Carla Bley - First Lady Of The Avant-Garde

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[The forthcoming June 2016 issue of Keyboard has a brand new interview in honor of the 80th birthday of legendary jazz composer/keyboardist Carla Bley. In the meantime, here is Contemporary Keyboard's first feature on Carla Bley from February 1979. Head photo credit: Heinrich Klaffs.]

BESIDES BEING a pianist, composer, and bandleader, Carla Bley has, out of necessity, taken on some of the functions of a weird ministering angel of the avant-garde. Born May 11th, 1936, her main instruments are keyboard and tenor sax, but she is probably best known for her compositions, which have been played by such people as Keith Jarrett, George Russell, and trumpeter Art Farmer, as well as by her own groups. With her second husband, Michael Mantler, a Vienna-born trumpeter, composer, and expert fundraiser, she formed in 1966 the Jazz Composers Orchestra, a non-profit organization dedicated to presenting their works and those of many others who wanted to write for larger groups. Unable to accept the economic and musical restrictions of the music business establishment, Mantler and Bley have since formed their own record company, Watt, built a recording studio called Grog Kill, and started a publishing company, a record distribution service, and a newspaper, Corrective News Distribution, "reading matter for friendly independent record makers and their spectators, speculators, and incinerators." A recent issue promised, "news from and about idealists, strays, upstarts, innovators, crusaders, visionaries, rejects, bulwarks, perfectionists, seekers, overachievers, unknowns, radicals, optimists, anarchists, dropouts, and geniuses."

Ms. Bley's first major work, A Genuine Tong Funeral, was recorded in 1967 by vibraphonist Gary Burton, with an orchestra that featured guitarist Larry Coryell and saxophonist Gato Barbieri. Escalator Over The Hill, a five-year project completed in 1970, with lyrics by Paul Haines, featured the performing talents of a large and diverse group: bassist Jack Bruce, vocalist Linda Ronstadt, trumpeter Don Cherry, guitarist John McLaughlin, bassist Charlie Haden, and Gato Barbieri, among many others. A 1974 composition, "3/4," for chamber orchestra and solo piano, was premiered at Alice Tully Hall in New York with Keith Jarrett as the soloist. Bley also contributed arrangements and compositions to Charlie Haden's All Star Liberation Music Orchestra.

A child prodigy who played nothing but religious music until the age of 14, Bley has continued her performing career on all of Mike Mantler's Watt recordings, a series of records made by British saxophonist Gary Windo, a stint with the short-lived Jack Bruce Band which featured former Rolling Stone Mick Taylor, and a European tour with the Jazz Realities Quintet.

Lately, she's been touring with her own group, the Carla Bley Band, a 12-piece ensemble that plays everything from a minor-key version of "The Star Spangled Banner" to Bley's striking "Ida Lupino." The group's pianist is Blue Gene Tyranny, a west coast veteran of groups led by lggy Pop and avant-gardist Robert Ashley.

CK caught up with Carla Bley at her New York City headquarters, a comfortable brownstone within spitting distance of Central Park. The facility houses Mantler and Bley—who also live in Woodstock —and the New Music Distribution Service. All of Carla Bley's albums, on both JCOA and Watt, can be obtained by writing the New Music Distribution Service, 6 W. 95th St., New York, NY 10025. Her publishing company, also at that address, Alrac (Carla spelled backwards), sells bound volumes of her work.


CAN YOU GIVE us your life story in a nutshell?
I was born into a religious family in Oakland, California. I spent the first 15 years of my life playing music only for Jesus. Everything was Him: gospel songs, choir meetings, prayer meetings, Sunday morning services, Sunday school, Sunday evening services, and occasional piano solos for the revivals like Billy Graham. There was an organization called Youth For Christ, and I played the piano at those things. I was a bit of a child wonder. I started playing at a very early age, three. You didn't have to be very good to play in Church, and it didn't really prepare me for the outside world. But my father still does this. He's the organist and choirmaster at a Church in the San Francisco Bay area. I took lessons from my father 'til I was about six. After that, I began throwing temperamental fits when I made a mistake and he just disowned me, musically speaking. From three to six, I was very good at studying. But I had this terrible temperament and personality. I remember once, when my mother corrected my fingering, biting her on the arm, a scar she's always had. It's true. I never told anybody that before. So all you young keyboard players out there, sharpen your fangs and bite your teacher. Finally, I became a totally undisciplined person, something that wasn't corrected for years. I gave up the piano and everything. Travelled around the world and didn't get back to music until about the age of 16, when I thought I'd like to spend my life in music, so I quit high school and went to work in a music store without realizing that what working in a music store was actually selling sheet music. It wasn't musical at all. So I decided there must be something more to having a life in music. I eventually came to New York and worked as a cigarette girl and got to hear an awful lot of wonderful people.

