Carla Bley was born in Oakland, California in 1936. Her father Emil Borg, a piano teacher and church organist, began giving her music lessons when she was three years old and she was soon playing at church functions. But her musical education ended at the age of eight. Her formal education stopped entirely when she dropped out of high school after completing the tenth grade.
During her adolescence Carla was drawn to jazz and moved to New York City to be closer to the musicians she admired. She resumed her musical education by working as a cigarette girl at the notorious Birdland jazz club, where she was able to hear the greatest jazz musicians of the day. She met pianist Paul Bley and eventually relocated to Los Angeles, where Paul and his quartet had a steady gig at the Hillcrest Club. She began to write music. When saxophonist Ornette Coleman came on the scene in the mid-fifties, Paul Bley immediately hired him and Carla was exposed nightly to ‘free’ playing, a powerful influence that was to affect her writing for many years.
In the early sixties Paul and Carla returned to New York. Soon George Russell, Jimmy Giuffre, Tony Williams and others began to play and record her compositions. During this period she also worked in the cloakrooms of Basin Street and the Jazz Gallery in order to hear as much music as possible. She was a member of The Jazz Composer’s Guild and met composer Michael Mantler at the meetings. They formed a group called The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, and soon became personally involved; she left Paul Bley and moved in with Michael Mantler. In 1966 they had a daughter, Karen, who was to be Carla’s only offspring.
At the end of the sixties Gary Burton recorded Carla’s first extended work, A Genuine Tong Funeral. Shortly after, Charlie Haden asked her to arrange and write for The Liberation Music Orchestra. Her next major work, with words by Paul Haines, Escalator Over The Hill, was recorded on the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra Association’s label, JCOA. It received the French award Oscar du Disque de Jazz. Soon she and Michael Mantler founded The New Music Distribution Service, which distributed independent recordings.
In 1972 Carla received a Guggenheim Fellowship. She and Mantler started their own record company, WATT. Its first release was Carla’s Tropic Appetites, another project with poet Paul Haines. In 1974 The Ensemble, a group of New York players, commissioned a piece for chamber orchestra. Titled ¾, it was conducted by Dennis Russell Davies and featured pianist Keith Jarrett. It was later performed by Speculum Musicae featuring Ursula Oppens, and recorded for the WATT label with Carla as the soloist. In1975 she was in a band with Jack Bruce and Mick Taylor, and lived in London for six months. After the band prematurely broke up she returned home and decided to start her own band. Over the next six years the Carla Bley Band, which consisted of six horns and a rhythm section, toured Europe and Japan, and made five albums on the WATT label. The band also recorded a movie soundtrack for the Claude Miller film Mortelle Randonee and played Carla’s arrangement of Nino Rota’s music for 8 ½ on Hal Willner’s Fellini tribute album. During this period she also did recording projects for other labels with Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason, Stuff, and Charlie Haden.
Carla’s next regular group was an enlarged rhythm section without horns, but she still made recordings with larger groups. Heavy Heart, then Night-Glo, the album she wrote for her bass player (and soon to be partner) Steve Swallow, were her next projects for the WATT
label. The music on these two albums was not well received by the jazz establishment or her public but she managed to be voted Best Composer by Downbeat magazine before her fall from favor. She also received the Deutscher Schallplattenpreis. Two more arrangements for Hal Willner tribute albums, of Theolonius Monk’s Misterioso featuring Johnny Griffin and Kurt Weill’s Lost in the Stars featuring Phil Woods, were also recorded during this time. Misterioso was nominated for a Grammy for Best Jazz Instrumental, Big Band.
The Carla Bley Sextet, with Hiram Bullock, Larry Willis, Steve Swallow, Victor Lewis and Don Alias, toured in 1986 and recorded an album for WATT. An extension label called XtraWATT was started to record the music of friends and family. It produced an album by Steve Weisberg, released a live recording of a Sicilian Big Band playing orchestrations of Carla’s music by Jeff Friedman and a series of albums by Carla’s daughter, Karen Mantler. Soon it became the label for all of Steve Swallow’s projects.
She received a commission from The Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society and wrote a piece featuring Fred Sherry, Paula Robison and Ani Kavafian called Coppertone. Soon after, she wrote Romantic Notions, a set of short piano pieces, for Ursula Oppens.
Playing duets with Steve Swallow, which started as recreation, soon turned professional and Steve and Carla toured and recorded as a duo regularly for five years. Their first album was called Duets. They were guests on the short-lived NBC TV Night Music series, produced by Hal Willner and hosted by David Sanborn. During that time she also worked with a 15-piece band and recorded the album Fleur Carnivore, then started writing for the standard Big Band instrumentation. Another album, Dreamkeeper, arranged for Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, won the Downbeat Record of the Year award. She also was named Best Composer by Jazz Times magazine and Jazz Musician of the Year by Hi Fi Vision.
In the fall of 1990 she was a visiting professor at The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, VA. During the semester she took off time to tour Europe and record The Very Big Carla Bley Band. The album received the Prix Jazz Moderne from the French Academy du Jazz.
She and Michael Mantler separated in early 1991. Soon after, Carla and Steve Swallow began living together. A second Duets album, Go Together, was recorded during the summer of 1992. A commission from the Glasgow Jazz Festival resulted in a piece for violin and Big Band, called Birds of Paradise. It featured Rumanian violinist Alex Balanescu.
The ‘Very Big Band’ toured Europe in the fall of 1993 and recorded another album, Big Band Theory, which included Birds of Paradise, at a studio in London. The album was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Jazz Big Band category. During the remainder of the year Carla performed only with Steve Swallow, but eventually saxophonist Andy Sheppard was added to the duo. The trio toured Europe and recorded a live album called Songs With Legs.
