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Carla Bley: Reflections on Monk, Birdland and a Chinese Toy That Launched Her Remarkable Career

The news of composer-pianist Carla Bley's recent passing at age 87 after a long illness hit hard. A true original, her singular music had been a part of my life ever since I moved to New York in late 1980. Carla's album Social Studies came out a few months after I had arrived in town and shortly after I paid a visit to the Soho office of her fiercely independent New Music Distribution Service, where NMDS promotions director Yale Evelev laid several vinyl copies from the Watt archives on me, including Bley's monumental work, Escalator Over the Hill. Was there ever such a wildly ambitious project as that 1971 recording? Billed as a "chronotransduction" with words by Paul Haines, music by Carla Bley, production and coordination by Michael Mantler and performed by the Jazz Composer's Orchestra, this triple LP box also contained a booklet with lyrics, photos and profiles of the musicians. And what a remarkably diverse cast it was! Jack Bruce, John McLaughlin, Paul Motian, Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, Roswell Rudd, Sheila Jordan, Linda Rondstadt, Howard Johnson, Don Preston, Gato Barbieri, Jimmy Knepper, Jeanne Lee, Jimmy Lyons, Karl Berger, Leroy Jenkins and Andy Warhold superstar Viva are just some of the names appearing on this magnificently subversive jazz opera. Side six of the original LPs ended in a locked groove, the final track, "...And It's Again," continuing infinitely on manual record players. Suffice it to say, Escalator Over the Hill opened up a new world for me.

In subsequent years, the ever-inventive, always prolific composer churned out audacious recording after audacious recording, each with a similarly eclectic cast of characters. There was 1982's Live! with alto saxophonist Steve Slagle, tenor saxophonist Tony Dagradi, trombonist Gary Valente, French hornist Vincent Chauncey, tuba ace Earl McIntyre, keyboardist Arturo O'Farrill, bassist Steve Swallow and drummer D. Sharpe. Rounding out the crew was Bley's then-husband and WATTRecords partner, Austrian-born trumpeter Michael Mantler, father of their Carla's daughter and frequent collaborator Karen Mantler. That same crew returned for two albums in 1984 -- the wryly-titled and humorous I Hate to Sing and Heavy Heart, which included guitarist Hiram Bullock, pianist Kenny Kirkland and Weather Report percussionist Manolo Badrena in the lineup. For 1985's romantic Night-Glo, bassist Swallow not only carried co-billing but its cover depicted Bley on one knee on a sandy beach beside a self-satisfied Swallow sitting in a beach chair to light his cigar. A portent of things to come?

Bley's potent 1987 release, Sextet, included three of her memorable compositions in "The Girl Who Cried Champagne," "Healing Power" and the oft-covered "Lawns," recorded by guitarist John Scofield on 2011's A Moment's Peace, vocalist Kurt Elling on 2018's The Questions and 2021's SuperBlue, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington on 2022's New Standards, Vol 1 (with vocals by Samara Joy) and 2022's Healing Power -- The Music of Carla Bley by the trio of guitarist Steve Cardenas, bassist Ben Allison and saxophonist Ted Nash. Then 1988 saw the release of Duets, the first of several collaborations between Carla and now-life partner Swallow. (They would follow with 1994's Go Together and 1999's Are We There Yet?)

On the other side of the dynamic coin were five big band recordings through the 1990s and 2002s -- 1991's The Very Big Carla Bley Band, 1993's Big Band Theory, 2003's Looking for America and 2008's Appearing Nightly. She was also a longstanding member of Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra, appearing on the eponymously-titled 1970 Impulse! album, 1982's The Ballad of the Fallen, 1990's Dream Keeper, 2005's Not in Our Name and 2016's Time Life. And her quirky take on traditional holiday songs, Carla's Christmas Carols, remains an annual staple in my home. Carla's last recording was, ironically, 2020's Life Goes One, featuring her longtime trio of bassist Swallow and saxophonist Andy Sheppard (who also recorded 1995's Songs with Legs, 2013's Trios and 2016's Andando el Tiempo together).