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Where did you work?
Birdland, in the late '50s. Basin Street too. I heard the Modern Jazz Quartet, they impressed me very much, they were my favorites at the time. I also got to hear Thelonious Monk, the Jazz Messengers, Horace Silver, Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson, and John Coltrane.

Was this your first real exposure to jazz?
I had gone to the Blackhawk in San Francisco to hear [saxophonist] Gerry Mulligan and [trumpeter] Chet Baker and Dave Brubeck when I was a kid, a high school kid, but I didn't know what I was listening to. I noticed that people were tapping things, like a foot. So I tried it for a while but it really wasn't happening. I gave that up. I also went to a [vibraphonist] Lionel Hampton concert when I was about 13. Once again, I really didn't understand it. All I understood was religious music.

How did you make the transition to jazz?
Strangely enough, there didn't seem to be a musical transition at all. One is called music of the devil and one is called music of God but it seemed to me they were about the same thing. Same harmonies. Same kind of ecstatic feeling when it was good. And sort of a spiritual intent. So I didn't find the transition difficult at all. Early on, I made that association; I thought that this music is just like the music of the church. But of course, there were a few years in between, when I didn't think about music at all.

When you came to New York, were you into playing?
For years and years there were organized jam sessions in New York. Every Saturday and Sunday at a certain place, everybody would come and jam. There were things in lofts, there were things in basements, and one of the earliest scenes I was a part of was at the place where I lived on Horatio Street. Bill Evans was playing there, he had just shown up. And Utta Hipps, that German girl. My first husband was a pianist, Paul Bley. I used to try and play but I was just terrible, really really terrible. Every time I played something interesting, I got lost. If I didn't play anything interesting, I didn't enjoy myself. So I probably would have been a horrible failure at playing anything if the music hadn't loosened up to where creeps like me were let in, underneath the cracks.

When did the music loosen up?
Well, through Ornette [Coleman, saxophonist], Cecil Taylor. All of a sudden, people weren't playing the changes. Ornette in particular would just play the tune and then go out, and come back towards the end. That opened the door for people like me, I suppose, who couldn't really discipline and organize themselves. But I'm quite disciplined now.

Can you play changes?
Of course! I can even write changes. I found out that I had to be disciplined. Now, I can't even play free anymore. I don't like to anyway. There's not enough form to it.

How did being married to a pianist affect your development?
That's compositional. My first husband made me write tunes for him. He'd come in and say, "Well I got a record date tomorrow and I need six hot ones." I'd sit down and write six of them. I just functioned like that. Instead of cooking the dinner, that would be my job. So it was good because that forced me to write. But I gave up playing the piano for years and years. I still hardly ever play. In my own band, I set up a situation where I feel comfortable and then I play. There's a couple of tunes where I play piano. On "Ida Lupino" and "Jesus Maria," I'm the pianist. But it's set up, tailored for me, for my sort of simplistic way of playing. I couldn't fly up and down the keys if there was a fire in the house. I'm the one-finger type.

