The Musical Journey Of Carla Bley

In 1953, Karen Borg from Oakland, CA, a young seventeen years old caught the jazz bug.  West coast cool jazz was in its inceptive days when she heard the music of Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker.  The impact started a series of events that changed the history of jazz.

Her mother, Emily Borg, was a piano teacher and choirmaster for a church in the local community.  Born Lovella May Borg in 1936,  she was encouraged by her mom at an early age to learn to play piano and sing.  Although only eight years old when her mother died, she had received the gift of musical creativity that would define her lifelong artistic contribution to jazz. 

Filled with inspiration, the determined young teen, adopting a stage name of Karen Borg, set out to make it to the jazz capital of the world, New York City.  Hitchhiking across the country from Oakland, Karen landed in the Big Apple around 1955.  Blessed with statuesque beauty, she landed a job as a cigarette girl at the most famous of jazz clubs at the time, Birdland.  Glancing often at the stage.  Absorbing the music of jazz as performed by Miles Davis and Red Garland. The most influential being that of pianist Count Basie and his orchestra.  From an interview in 2017, here is how she described her time at Birdland:

“I got a job at Birdland as a cigarette girl and that’s how I got my education. I sold cigarettes, stuffed animals, I was the one who took a picture of you and your girlfriend at the table to commemorate your being there with someone who wasn’t your wife usually. I hardly sold anything because I was listening to the music. If someone asked to buy a pack of Luckies I said, ‘wait till the solo is over’.” 

While at Birdland, the cigarette girl caught the eye of jazz pianist, Paul Bley.  And, a romance began.  Bley, who later would become influential in the free jazz movement in the 1960’s, had made his presence felt in the 1950’s by performing with the early pioneers of bebop jazz such as Charlie Parker, Jackie McClean, Lester Young, and Charles Mingus.  Settling in Los Angeles in the late 1950’s to early 1960’s, Paul Bley hired some of the initial explorers of free jazz.  These being Don Cherry, Ornette Coleman, Charlie Haden, and Billy Higgins.

Paul Bley Early Trios

In 1957, Karen Borg changed her name to Carla Borg.  That same year, she married Paul Bley and she adopted the name Carla Bley.  At Paul Bley’s urging, Carla was asked to begin composing for Paul Bley’s bands.  Although their marriage lasted only a few short years before divorcing, Carla Bley kept the surname professionally.  Remaining friends, they became major collaborators in composing music.

The 1960’s proved to be formative years for Carla Bley.  A self-taught jazz artist, she absorbed the influence of Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis.  Evolving and exploring as a composer to attain a distinctive style all her own.  A style that is uniquely personal.  Bley was forging new paths that brought together compositions accented by the mixing of classical, jazz, and avant-garde musical forces. 

Carla Bley – 1972

By the early 1970’s, Bley found her calling.  Forming relationships with musicians to create The Carla Bley Band, whose members varied.  Sizing down from the typical big band, Bley’s bands were ensembles that could be made up of 8-12 musicians.  Creating sections consisting of brass, reed, and rhythm.  Core to the bands since the beginning has been bassist Steve Swallow.   Swallow in a recent interview was quoted offering this perspective:  “Aside from brief composition theory at Yale learning the Monk theory, knowing Carla Bley was the only meaningful training in composition I ever had.”

Nat Hentoff, the celebrated jazz critic, has said that “her scores for jazz big bands are matched only by those of Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus for yearning lyricism, explosive exultation and other expressions of the human condition”.

Carla Bley – Escalator Over The Hill

A milestone event in Bley’s journey was the 1971 production of the landmark jazz-rock opera, Escalator Over The Hill.  The three-album set featured artists ranging from Linda Ronstadt and Jack Bruce to Gato Barbieri and John McLaughlin.  The operatic venture proved to be an awakening in the musical world.  Propelling Bley to the forefront of orchestral composers and creative geniuses to be watched.  In this video clip from 1970, we see Carla Bley in rehearsal with John McLaughlin and Jack Bruce.  A wonderful window into the creative process that became Escalator Over The Hill:

An example of Bley’s ensemble-based compositions and ingenuity is evident in her 1977 release of the album, Dinner Music.  Bley makes use of tuba and organ to provide a rhythmic background for brassy ensemble shouts.  In this song, Song Sung Long, you can feel the essence of Bley’s compositional vision:

Dinner Music began a succession of albums that included European Tour 1977, Musique Mecanique, Social Studies, Carla Bley Live!, I Hate To Sing, and Heavy Heart.  The albums, produced throughout the 1980’s, cemented Bley as one of the most dynamic orchestral composers in jazz history.  A particularly exemplary song shows the driving personality of Carla Bley.  Reactionary Tango from the Social Studies album is written in three parts and displays the collaborative artistry mastered with Steve Swallow.  Here is a live video from a concert in Poland in 1981:

Defining Carla Bley’s musical journey is not one specific style or genre.  Throughout her compositions and recordings, you will find classical, rock, theatrical, jazz, world, gospel, and other musical styles.  Consistent throughout her musical journey has been the use of jazz musicians for her orchestras, ensembles, and trios.  Not being one to shy away from being forthright, here is how Bley once described her use of jazz musicians:

“I’m just a composer, and I use jazz musicians because they are better. They play better, they are smarter and they can save your ass in a bad situation. If their music falls off the stands, they can make it up. A classical musician, a folk musician, or a rock & roll musician is pretty limited in what they can do to help out the leader. I need all the help I can get.”

You get the sense from Carla Bley herself that she relishes being hard to define or label.  In an interview with author Amy Beal from 2016, Bley stated:

“I’ve turned out to be a person who does not qualify for anything but either people finding me interesting or shocking or different or . . . I don’t care that I can’t do it like other people. I’m glad I can’t.”

For many Bley admirers, they are supremely happy she can’t. 

Carla Bley appears on Sunday, March 17th at the Albright-Knox Art of Jazz Series at 3 pm.  Her longtime collaborator, Steve Swallow will be on bass and another co-traveler on Bley’s musical journey, Andy Sheppard on saxophone.  Here is clip that is characteristic of their trio performances:

At the age of 82, the musical journey for Carla Bley continues.  Blazing a trail along the way filled with magical twists and turns in music for us all to joyously experience.

(For more information and tickets to the Carla Bley Trio performances at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, visit the AKG Art of Jazz site here: Carla Bley Trios. Do so soon for only a handful of tickets remain.)

2 thoughts on “The Musical Journey Of Carla Bley

  1. I love that quote: “I’m just a composer, and I use jazz musicians because they are better. They play better, they are smarter and they can save your ass in a bad situation. If their music falls off the stands, they can make it up. A classical musician, a folk musician, or a rock & roll musician is pretty limited in what they can do to help out the leader. I need all the help I can get.”
    One observation from that rehearsal film of “Escalator:” Interesting to see a younger John McLaughlin struggle mightily in unfamiliar territory. Just goes to show, even a virtuoso has his limits!

    1. Thanks Joe for commenting. It is a great and insightful quote for sure. Very cool film piece it is. We can often tend to forget that revered musicians were once young themselves!

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