Carla Bley

Amy C. Beal

Soon after settling in Willow, New York, in late 1974, Bley joined the Jack Bruce Band, a quintet that included Bruce Gary, Ronnie Leahy, and the Rolling Stones guitarist Mick Taylor, and began rehearsal for a tour. Bruce, who had been aware of Bley’s composition from a relatively young age, encouraged her participation in the band: “I really thought Carla was very special—still do—a very interesting composer, and I just wanted people to be aware of her. I didn’t know what she’d be like in the band. But we had done things on Escalator where she had an interesting approach to keyboards, very simple. I didn’t see her as a technical player, more of a composer who had a particular approach which appealed to me—very Kurt Will and European.”1

The tour began on April 22, 1974, in Barcelona, and between then and June 9, when the tour ended at Cambridge University, the group performed twenty-six concerts in nine European countries. On tour Bley mostly played Mellotron and Hammond organ; she left the group when the tour ended. The experience of touring and performing live for large audiences had a transformative effect on Bley, and she became interested in creating her own band. Bley recalls: “Then I joined a famous rock and roll band. That was fun. I hadn’t had much fun in my life. I spent a lot of time in Europe. When the group broke up I found it impossible to go back to being a reclusive composer. I wanted to continue traveling and playing in public. So I started my own band. That caused me to write more than ever, since I now had an immediate outlet and a constant demand for new material.”2

Part of Bley’s change in attitude about performing more frequently might also have been influenced by a change in the musical landscape during the 1970s, by which time many musicians recognized the advantages of writing and copyrighting their own material. Steve Swallow, who along with other musicians affiliated with Boston’s Berklee College of Music was involved in compiling The Real Book around this time, explained that this shift in the roles of players versus composers eroded standards of quality in jazz composition. For the work of a true composer, not just a player who wrote tunes on the side, this new situation was potentially detrimental: “People like Carla [Bley], in particular, who’s essentially a writer who plays, rather than a player who writes, suffered mightily. It almost has sounded the death knell of somebody who would call himself a jazz composer. Nobody has any use for a jazz composer anymore, because everybody saw the clear copyright advantages to writing their own tunes, however feeble they might have been, to record.”3

Perhaps in response to this situation, around 1977 Bley and Mantler published a Watt catalog in the form of a meticulously designed booklet that included several informative, self-promotional descriptions and a strong assertion of their artistic discipline and self-reliance: “Carla Bley and Michael Mantler are two composers. Unable to accept the economic and musical restrictions imposed by the music business establishment, they decided to control their own lives as much as possible, and now have a record company, a recording studio, publishing companies, and a band, all dedicated to the presentation and realization of their music without compromise.”4

This document also described the process and purpose of creating the Carla Bley Band, a ten-person big band (brass, reeds, and rhythm section) she had spent several years establishing. She formed this group after the Jack Bruce Band tour, and it became the entity on which she would focus much of her energy for several years. The Carla Bley Band effectively became the instrument for which she composed, the vehicle through which she could let her sonic imagination run free. An unsigned descriptive essay (though probably written by Mantler or by Bley herself) in the Watt catalog booklet stated:

It was a composer’s band, and the total effort would be directed towards interpreting the written music of one person. (Carla claims not to be a player, and expresses herself through her compositions and arrangements. In exchange for control of the form, she lets solo space go to her band—a fair trade.) The musicians had to be excellent readers as well as soloists. They had to add something personal and unique, but not overwhelm the music with their egos. Fortunately within their large and disparate circle of friends, such musicians were not the exception, and she ended up with some wonderful, if unlikely combinations. Famous, unknown, exciting new talents, comfortable old ones, very tall ones, some quite short, from the purest to the most promiscuous, all the elements sublimely intertwined into one force dedicated to making Carla Bley’s music more outrageously beautiful than ever.

This emphasis on formal control, the superb technical skills of her musicians, and individuality within the band characterized her working attitude toward all subsequent large ensemble projects.

The establishment of her own large ensemble following the creation of her recording studio, record label, and distribution service was part of a logical chain of events, one indicating a further step in Bley’s ongoing quest for total artistic control in the creation, administration, and dissemination of her music. This freedom allowed Bley to focus on an uninhibited exploration of musical ideas in her compositions. During this period she composed an unusual work titled Bars (1977), which is notable in that it has an indeterminate form. The piece comprises eight sections, all but one of which are to be repeated. The first six sections are labeled A through F, and after an initial run through in the written order, the first five lettered parts are meant to be played in any order the performers choose: “Any of the first five sections connects with any other; join them at random. Then join parts of sections, they all connect well.” This open form, or “cut-up” technique, was typical of the “mosaic” forms of Henry Cowell and the “mobile form” of Earle Brown but was relatively uncommon in the history of jazz.