When did you get involved with JCOA?
Sometime in this century, around '66. It started through [trumpeter] Bill Dixon and Cecil Taylor. They started a thing called the Jazz Composers Guild. When that fell apart about six months later, me and Mike Mantler, who were the guys that had the orchestra within the guild, decided to keep the orchestra going. We dropped the name Guild and called ourselves the Jazz Composers Orchestra. In order to keep that alive, we had to seek funding, and we found out how to beg for money, from foundations and things like that. How to fundraise, give parties, go to parties, etc. But then we felt selfish because we had raised the money for the Orchestra and we didn't want to be the only composers. We stopped writing for ourselves and gave everybody else a chance. We went through about six or seven composers on records and maybe fifty in the workshop series, trying to let everybody who wanted to write for a large orchestra have a chance. We didn't turn anybody down. After about three years, people who fund you expect you to start breaking even or find other means for revenue. I suppose we never did that, so we started being cut off. We have one major activity now, the distribution of non-commercial records. That's what we do now, period. We distribute more than 150 labels, all independently produced by musicians or friends of musicians. I think it's interesting, because we give support to people who would be screened out and refused survival. Music that, if a musician went to a commercial company, the musician would be told, that's impossible, it won't sell. But we do it. So what we're doing is protecting, we're kind of like the Wildlife Preserve, protecting all this possibly extinct music, which is our music, that doesn't fit into categories. Half the stuff we distribute is contemporary classical, half is jazz, and those categories are used lightly. There are all kinds of strange stuff in between that with absolutely no title at all. We have a punk record, a Latin record and, oh God, a whale record. Basically, it fits into the category of new music. We don't listen to it. We just distribute it all without passing judgment. That's our life's work.

Do you find that involvement with the business aspect of music takes away from your creative energies when you write?
I don't put that much time into the business side anymore. But I have. You see, we had to become everything. Distributors, record company owners, engineers, publishers, and now we know all about that. We can do everything ourselves. Not that we think it's good. It's really a crying shame that we have to do it all. But in order to survive, we adapted. But as I said, I don't do too much anymore, because a lot of people that are in cahoots with me feel that I'm better used writing music than licking the envelopes, so now other people are licking the envelopes. But gee, for years and years, I did it myself. I hope that for a certain kind of music that's considered non-commercial, there'll be subsidy in the future. I hope even for bands, like my band, which loses thousands of dollars every time it lifts its leg, I hope there will be subsidy. People like Count Basie and Duke Ellington; they never really made any money. They had to work one-nighters and become decalcified. So if cultural interests in this country are thinking properly, they will subsidize certain bands that don't make enough money commercially. It's very difficult nowadays. Promoters are interested in their pocketbooks; record companies are interested in their pocketbooks, publishers, etc., all the way down the line. These people are not interested in just breaking even or making a small profit. Nowadays, a commercial record company executive about to sign a new group will say, can I sell more than fifty thousand copies of this the first three months? And if the answer is no, it's just a hard fact that you will not be signed. You can't make just a modest success. You can't have just a small audience. You can't do something dignified and reasonable and non-malignant. You have to do something that will appeal to a really broad segment of the population, and that's not really the point. Good Lord. There are all kinds of minority groups that do things that don't appeal to large groups. Look at the ornithologists. What if they couldn't survive because everybody isn't interested in ornithology? There are a lot of these small subcultures, and music is an important subculture be-cause it inspires people to think about things of a higher order. It's almost a religious thing. And if it isn't in existence at its highest level, the culture will suffer and society will suffer in the future and all kinds of terrible things will happen. I think there are concerned people. Like the government in this country has things like the National Endowment For The Arts and New York State has the State Council On The Arts, so we're not in that bad shape. But in Europe, music is supported a lot better. There are radio stations, which commission works from composers and there are opera companies that commission works from living composers. Most of us have to go over there at least once a year to make some money. I'm going over there just for a week so I can afford to put my band on the road for the summer.

Let's talk about your band.
I can't.

Do you play music in the traditional sense, or is it more of a theatrical experience?
[Silence and a look of confusion.]
Do you play written or improvised music?
We play written-out music and some improvised music. It's really quite traditional. We play something written and something improvised and then something written and then something improvised. And they're all supposed to weave in and out in perfect ratio. It's supposed to be just the right amount of written material so it sounds like everybody knows where they are, balanced by just the amount of material that makes the audience think we're teetering on the edge of disaster and to generally engage the audience in this sort of bated-breath experience. It may be pleasant, it may be unpleasant. We try to shake people up, I suppose. Frighten them. Reassure them and make them happy, make them laugh. Sometimes I forget about the musical content altogether. But I'm bored with all the stuff; I've heard it a million times. What we do basically is amuse ourselves. Oh, that sounds awful! It's really just a bunch of people who go out on the stage with a tremendous amount of enthusiasm.

