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Carla Bley

Amy C. Beal

Publication Year: 2011

This is the first comprehensive treatment of the remarkable music and influence of Carla Bley, a highly innovative American jazz composer, pianist, organist, band leader, and activist. With fastidious attention to Bley's diverse compositions over the last fifty years spanning critical moments in jazz and experimental music history, Amy C. Beal tenders a long-overdue representation of a major figure in American music._x000B__x000B_Bley is best known for her jazz opera "Escalator over the Hill," her role in the Free Jazz movement of the 1960s, and her collaborations with artists such as Jack Bruce, Don Cherry, Robert Wyatt, and Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason. She has successfully maneuvered the field of jazz creating works that range from the highly accessible and tradition-based to commercially unviable and avant-garde. Beal details the staggering variety in Bley's work as well as her use of parody, quotations, and contradictions, examining the vocabulary Bley has developed throughout her career and highlighting the compositional and cultural significance of her experimentalism._x000B__x000B_Beal also points to Bley's professional and managerial work as a pioneer in the development of artist-owned record labels, the cofounder and manager of WATT Records, and the cofounder of New Music Distribution Service. Showing her to be not just an artist but an activist who has maintained musical independence and professional control amid the profit-driven, corporation-dominated world of commercial jazz, Beal's straightforward discussion of Bley's life and career will stimulate deeper examinations of her work.

Published by: University of Illinois Press

Series: American Composers

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

I wish to sincerely thank Carla Bley and Steve Swallow for their warm and generous support of this project, for taking so much time to talk with me at their beautiful home, and for providing me with much appreciated materials. I am also indebted to the following people for talking with me about their work with Bley: Gary Burton, Charlie Haden, ...

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Introduction: "Like a Mockingbird"

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pp. 1-4

In Rafi Zabor’s jazz-historical novel The Bear Comes Home, a saxophone-playing talking bear moves to Shady, in the New York Catskills. The sudden presence of Carla Bley in this otherwise mostly fictional novel, and the explicit references to certain facts about her life history and persona—a job as a “cigarette girl” at Birdland; ...

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1. Walking Woman: Oakland, New York, Los Angeles, New York

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pp. 5-14

Like many successful autodidacts, Carla Bley frequently talks about the virtues of ignorance, the creative instincts that come from finding out things for oneself, both from necessity and by accident. Born Lovella May Borg in Oakland, California, on May 11, 1936, to Christian fundamentalist parents of Swedish descent, ...

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2. Sing Me Softly of the Blues: Early Short Pieces and Songs without Words

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pp. 15-26

From an early age Bley has placed considerable importance on the idea of written music—that is, notation on paper. Having learned to read music during her father’s piano lessons while she was quite young, Bley was intrigued by the existence of notated music and became curious about the people who would create such a mysterious thing. ...

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3. Social Studies: The Jazz Composers Guild and the Jazz Composers Orchestra

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pp. 27-33

By 1964 the Bleys’ circle of friends included not only Steve Swallow and the members of the Ornette Coleman quartet but also the bassist Gary Peacock and his wife, Annette (who would later become Paul Bley’s second wife). The poet and jazz enthusiast Paul Haines, whom Carla Bley possibly met as a fellow audience member at Mingus concerts ...

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4. "Mad at Jazz": A Genuine Tong Funeral

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pp. 34-40

Bley took part in a second European tour in 1967, playing what she called “high energy hateful screaming music” with the West German free improvisers Peter Brötzmann and Peter Kowald. At the time, partly because of the aggressiveness of this music, she felt “mad at jazz.”1 ...

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5. Escalator over the Hill: Jazz Opera as Fusion

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pp. 41-50

Bley had been working on a piece she called Detective Writer Daughter when the poet Paul Haines (1932–2003) sent her a set of original surrealist poems that seemed to fit with her music.1 This poetry would serve as the foundation for her most ambitious work to date: Escalator over the Hill. ...

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6. Copyright Royalties: New Music Distribution Service

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pp. 51-56

Around 1970 the interrelated ensemble casts of the Jazz Composers Orchestra, the Liberation Music Orchestra, and Escalator over the Hill constituted a growing network of independent and innovative composer-performers. On the release of Escalator over the Hill in March 1972, Bley and Mantler started a new division of the Jazz Composers Orchestra Association, ...

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7. Big Band Theory: The Carla Bley Band and Other Projects

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pp. 57-64

In 1974 Bley and Mantler moved to the isolated rural community of Willow, New York, in the Hudson River valley region of the Catskills, near the legendary town of Woodstock. Bley bought a house there with the profit she had turned by selling her land in Maine. The couple built a private professional- quality sixteen-track recording studio in their basement. ...

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8. The Lone Arranger: History and Hilarity

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pp. 65-74

Humor is not usually considered to be a prime ingredient in jazz composition or performance, but it is a central component in Bley’s music. Through her long career Bley has used satire, parody, irony, slapstick, and pure silliness, often to draw attention to the traditional treatment of certain musical and social conventions. ...

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9. End of Vienna: Fancy Chamber Music

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pp. 75-82

In 1974, when Bley wrote 3/4, the piano concerto commissioned by the New York group the Ensemble, she delved into composing for classically trained musicians for the first time. The title of the piece refers to the triple meter typical of a waltz. Scored for chamber orchestra (including two percussionists, melodic and nonmelodic, and an orchestral pianist in addition to the piano soloist), ...

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10. Dreams So Real: "Jazz Is Really Where My Heart Now Lies"

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pp. 83-90

The twelfth anniversary of the New Music Distribution Service was celebrated with a benefit concert series of four separate shows on August 26, 1984. The series was sponsored by Joseph Papp’s New Jazz at the Public Theater. Reflecting the makeup of their catalog itself, the benefit’s cast of eclectic downtown characters included not only Bley ...


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pp. 91-98

Suggested Listening

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pp. 99-100


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pp. 101-104


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pp. 105-113

About the Author, Publication Information

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E-ISBN-13: 9780252093395
Print-ISBN-13: 9780252036361

Page Count: 128
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: American Composers

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Subject Headings

  • Bley, Carla.
  • Composers -- United States -- Biography.
  • Jazz musicians -- United States -- Biography.
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