Over the next few years the Carl Bley Band toured both Europe (extensively) and the United States (in a brief, seven-gig excursion to second-tier, out-of-the-way places, such as Ypsilanti, Michigan), recorded six albums on Watt between 1977 and 1983 (European Tour 1977, Musique Mecanique, Social Studies, Live!, I Hate To Sing, and Heavy Heart), and contributed a soundtrack of preexisting pieces for a Claude Miller film called Mortelle Randonnée. Much of the music written for this large ensemble seems to suggest that Bley had undergone a change of heart with regard to both her audience and herself, wanting to stop being, as she put it, “an inward, introspective, unsocial, misanthropic, confused, tormented person.”5 This active pursuit of a new mode of expression went well with the approach to managing her career. Gary Burton has commented: “I have always considered Carla a great example of how to market music. Her work is not so directly in the mainstream, so it took ingenuity and original thinking to find ways to get her music in front of people. She has definitely succeeded as an organizer and businesswoman, bringing her music to a much wider audience than would have happened if she had just waited for the audience to find her work.”6

Carla Bley

The Carla Bley Big Band was indeed successful, in part because it featured entertaining, outrageous, theatrical pieces such as Spangled Banner Minor, a twenty plus–minute medley of national anthems (including “Deutschland über Alles”) and “patriotic” pieces by Bley (mostly written during the 1960s) such as “Flags,” “King Korn,” “And Now, the Queen,” and “The New National Anthem” (which had been recorded on A Genuine Tong Funeral. The band’s personnel, consisting of highly skilled music readers who were also free improvisers, soon became a diverse group of eccentric and original musicians, including the AACM-trained trombonist George Lewis, the versatile ONCE festival/Iggy Pop–band pianist “Blue” Gene Tyranny (whom, it is alleged, Bley hired for the European tour just because she liked his unusual name), and the classically trained but virtuosically improvising French horn player John Clark. Bley played primarily organ or synthesizer in her band during this period and frequently hired another musician to play piano parts.

In addition to touring, the band played at the Bottom Line, on Fourth Street near New York University’s main campus, and other venues in New York City. The continuity of the Carla Bley Band’s personnel gave her a consistently willing and able palette for her compositional explorations, though gender dynamics sometimes led to challenges to her authority. Already a skilled orchestrator, she focused on allowing her creative skills to develop even further. Roswell Rudd, an original member of her first big band, remarked:

I always felt she was writing a part for me. She had me in mind when she was writing the part. It was a good feeling. I was able to flow in Carla’s music. I think she was on the crest as an orchestrator. In other words, she was getting to that Duke Ellington stage where she had the soloist in mind when she was writing stuff, so your part was kind of personalized. Right from the beginning, the first times I was looking at her charts, I was feeling that. [She was] right up there with Mingus, and Ellington, and anyone who was orchestrating a soloist. The writing was kind of secondary to what they heard the soloist doing in the orchestral space. The acoustical reality of the performer came first.7

He added: “Everybody to a lesser or greater degree in the band was a soloist, was an individual personality, and I think she was able to harness that energy into her soundscape.”

After the European Tour 1977 album, Bley recorded Musique Mecanique, which contains some of her most inventive writing and arranging from this period and some of the most extroverted and exuberant performances by her band. The collection—just five pieces played by an enhanced ensemble (she added several players, including Charlie Haden on bass, Eugene Chadbourne on guitar, and Karen Mantler on glockenspiel)—exemplifies her parody-ridden humor, her gift for variation, her theatricality, and her interest in the “acoustical reality” of not only human players but broken machines. The title of the album, and of three of the pieces included on it, refers in part to a display of mechanical musical instruments Bley saw at the Musée Mécanique in San Francisco. She also connects various themes on the record (and in many of her other work) to an idea of brokenness, related to the idea of “imperfection” discussed earlier with regard to her use of amateur musicians and unusual vocalizations in Escalator over the Hill. In Bley’s music, brokenness becomes a phenomenon worthy of a certain amount of close attention. This phenomenon became central to her style.

She recalled: “My style started with a broken toy bought in Chinatown when I was about eight years old. It was a musical toy, but it was broken.”8 These images contribute to a music that is referential, evocative, and sometimes very specific in its imagery; in that sense, it is not unlike romantic program music or any music that aims to tell a story or to set the listener in any particular place—urban gridlock, for example, in the pieces Fast Lane and Tijuana Traffic (2003), for which the band’s brass section effectively turns into a blaring cacophonous pileup of annoyed automobile horns (perhaps a nod to Duke Ellington’s depiction of honking car horns in “Take the A Train”).