The following is an interview I did with Carla for Jazziz magazine in 2016. As I wrote to my editor, David Pulizzi, in an email dated March 30, 2016: "Had a wonderful chat yesterday at Carla's home in Willow, near Woodstock. Took the bus from Port Authority up there (about a 3-hour ride). Her daughter Karen Mantler picked me up at the bus stop. Carla had recently fallen off a ladder and fractured her left wrist, which is a drag since she has a big orchestral performance/recording coming up in May for next year's ECM recording. And there's something wrong with her legs. She can barely walk anymore. But our conversation was animated, insightful and full of humor. I'll get something to you by the end of next week." To which, the ever-exacting editor replied: "Beautiful, Billy. I’m glad you had a good visit. And a piece by the end of next week will be fine. Please do not exceed 3,300 words. No 9,000 words, no laundry list intro. Got it?" I spent the next few days trimming my 8,000 word piece down to the assigned length. Here is that story:

You have to go into the woods to find Carla Bley at home. Tucked away in the rustic solitude of Willow, a countryside hamlet just outside of Woodstock where fellow musicians Jack DeJohnette and Dave Holland also reside, the mammoth wooden structure where she has lived and recorded since 1974 sits protected by a welded metal sculpture of a Godzilla-like creature standing just outside the front door. Inside it’s warm and cozy on this crisp Spring day in March in upstate New York. Carla’s daughter Karen Mantler, a keyboardist-composer-singer, chromatic harmonica ace and recording artist in her own right (her intimate and revealing Business Is Bad on her mother’s XtraWatt label made several critics year-end lists for 2014) is in the kitchen making coffee and preparing lunch as Carla sits on the living room couch, her feet propped on the coffee table to alleviate the mysterious pain in her legs that has plagued her lately.

On this day she is also nursing a fractured left wrist suffered from a fall she took in February while on a winter retreat with her life partner Steve Swallow on a small island in the British Virgin Islands. “It’s nothing to do with aging,” insists the prolific composer-pianist-arranger and NEA Jazz Master whose expansive body of work is as singular and idiosyncratic as Monk’s or Jelly Roll Morton’s, as irreverent as Mingus’ or Charles Ives’. “I didn’t get dizzy, I didn’t misstep. I fell off a ladder because I was picking berries off a tree, and I was greedy.

There was a berry that was not within reach that I wanted, and I reached for it. It was pure greed. And I fell on the road, which was a concrete road, unfortunately. I could’ve killed myself if I fell on my head but my body went over to the left to save life and my wrist when out to save my head, and my wrist suffered. So this is not related to getting old, I swear! This is related to not being smart about fruit!”

She expects to be wearing a cast on that left wrist for an upcoming performance

at Steinway Hall in Manhattan to commemorate her 80th birthday and is already devising a plan to tailor her suit to fit around the bulky obstruction. ”The operation is April 11 and I’ve got that concert on May 11, so this hand is going to be in a cast. My suit won’t fit over a cast so I’ll just tailor one of my suits to be bigger. So I’ll get through that concert and then I’ll lay down and watch tv and just recuperate.”

The Oakland native (born Lovella May Borg on May 11, 1936) turned 80 around the time of the release of her new trio recording on ECM, Andando El Tiempo. A profoundly moving meditation on the stages of recovery from addiction, it featuresbassist and longtime partner Steve Swallow and British saxophonist Andy Sheppard. We talked about her new trio release and a new Liberation Orchestra recording due out in June. We also addressed her love of irreverence, her penchant for dissonance and the impact of a certain broken Chinese toy.

I recently saw you in Jazz Loft, Sara Fishko’s documentary about the celebrated Life magazine photographer W. Eugene Smith and his place on Sixth Avenue between 28th & 29th during the late ‘50s, where a lot of people congregated and jammed ‘til the wee hours.

Wow, man, I used to go there every night, right after I’d get off from Birdland, where I worked as a cigarette girl. But I never played at those loft sessions, I was just a listener. And I thought that was good enough, you know? And I went for years without wanting or assuming that I would eventually become one of the people I listened to. Can you believe I did become one of the people? I mean, I can’t believe it, now that I think of it, that a listener could graduate like that. But maybe listening is the top and then the rest is what you get on the way to becoming a listener.

It seems like you may have taken that cigarette girl job just to listen.