In 1994 Carla finished Tigers In Training, a piece commissioned by the Hamburg-based chamber group, L’Art Pour L’Art, and wrote a piece for the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band. In 1995 she and Steve played Duets in Brazil, and worked with local Big Bands, first in Sandvika, Norway, then at the Cornish Institute in Seattle. In November, Carla’s Big Band premiered a commissioned piece, Setting Calvin’s Waltz, at the Berlin Jazz Festival. This was followed by another European Duets tour. She got to hear all the music she had recently been writing for classical musicians at the 300th Jazz Workshop at the North German radio station in Hamburg.
A new piece, End of Vienna was premiered there.
In early 1996 Carla, Steve and Andy Sheppard performed a piece in Grenoble, France that had been commissioned by the Grenoble Jazz Festival. Based on cutouts by Henri Matisse, it was called Les Trois Lagons. In July there was another Big Band tour, which culminated in three days of live recording at a famous church in Perugia, Italy during the Umbria Jazz Festival. The album was called The Carla Bley Big Band Goes To Church. Later in the summer, a Big Band made up entirely of musicians from New York played the new pieces at jazz festivals in Detroit and Chicago. She spent the rest of the year writing chamber music.
In 1997 Carla had a week’s residency at the Barbican Center in London. This was followed by a British Arts Council tour of England. In June she went to Cologne, Germany for the first live production of Escalator Over The Hill, then played at the Montreal Jazz Festival with the trio. In August her Big Band played at a festival in Belgium, and Carla and Steve went to Helsinki, Finland to work with a local Big Band. This was followed by a tour and recording of Fancy Chamber Music, Carla’s collected music written for non-improvising musicians.
Carla and Steve were invited to Denmark to take part in a program called Jazzvisits. They lived in Copenhagen for a month and worked with various groups of Danish musicians. Escalator Over The Hill, with a 24-piece band including Paul Haines, was presented at European Jazz Festivals in July. Carla and Steve recorded a Duets album, Are We There Yet?, during a tour in the fall of 1998. Carla spent the rest of the winter preparing music for her new group, called 4X4.
In April of 1999 4X4 made its premiere at a nightclub in Tokyo. In July the group, which consisted of four horns and four rhythm, toured Europe and recorded an album in Oslo. Later in the year, Carla and Steve played Trios with Andy Sheppard in Europe. She spent the winter writing and re-orchestrating chamber music. In March of 2000, Carla and Steve went to Tokyo to play a Fancy Chamber Music concert with members of the New Japan Philharmonic. It was the first performance of a new piece called First Date. They formally retired the Duets format after a concert in Sao Paulo the next month.
Thierry Paul Benizeau, who had previously made a film about Escalator Over The Hill, came to New York and filmed a portrait of Carla that included a Trios concert at a gallery in Woodstock.
He continued filming the following month at a Fancy Chamber Music concert in Verona, Italy.
4X4 toured Europe again in the fall of 2000. During the next few years Carla and Steve worked with various Big Bands (in the USA, Luxembourg, Italy and Portugal) including her own (Europe) and toured with Trios (Europe and Korea). When Carla wasn’t touring she was writing music for her next Big Band album.
In the fall of 2002 Carla recorded Looking For America at a studio in New York. It was nominated for a Grammy in the ‘best large jazz ensemble album” category. The following year she played the music from that album with musicians from New York at the Iridium in Manhattan, then took the band to Minnesota to play a concert in Minneapolis. Carla’s Big Band drummer, Billy Drummond, was added to Trios and the new group was called The Lost Chords. Their first concert was in Austria in August of 2003. That fall they toured Europe, recorded some of the concerts, and released a live album called The Lost Chords.
During the winter Carla wrote and arranged music for Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra. She toured Europe with that group the following summer and recorded the album Not In Our Name in Rome. Later that year they played a night at the Village Vanguard in New York. In November The Lost Chords had another European tour. Carla’s next project was a piece for Big Band commissioned by the Monterey Jazz Festival.
During 2005 The Lost Chords worked in America. Their schedule included appearances at the Newport Jazz Festival and a week at Iridium in New York City followed by a two-week tour of the West Coast. Appearing Nightly At The Black Orchid, the piece Carla had written for the Monterey Jazz Festival, was premiered at that festival in September. When the Lost Chords tour was over Carla played a week at the Blue Note in New York with the Liberation Music Orchestra, then went on a fall tour with that band in Europe.
Michael Kaufmann, director of programming at the Philharmonie in Essen, Germany, invited Carla to be artist in residence for a year. The first program she brought to Essen was Fancy Chamber Music, performed with Steve Swallow and musicians from the area, She spent the winter of 2006 writing music for an upcoming big band tour scheduled for the summer, then returned to Essen twice in April, first to prepare and perform a concert with a student big band, and later to re-create Escalator Over The Hill with a mostly new cast.
In the summer of 2006 the Carla Bley Big Band toured Europe for three weeks and recorded a live album at the New Morning in Paris. In August Carla and Steve went to Sardinia and worked with Orchestra Jazz Della Sardegna, then flew to Hamburg and presented a similar program with the NDR Big Band. Another tour with the Liberation Music Orchestra took place in November. In December Carla completed her residency at the Essen Philharmonie with a program written especially for the event called Carla’s Christmas Carols.
During the winter of 2007 she worked on music for a quintet called The Lost Chords find Paolo Fresu.