Carla Bley, a renowned American pianist and composer in the jazz world, has passed away at the age of 87. She was known for her innovative and experimental style, as well as her ability to produce uplifting and captivating pieces within the mainstream genre.
Her death was announced by longtime partner and musical collaborator Steve Swallow, who said the cause was complications from brain cancer.
Bley’s playful and clever style in her art allowed her to create music in a variety of jazz styles. She recorded everything from beautiful piano pieces (like Lawns, which became popular on streaming services) to bold and politically charged big band works. She also received praise for her 1973 triple-LP jazz-rock opera, Escalator Over the Hill, which featured guest appearances by well-known musicians such as Linda Ronstadt, Jack Bruce (from Cream), and Paul Jones (from Manfred Mann).
Lovella May Borg was born in Oakland, California in 1936. She began learning piano at the young age of three, but left school when she was 14. She found work as a pianist at various jazz clubs in the Bay Area. At 17, Bley relocated to New York and worked as a cigarette girl at the famous Birdland jazz club. She later recalled her job, stating, “I was the one who would take photos of couples at their tables, usually capturing their secret rendezvous. I didn’t make many sales because I was too busy listening to the music.” Some notable artists she heard while working at Birdland included Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Count Basie.
In 1957, she married pianist Paul Bley and they relocated to California together. Bley composed music for her and her LA group, which also consisted of Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry, to improvise with.
Carla was heavily involved in New York’s free jazz scene upon returning with the Bleys. She expressed her desire to challenge and alter the existing system in the music world, stating, “I aimed to oppose any wrongs present in the world of jazz.”
She played a crucial role in the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra and its affiliated Guild, an organization that advocated for better working conditions for musicians. Another politically active group was the Liberation Music Orchestra, led by bassist Charlie Haden and influenced by Spanish civil war songs and Che Guevara. Bley served as the arranger and conductor for the group, earning praise from Lester Bangs of Rolling Stone magazine for her impressive control of dynamics on their 1970 self-titled album.
After being influenced by the Beatles, Bley delved into blending pop and rock into her music. Over a span of five years and with approximately 50 people involved, she recorded “Escalator Over the Hill” and also composed music for Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason’s first album. Bley, who amicably divorced and kept her former husband’s last name, also worked with her second husband, trumpeter Michael Mantler, in the 1970s. The couple had a daughter named Karen.
She maintained her involvement with Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, taking over leadership after his passing in 2014, and also collaborated with her own big band bearing her name. Throughout the late 1970s, she steadily released solo albums under German label ECM, including a trilogy with bassist Swallow and saxophonist Andy Sheppard, most recently Life Goes On in 2020.
In 2018, she was informed that she had brain cancer. She shared, “There are times when I cannot provide an answer to a question, and I wonder if they removed something by accident during the operation, as I no longer possess perfect pitch.”