I certainly didn’t sell any cigarettes. People would come up and say, “Can I have a pack of Luckys?” And I would say, “Yeah, at the intermission.” I would stand right up in the front and I couldn’t believe it how great it was. I saw everybody there except Charlie Parker. He had just died. When I came to New York, Bird was alive and he was playing in a club somewhere in midtown. I stood outside of that club and heard him play from the street, and that’s the closest I ever got to him. I couldn’t get in, the place was too packed. And then he was gone. So I never even saw him play, but I saw everybody else either at Birdland, Basin Street, the Five Spot or the Jazz Gallery, where I also worked for a while. I never paid to go to a club, even after I wasn’t working in the clubs. And I was going all the time, just to hear the music. I still wasn’t playing yet, just listening.

What piano players were you impressed by during your early club-hopping days?

Thelonious Monk, of course. But I was impressed by everyone because I didn’t know enough to have favorites yet. I absorbed everything. I even liked Bud Powell, which was the exact opposite of Monk. Bud was very, very fluid....fluent and fluid. Monk was more boxy and dissonant, and I loved that. I really did love him. I thought he should run for president of the United States. Maybe it’s not too late! Good lord! We need somebody, quickly.

During this period of listening to all of these great people, were you also composing?

Yes, and people were starting to play my tunes. Paul Bley in the beginning, then Steve Swallow. Every time Steve would work with a band he would give them tunes of mine because everybody was looking for tunes then. They were too busy learning to play and busy having gigs and things to spend time writing. And so if somebody would need a blues or a waltz, they’d come over to the house and ask me, like I was a store or something. “Have you got a samba?” I’d say, “Sure, I’ve got a samba. How’s this?” And I’d play it on the piano, and it would go on like that until they’d end up leaving the house with several tunes. It was strictly a word of mouth thing. So Steve got my name around, got my tunes played and then I eventually started playing out myself. At first I was working with Steve Lacy and Roswell Rudd, and they were just playing Monk tunes, so I learned to play the piano parts to all the Monk tunes. My first real gig in New York was at a place called Phase II, which was a coffee shop on Bleecker Street in the Village.

There is a wry sense of humor that has permeated a lot of your music over time.

Well, don’t you find that everyone in our world, in the jazz world, is very funny and really likes to hear whatever the latest joke is and is so relaxed and laughing about problems and, you know, making jokes personally on stage even? And then they come out and play all this really deadly serious music. So I just don’t hide that other part. I’m pretty deadly serious myself, but I also like to relax and find that it’s really good to laugh.

Your 1981 album, I Hate to Sing, is a good example of that.

Yeah, maybe I went a little far on that one.

You’ve embraced dissonance throughout your career and certainly you do on your new trio record, Andando El Tiempo. Is that coming from some place in your own background?

All my harmonic language came from a broken toy I bought in Chinatown in San Francisco when I was maybe eight years ago. And I keep trying to reproduce the sound of that broken note it produced, the note that doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. That’s totally it! And I remember what it looked like. It was an oblong thing and it looked like one of those ice creams that you push up from the bottom with a stick as you eat it. And you would shake it...or maybe even turn a switch....and it would make this sound. But it was broken and the sound was kind of dissonant. It was very small and had very many colors and had all Chinese writing on it. And I loved it so much! That just subverted me for life.

So that little Chinese toy was your Rosebud, in a sense.

Oh my god! Oh my god! That’s right! It is! I remember....right! Yeah, OK. I don’t think I ever told anyone that before.

And dissonance has remained an essential part of your vocabulary as a player and composer ever since.

Well, I think I have a certain thing. I wrote a piece the day I heard Charlie Haden had died. The only thing I could think to do was go to the piano and pay my respects to him, because he and I had a similar ear for a long time. And so I started writing a piece, beginning with his favorite chord, which was a suspension that I used a lot in arrangements for him. And I said, “Well, this is what I’m going to get from all this sadness is this chord.” And then it went on, and the next note came and then the next chord came and it just went on like that. It was one of those inspirational moments where it just pours out of you, which is so unusual for a writer, because the process of composing, for me, is mostly just 9 to 5 work...well, different hours than 9 to 5 but steady working every day, and working maybe four days on one note that’s not quite right. But in this case with this tune for Charlie, it poured out of me. And within two or three days I had the whole eight bar theme that I built the tune around, and it had one note in it that was so ‘out’ that it was wrong. And it happened to be a bass note. Steve Swallow, when he first played it, said, “It must be a mistake. You left out a flat or something on that note.” And I said, “Steve, that’s the note I want. I know it’s the wrong note, but that’s the note I want.” And he said, “Whew, OK.” And it occurs all the way through the piece. Joe Daley (Liberation Orchestra tuba player) asked me to send him the music in advance because he always has been interested in understanding the piece he’s playing before we record. So I sent him this music and I said, “Watch out for that note! This note has gotta be there and YOU gotta play it. And often you have to play it alone without Steve Swallow and that note has to be a spot-on note!” And he did it for me. He got there and he played that note so great, I will never forget the honor he paid me by making a mistake for me. Now maybe people will go through the rest of history saying, “Boy, that guy Daley could play, except he really fucked up that one place.”

