she met jazz pianist Paul Bley. She toured with him under the name Karen Borg, before she changed her name in 1957 to Carla Borg and married Paul Bley the same year adopting the Bley name.[4] He encouraged her to start composing.[5] The couple later divorced but she kept his surname professionally.[6]

Later life and career[edit]

Carla Bley conducts her band at the Pori Jazz Festival in Pori, Finland, 1978.

A number of musicians began to record Bley's compositions: George Russell recorded "Bent Eagle" for his album Stratusphunk in 1960; Jimmy Giuffre recorded "Ictus" on his album Thesis; and Paul Bley's Barrage consisted entirely of her compositions. Throughout her career, Bley has thought of herself as a writer first, describing herself as 99 percent composer and one percent pianist.[7]

In 1964, she was involved in organising the Jazz Composers Guild,[2] which brought together the most innovative musicians in New York at the time.[5] She then had a personal and professional relationship with Michael Mantler, with whom she had a daughter, Karen, now also a musician in her own right. Bley and Mantler were married from 1965-91. With Mantler, she co-led the Jazz Composers' Orchestra and started the JCOA record label which issued a number of historic recordings by Clifford Thornton, Don Cherry and Roswell Rudd, as well as her own magnum opus Escalator Over The Hill and Mantler's The Jazz Composer's Orchestra LPs.[2] Bley and Mantler were pioneers in the development of independent artist-owned record labels and also started the now defunct New Music Distribution Service which specialized in small, independent labels that issued recordings of "creative improvised music".[8]

She arranged and composed music for bassist Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra, and wrote A Genuine Tong Funeral for vibraphonist Gary Burton.[9] Bley has collaborated with a number of other artists, including Jack Bruce,[2] Robert Wyatt and Nick Mason, drummer for the rock group Pink Floyd. Mason's solo debut album Nick Mason's Fictitious Sports was entirely written by Bley and performed by her regular band with Mason as a guest, making it in effect a Carla Bley album in all but name.[10]

She has continued to record frequently with her own big band, which has included Blood, Sweat & Tears' notable Lew Soloff, and a number of smaller ensembles, notably the Lost Chords. Her partner is the bassist Steve Swallow.[11]

In 2005, she arranged the music for and performed on Charlie Haden's latest Liberation Music Orchestra tour and recording, Not in Our Name. She lives in Woodstock, New York.[12]


Bley was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1972 for music composition.[13]

In 2009, she was awarded the German Jazz Trophy "A Life for Jazz".[14][15]

Bley received the NEA Jazz Masters Award in 2015.[16]



  1. ^ New York Times: Carla Bley, Still Improvising and Inspiring as She Turns 80
  2. ^ a b c d e Colin Larkin, ed. (1997). The Virgin Encyclopedia of Popular Music (Concise ed.). Virgin Books. pp. 145/6. ISBN 1-85227-745-9.
  3. ^ Ben Sidran, Talking Jazz: An Illustrated Oral History, Pomegranate Artbooks, 1992
  4. ^ Philippe Carles, André Clergeat, and Jean-Louis Comolli, Dictionnaire du jazz, Paris, 1994
  5. ^ a b Chinen, Nate (May 11, 2016). "At 80, Still Slyly Subverting Jazz". The New York Times. Retrieved 11 May 2016.
  6. ^ Turner, Charles. "Bley, Carla (Lovella May Borg)". Archived from the original on 2015-03-02. Retrieved 2016-06-28.
  7. ^ Review of Andando el Tiempo (2017), The Irish Times June 2, 2016
  8. ^ Wilmer, Valerie (1977). As Serious As Your Life. Quartet. p. 237. ISBN 0704331640.
  9. ^ Litweiler, John (1984). The Freedom Principle: Jazz After 1958. Da Capo. pp. 229–230. ISBN 0306803771.
  10. ^ Carla Bley at AllMusic
  11. ^ "Bley's MySpace page cites Swallow as her partner". Retrieved 2012-06-25.
  12. ^ Michel, Karen. "A Traditional Jazz Christmas, An Unlikely Source". Retrieved April 15, 2011.
  13. ^ "John Simon Guggenheim Foundation | Carla Bley". Retrieved 2019-10-29.
  14. ^ "German Jazz Trophy for Carla Bley". Retrieved 2012-06-25.
  15. ^ "German Jazz Trophy 2012 - Monty Alexander". Retrieved 2012-06-25.
  16. ^ "Carla Bley". 20 June 2014. Retrieved 6 November 2018.

External links[edit]