Does the band play your compositions exclusively?
Oh yes, that's why I have the band. Wait. No. We play "Silent Night," which I didn't write. And in the background be-hind "Silent Night," we play a bunch of Christmas carols. Also, I did not write "The Star Spangled Banner." I did not write "God Save The Queen," the Austrian national anthem, nor the Italian national anthem, nor "Alma Mater." So we do play things I didn't write. But we don't play anything the guys in the band write. If they ask me to do that, I fire them. I dock 'em. Besides, they wouldn't. One guy once did. I made an example out of him. Nobody else did after that.

How do you write?
When I'm not on the road, I unwind for about a week, then I start in with this special schedule of getting up and eating breakfast quite early, about nine o'clock, going right up to the music room, working for two hours, then doing something extra-musical like going out and weeding the radishes. Then I come back in for another two hours and work, then I have lunch. Then I work for another two hours. In the evening, I like to do other things, like go out. But I work an eight-hour day like most workers do. I do this for a period of about a month or two before I get bored with it. As a matter of fact, I think I could do it for more than that, but the way the tours have been, I've never had more than one or two months off. Someday when the band falls apart, I'm going to spend six months and write a piece of music that's a little better than what I'm doing now, 'cause now I try to hurry through it and get things ready.

Do you write with specific people in mind?
I try not to. When [trombonist] Roswell Rudd was in my band, I wrote for him, and now that George Lewis has taken his place I've really been thrown for a loop, 'cause those people are quite different. So I've had to take some of Roswell's parts and give them to other people in the band and give George things that used to belong to other people. So I like to try not to write for specific individuals, because I might get too tied to them and have to have them. A lot of the people I work with have their own bands and their own activities, and sometimes I can't get whom I want. But luckily, like my first piano player was Terry Adams and the second were Blue Gene Tyranny, and luckily they were both able to play barrelhouse piano. If I got some modern-type piano player I'd be in trouble, because every time I give somebody a piano solo, it's usually in a style about 75 years old. I don't know why.

What about A Genuine Tong Funeral?
I wrote that in a pure way for no reason and then tried to get a record date. That was back in the days when I used to try and get record dates. Nobody wanted to record it. So I thought that was that? I put it away. Then a friend of mine, [bassist] Steve Swallow, said he was working with Gary Burton and Gary was looking for a piece of material that would be a concept record, a whole record of one thing. I said, no, of course not. This was written for Gato Barbieri and Roswell Rudd and [tuba player] Howard Johnson and [saxophonist] Steve Lacy, and of course you can't have it. Then the next day I called him back and said, of course you can have it. You can do anything you want with it. There's no life without being played. I remember I sent the head of Atlantic Records the tape of our rehearsal of AGTF and he rejected it. He said, I don't like it, it's no good and I don't like it and that's that. And in those days I thought, gee, it's no good and he doesn't like it. I really thought that if you were good, you'd be discovered and given everything you needed and if you were no good, you wouldn't be. So the fact that I never got anything I needed made me conclude that I was naturally no good. It took me, and two hundred other people, about ten years to figure out that that wasn't true. We were damned good. It's just that we were a little strange. Finally, we got our means together and we recorded everything ourselves. But AGTF was the first thing I ever did, so I had to give it to Gary Burton, who actually improved it, made it beautiful. I must admit that my early reluctance gave way to extreme pleasure that he had wanted to do it, that he had done it and added new dimensions to it.

What about Escalator Over The Hill?
That was a project done by people who didn't know their limitations. Nobody could ever do that today because everybody's told their limitations in school and then they get out of school and they're told by the real world what they are, and so we're really quite limited. But in those days, I guess I was hard to convince. I was originally going to do it for a commercial company but no commercial company would take it. This is the story of my life! A friend of ours who had dropped out of the system, a nuclear physicist making atom bombs I think, he gave us all of his money so we could afford to do it. And so we did it ourselves. It took five years.

It's an opera?
Yeah, a chronotransduction.

What's that?
Well you know what a transducer is, right?
Well, look it up in the dictionary. I forget what it means. But you can call it an opera. [Ed. Note: A transducer is a mechanical device, such as a microphone or a speaker that takes energy from one system and transfers it to another system.]