What’s the name of that piece?

It’s called “Time Life,” which is also the name of the new Liberation Orchestra album coming out in the summer.

Charlie actually plays on two tracks on this album. One of them is by Bill Evans, “Blue and Green,” and the other one was Charlie’s “Song for the Whales.” They’re from the last Liberation Orchestra concert in Europe. We lifted his bass parts from the 24 track masters and remixed it with a new studio recording. So essentially, Charlie Haden is playing six months after he died. He’s on those two tracks, and the rest is all Steve Swallow playing bass. Charlie was really sick and he really wanted to do this album before he died. He didn’t have that much hope. But we couldn’t get anyone to do it. Finances are such a big issue. So we couldn’t get it done until after he was dead. But he’s still on the album...those two tunes. And he never sounded better. The guy could hardly walk and he’d pick up the bass and play better than ever. Or just like he always played, which was always better than anyone else...except Steve Swallow, of course. The bass was his life. He just had to play it. That was him. All the time the last couple of months he just listened to his own recordings. That’s what made him feel more alive.

And you knew Charlie going back to the Hillcrest Club in Los Angeles, where he was playing with Paul Bley and Ornette Coleman more than 50 years ago. You were all kids then.

We were. And we did good with our lives. We wrote and played a lot of good music. We were very lucky.

You wrote in the liner notes of your new recording that the powerful three-part title suite “Andando el Tiempo” was written as you watched a friend go through the stages of recovery from addiction.

Yes, but I’m of a belief that you can’t change anyone but yourself with music. I don’t think this album was instrumental in helping this person that I knew recover, I think it only helped me get through the time when the problem was not solved. And it could be that someone else listening to it could feel the same way, because this is not an unusual situation. A lot of really wonderful people are in the throes of some kind of substance to get through life, and I don’t think hearing the right music is going to help them. It’s going to help other people who listen to it, maybe. I don’t know. But I didn’t do it to help anyone. I just did it for myself. Music can get you through a lot...emotional problems, physical problems. I’ve seen music help people get through marital breakups, the death of a loved one. One thing I’m not sure about, and everyone believes but me, is that music can help the world be more peaceful or music can solve environmental damage or music can talk the Republicans into seeing the light of day. And that I don’t believe, because I’ve never seen it.

The three-part suite opens with “Sin Fin,” which you describe as “the realization that the endless cycle of medication required to stay free from anxiety and pain is becoming insufferable.” It’s dark and full of melancholy, and builds to a dramatic peak, and it features some very tender duets between you and Steve Swallow where the two of you actually become dance partners, in a sense.

We feel that way. I like to play for know, back him up. I’m his bass player, on the piano.

The second movement, “Potacion de Guaya,” about “the ongoing sorrow felt by everyone affected,” is also tinged with melancholy.

It’s an old Spanish phrase that means ‘drink of grief.” And I thought, “Boy, is that an appropriate title for this song,”

Midway through that piece Andy Sheppard switches from tenor to soprano sam and enters with such a dramatic, keening quality

Thank you. I love entrances.

The third piece of the suite, “Camino del Volver,” is about “the work of returning to a healthy and sustainable life.” I hear that workman-like ascending scale repeated over and over again throughout the piece, and the image I get is “The Myth of Sisyphus.” You know, you roll the ball up the hill and it rolls back down and you gotta roll it back up the next day.

That’s really so true of recovery, don’t you think? You get the ball up there and it drops down. And you start over from point zero again every day. Yeah, that’s exactly what it was.