The first piece on the album Musique Mecanique, called 440 (referring to a commonly employed frequency for the pitch A, which orchestras use to tune up before playing), is typically humorous, using conventions of classical music itself—and here, in particular, the formalized, repetitive art music rituals so foreign to the candid, cool, dressed-down world of jazz (at least before 1980)—both to call attention to their absurdities and to generate entirely new musical ideas. The band begins by improvising solely on the pitch A, until the thematic part of the piece begins. The second piece on the album is called "Jesus Maria and Other Spanish Strains" and employs another self-referential kind of practice, the use of Bley’s early piece "Jesus Maria" as the ritornello to a suite-like construction. The arrangement includes stylistic replicas of Spanish- and Latin-sounding music, as well as sonic clichés from western movie music (one thinks of cowboys and shootouts almost involuntarily). This arrangement of Jesus Maria also includes a variety of bizarre vocalizations and electronic effects, including a walkie-talkie.

The second side of the album presents three separate but related pieces collectively titled Musique Mecanique (Bley and Swallow later rerecorded the Musique Mecanique triptych as an instrumental set on their third duo album, Are We There Yet? [1999]). The first of the set includes a collection of music boxes, hurdy-gurdies, glockenspiels, electric pump organs, celestas, and toy pianos. Perhaps a bit rusty from disuse, they take a while to get up to speed; at the end of the ten-minute romp the devices slowly wind down again, until just one remains, clicking and clacking in its unabashed brokenness. The second of the Musique Mecanique set, titled "At Midnight", features Rosewell Rudd intoning a dreamlike then increasingly ecstatic circular text written by Bley.9 (This would be the last record by the band to feature Roswell Rudd; soon thereafter the trombonist Gary Valente would become one of Bley’s most cherished soloists, along with the trumpeter Lew Soloff and saxophonists Wolfgang Puschnig and Andy Sheppard.) The piece also makes use of eerie sounds associated with night: a ticking clock, the lonely knelling of a bell, a creepily intoning organ.10 The third Musique Mecanique piece exploits a sonic device that mimics the sound of a record skipping (Bley likely first used this effect shortly before, in the tune "Drinking Music", on the European Tour 1977 album): all of a sudden, the players get “stuck” on certain riffs, repeating them precisely—seventeen times in one case and fifteen times in another—until the music lurches forward. The broken-record technique—which is exploited in later recordings, too, most notably in "Tigers in Training", a lengthy piece making explicit references to the sounds of the circus and included on Bley’s 1998 record Fancy Chamber Music—further focuses the listener’s attention on Bley’s fascination with odd sound effects and unexpectedly humorous compositional techniques.

Soon after the Carla Bley Band’s inception, the bandleader found herself enjoying the luxury of turning down more engagements than she accepted, even though invitations to perform in the United States were few and far between. Since she earned most of her income through copyright royalties and financed her band in that way (this is no longer the case), she was under no pressure to perform more often than she wished. By 1978, when she recorded Musique Mecanique, she was able to live quite comfortably as an established composer, and as in all other aspects of her professional life, she maintained complete artistic and administrative control over her work. She has noted that almost everything she has ever written has been covered, which has provided her a sizable income.11 She adds, “I live very comfortably. And I feel proud and sort of like a shining example, mainly because I’m independent. I don’t belong to a stable. I’m not a pet of the recording industry. I put out my own records. We book our own band. I have my publishing company. I have my own recording studio. Everything I do is totally controlled by me. […] I’ve never had to compromise one bit.”12

This independence gave her an almost unprecedented amount of freedom for a composer insistent on writing in original and not necessarily mainstream idioms. This freedom has allowed Bley to interact with an astounding variety of musical milieus since the mid-1970s, even as she was leading her band. These additional projects included, among other things, fulfilling diverse types of commissions (including one from Germany’s WDR television to create a piece accompanying the poetry of Malcolm Lowry; the result—for Under the Volcano—with Steve Swallow and Jack Bruce, was performed first in Cologne and later as part of the New Music American Festival); recording John Cage’s songs “The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs” and “Forever and Sunsmell” on Brian Eno’s Obscure label (1976); participating in a symposium at the Woodstock Creative Music Foundation in 1977 (along with Cage, Frederic Rzewski, and Christian Wolff); collaborating with avant-rock figures such as Jack Bruce, Robert Wyatt, and the former Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason (for whom she wrote, arranged, conducted, and recorded an entire album, Fictitious Sports, at her studio in 1979; it was released under Mason’s name two years later); and playing the role of a keyboardist named “Penny Cillin” in an irreverent punk band called Burning Sensations with Peter Apfelbaum and others associated with Karl Berger’s Creative Music Studio in Woodstock. The scholar-performer George Lewis, who played in the Carla Bley Band during its first European tour, in 1977 (but did not play on the subsequent record), has suggested that Bley was able to maneuver gracefully among these many different musical styles and performance projects because a certain tolerance for stylistic mobility has traditionally been granted to white artists but not to musicians of color—for example, the African-American composers Scott Joplin, Duke Ellington, Muhal Richard Abrams, and Anthony Braxton, whose stylistic border crossings met with incomprehension or worse from a critical establishment that expected them to stay within an aesthetic position it identified as “jazz.”13 Bley’s stylistic mobility, her creative restlessness, and her identification with multiple traditions and performance practices have caused her to be described, on occasion, as chameleon-like.