Has it been performed?
Never can. The Communist Party of Italy wanted us to do it but it was impossible. When I joined Jack Bruce's band, we were going to do it as a film. That's the form it would take next. But that idea sort of deteriorated. When the band fell apart, the idea was scrapped.

What keyboards did you play with Bruce?
I played Mellotron, Hammond organ, and ARP Pro Soloist.

Do you like playing synthesizers?
I just pressed the banjo stop or the 'cello stop. The ProSoloist isn't much of a synthesizer. I'm not very good at that. I always pressed the banjo stop when I was supposed to take my 'cello solo. The first day I played Hammond organ with the group, I kept trying to turn up the volume by turning up the radiator on the side of the wall. The room got hotter and hotter and finally, people said, it's so hot in here, what's wrong? Somebody happened to watch me and I said, gee, this organ's too soft. The thermostat was up to ninety. I thought that was how you made the organ go louder. But I always had roadies that turned it on and off for me. I never really had to learn how to do it. I was supposed to start something very soft on one of those instruments I had and the volume pedal would be all the way down and I came up right in the middle of a very beautiful sultry section with eight million dBs. I'm just no good at that. The piano I suppose I'm good at, but only in a limited way. I can make music at the piano, which is interesting, because I suppose most keyboard players who have a lot of chops can't make music at it at all.

What do you mean, make music?
Don't you understand what I mean?
Then I could never tell you. To you, is somebody who plays a million notes very fast playing music?

That depends. By saying most keyboard players with chops, you're including everybody from James P Johnson to Cecil Taylor.
I am? I'm not talking about anybody except the people you hear on the radio today. I'm not excluding chops-type people from being able to make music, but chops do not a music maker make.

Are there any pianists working today that stand out for you?
Well, I love Terry Adams and Blue Gene Tyranny because they're my piano players, and Thelonious Monk is who I think they love so I love Thelonious Monk.

Have you written piano music?
I did this solo piano piece. I wrote it for Keith Jarrett. We were at a benefit at the Village Gate together and I gave it to him. He said, is this your only copy? I said, yes. He said, well it's silly to give it to me, then. So I said, gee, you're absolutely right, I'll go home and copy it and send you a copy. I went home and I left it in the cab. So it was lost, but I remembered as much of it as I could and I wrote it out again, but I decided not to give it to him. I decided to give it to my grandmother, who was a hundred years old that day. I took it to California and I lost it on the way there. When I got there, right before the party, I wrote it out again. I think I remembered most of it but my grandmother didn't like it. This is the saddest solo piano piece story you've ever heard! Then I gave it to Frederic Rzewski, who's a classical pianist who's interpreted the works of Stockhausen and Boulez and everybody and who thinks a mile a minute. He was going to play it at Spoleto but he never did. He lost it! And that was the only copy. I'd written it down by a swimming pool outdoors, with a ballpoint pen. So for the fourth time last month, my new piano player, Blue Gene Tyranny, said he was making a solo piano album and would I give him a piece. So I thought finally, my poor lost piece. I wrote it out for him again and this time, I took it right to be Xeroxed and now I have hundreds of copies of it. It's a very good solo piano piece.

Any future writing plans?
I'd like to write for a symphony orchestra. Everybody would, but they don't have them anymore, except for playing dead composers' music. No, that's not really the truth. I'd like to write for about 35 pieces, but I'm stuck with 10, and it's just always a limitation. I feel that limitation all the time. I always have to economize. I have something that's supposed to be played by five strings; well, who can sound like five strings? So maybe I'll give it to the organ, maybe there's a string stop on the organ. And over here, we should have a clarinet. Can my alto player sound high enough? No, maybe he should play the soprano on it because the soprano is at least written in the same key as the clarinet so I'll do that because if I ever do get a clarinet, I wouldn't have to copy the part. My mind works like this. It's too bad. It's like being in the import-export business. You just have to think like a small-time businessman all the time. I really would rather do something that doesn't require all this economy. I think I've proven I can work economically and be disciplined, that I can write for 35 pieces instead of 10, but still I can't do it. Nobody can. There's not any money around to write for stuff like that. It costs me a small fortune just to have my own 10-piece band.

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