The delicate but kind of mournful waltz “Saints Alive!” is a brilliant showcase for Steve Swallow, who plays in this incredibly vocal-sounding manner through the first five minutes of the piece before Andy enters on tenor sax.

It’s 6/4 so it’s sort of like a double waltz. But yeah, Steve’s biggest influence, I think, aside from Paul Chambers and Percy Heath, who are his favorite bass players, is Marvin Gaye. Yup, he wants to just sing like Marvin Gaye on his instrument.

The final piece, “Naked Bridges/Diving Brides,” was a commissioned work for the London Jazz Festival. In your notes you explain that you presented it to Andy Sheppard as a wedding gift.

Yup. We sent him out of the room when we rehearsed the middle section....that’s where we do the take off on the old “Wedding March” by Mendelssohn. It’s the thing they play after the couple gets married and walks back up the aisle to the front of the church. Anyway, I sent him out of the room when it came time to rehearse that middle section. I told him, “This is the new piece but you cannot rehearse this part, and you cannot hear it either. You have to leave the room.” And so he gladly went to the cafe and had a cup of coffee and then when we were finished rehearsing we called him back. So when we performed this piece for the first time at the London jazz Festival, as a trio, he had never heard that middle section. He had only heard the parts that he played on. And it really worked on him, it really surprised him. He couldn’t believe it, he was very moved by it. And his wife was there in the audience and got to hear it. Could anybody come up with a better wedding present than I did for that? Wasn’t that great? Jesus! And I got paid for the wedding present! I should’ve given him the commission, right?

Mingus included that same snippet of Mendelssohn at the very end to his “Three Or Four Shades of Blues.”

You know why? Because that tune has great changes. So Mendelssohn was a Tin Pan Alley man. You know, in a different century, we all would’ve been something else, wouldn’t we? And Mendelssohn would’ve just fit in great on Tin Pan Alley. We would’ve been playing all of his tunes. I love when things are like that, just absolutely ‘out’ and wonderful coincidences and the strange and funny use of things that shouldn’t be funny and things that are...what’s that word? (She calls to her daughter in the other room). Karen, I need a word! What’s the word when you play something but it’s tongue-in-cheek actually because you’re being disrespectful of it?

Karen: Irreverent!

That’s it! Thanks for the word. That’s what I like in music, as well as in life and in people. I like irreverence a lot.

Wasn’t your tongue firmly in cheek on 1997’s Fancy Chamber Music? Was that irreverent?

Oh yeah, definitely. Totally irreverent. And you know I have never gotten a person from that world to speak to me after that record. They all were just horrified by my attitude. Because I sort of made fun of some of that stuff.

And then you had dark, dissonant arrangement of “America the Beautiful” on that 2004 Liberation Orchestra album Not In Our Name.

Oh yeah, but that was OK to be irreverent about the United States government during the Bush years. That was not only OK, it was necessary. But you have to be careful if you’re irreverent about something that would hurt people’s feelings.

What about the brass quintet record you did in 2009, Carla’s Christmas Carols., where you reharmonized all those sentimental holiday themes? Was that irreverent?

Yeah, it was irreverent but I didn’t think of it that way. I really liked Christmas carols when I was a kid. And I was offered a commission to do anything I wanted to do at the Essen Philharmonie in Germany so I chose to write Christmas carols for brass quintet. So that wasn’t me being irreverent so much as being reverent from my childhood. I thought those tunes were beautiful. I’m not a religious person so I didn’t do it for the glory of god or anything. I just thought they were beautiful.

What else does your 80th year hold for you?

I’m doing something special in June. This is the largest work of my entire life, bigger than Escalator Over The Hill. It’s an oratorio for big band plus boys choir called The French Lesson. I wrote the bulk of it in 2012 and performed it once at the Moers Festival in Germany with a boys choir from an academy of music near Dusseldorf. The choir was about 40-50 boys and in front of them was the Bohulsan Big Band from Sweden. That was my Swedish roots coming out, I wanted to work with Swedes. And they were so affected by playing with boys choir behind them that they were either laughing or in tears the whole concert. And I think when this recording comes out on ECM next year, every big band is going to need a boys choir because it makes it so much more fun and more beautiful. So we’re going into the studio for a week in with the NDR radio big band and with Manfred holding court, and we’re going to get a delicious album out of it. So I got my wish after four years. It’ll be everything I dreamed of.

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