For a time in the later 1970s Bley provoked audiences with what some critics referred to as punk jazz, taking her big band to Lower East Side venues such as Hurrah’s and encouraging listeners to boo her on stage. (She has admitted that her irreverent and repetitious songs on Nick Mason’s Fictitious Sports album were influenced by the punk-rock movement, and the punk band Burning Sensation played many of these songs, including one she called “It’s Rotten,” which she jokingly referred to as a “dentist’s song.”) She also contributed to a number of collaborative recordings organized by other people, including the Conjure recordings of Kip Hanrahan, which set Ishmael Reed’s texts to music, and the producer Hal Willner’s Kurt Weill and Thelonious Monk collections. Around 1980 Bley’s work moved more toward a conversation with traditional big-band jazz. In 1981, she self-published her first collection of printed scores.

Carla Bley Band at Festival International de Jazz de Montréal (1983)

A film of a Carla Bley Band performance in Montréal in 1983 documented the working atmosphere of the band at a key creative moment in Bley’s long career as a perfomer.14 Included in the concert are arrangements of several compositions Bley often recorded during the 1980s, such as the soulful “The Lord Is Listening to Ya, Hallelujah!”; the jerky rhythmic romp “Walking Batterie Woman; Ups and Downs,” arranged here as a showpiece duet between the saxophonists Steve Slagle and Joe Lovan; and “The Lone Arranger,” during which Bley and the band, speaking in French, made irreverent comments about horses into their microphones. Bley, her face partially hidden behind her frizzy blond hair, bare-legged and dressed in a bright red shorts-suit, plays keyboards and glockenspiel and occasionally steps in front of the nine-man band to conduct cues. The band itself is playful, polished, and highly virtuosic. Bley’s keyboard solos are typically modest, thoughtful, and sparse; a second keyboard player, Ted Saunders, brings a more high-energy, free-jazz style of soloing into the texture. The film, like any live performance by Bley and her band, gives a clear and lasting impression of the wide continuum of the composer’s expressive powers and the high level of competence and professionalism of the ensemble that provided the vehicle for bringing those expressive powers to life.

1 Bruce qtd. In Harry Shapiro, Jack Bruce: Composing Himself (London: Jawbone, 2010), 189.

2 Bley, autobiographical introduction to The Music of Carla Bley, Composed and Arranged for Piano (Alrac Music, 1981).

3 Swallow qtd. In Barry Kernfeld, The Storey of Fake Books: Bootlegging Songs to Musicians (Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow, 2006), 142.

4 A copy of this promotional booklet is located in the Carla Bley press clippings file at the Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University, Newark, N.J.

5 Bley qtd. In Sy Johnson, “And Now, the Emerging Wacko Countess…Carla Bley!!!” Jazz Magazine, Spring 1978, 40.

6 Gary Burton, written correspondence with the author, July 2, 2009.

7 Roswell Rudd, interview with the author, November 4, 2009.

8 Bley, interview with the author, August 22, 2009. In addition, she has written of this connection in the liner notes to the composition “JonBenet” on her album Fancy Chamber Music (1998): “It wasn’t until a week after it was finished that “JonBenet” was named. I was looking for a somewhat fragile title for this piece, which was inspired by a broken musical toy I had as a child. Then, reading a headline about the poor murdered six-year-old beauty queen, I thought, ‘What an interesting name.’”

9 Bley’s lyrics are “At midnight/I heard  you cry/I raised my head/Got out of bed/Put on a robe/Went down the hall/Stopped at your door/For a moment/I listened there/Not a sound/I turned the knob/And entered your room/Your raised your head/Got out of bed/Put on a robe/Went down the hall…” and so on.

10 The arrangement of "At Midnight" is strikingly similar to Robert Wyatt’s “Sea Song,” from the album Rock Bottom, which was produced by Nick Mason and released in 1974. I am grateful to Ma’ayan Tsadka for pointing out this connection.

11 The on-line All Music Guide site lists over sixty-five groups and individuals who have included her compositions on their recordings.

12 Bley qtd. In Johnson, “And Now,” 43.

13 I am indebted to George Lewis for sharing his views on these matters, including comments he made during a colloquium on Bley I held at Columbia University, New York, October 23, 2009.

14 Carla Bley: Live in Montreal, film, dir. Pierre Lacombe, Amérimage-Spectra, 1983.