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Carla Bley

Carla Bley

Amy C. Beal
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 128
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    Carla Bley
    Book Description:

    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_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, Bley has successfully maneuvered the field of jazz from highly accessible, tradition-based contexts to commercially unviable, avant-garde works. 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.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09339-5
    Subjects: Music, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction: “Like a Mockingbird”
    (pp. 1-4)

    In rafi zabor’s jazz-historical novelThe 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; an isolated life in Willow, New York; frizzy blond hair; avid gardening—suggest her almost legendary status within the jazz community. The Bear’s obvious relief in discovering that composing is hard work for the enigmatic Bley, clearly an artist he admires and respects, speaks further to...

  5. 1 Walking Woman: Oakland, New York, Los Angeles, New York
    (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, she received limited piano training from her father, Emil Borg (1899–1990).¹ She had no formal music education beyond lessons from beginning and intermediate piano method books. This relative underexposure to classical technique allowed her to develop an idiosyncratic musical language. Blessed with perfect pitch, she enjoyed music as a child and...

  6. 2 Sing Me Softly of the Blues: Early Short Pieces and Songs without Words
    (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. She wondered whether or not she too could do it. She often attributes her relative difficulty in improvising within a jazz idiom to her primary attachment to reading notated music rather than to creating spontaneously or reading chord symbols. She still writes all...

  7. 3 Social Studies: The Jazz Composers Guild and the Jazz Composers Orchestra
    (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 and at whose house she met Roswell Rudd, also socialized in this circle, along with Haines’s wife, the painter Jo Hayward Haines. The friends met frequently to discuss the current and future state of jazz, in tandem with a larger group that...

  8. 4 “Mad at Jazz”: A Genuine Tong Funeral
    (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 Not only was Bley growing ambivalent about the expressive qualities of free jazz, but she started to question her relationship to the African American roots of jazz. She began cultivating a musical alliance with what she considered to be her true culture: European and European American music. In particular, she had lost her tolerance...

  9. 5 Escalator over the Hill: Jazz Opera as Fusion
    (pp. 41-50)

    Bley had been working on a piece she calledDetective Writer Daughterwhen 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. As a child Bley had worked on a collection of songs calledOver the Hill, but she insists this early work had no relation toEscalator over the Hillbeyond a coincidental title. She had never set words to music before, at least not since she was a...

  10. 6 Copyright Royalties: New Music Distribution Service
    (pp. 51-56)

    Around 1970 the interrelated ensemble casts of the Jazz Composers Orchestra, the Liberation Music Orchestra, andEscalator over the Hillconstituted a growing network of independent and innovative composer-performers. On the release ofEscalator over the Hillin March 1972, Bley and Mantler started a new division of the Jazz Composers Orchestra Association, a nonprofit organization called the New Music Distribution Service (NMDS). The NMDS was designed to provide a “desperately needed alternative to the music industry machine,” according to a JCOA publicity flyer. The NMDS, which showed “strong signs of health after a shaky start,” constituted a musician-run service...

  11. 7 Big Band Theory: The Carla Bley Band and Other Projects
    (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. Named for the stream and closest identifiable road in this remote area, their “Grog Kill Studio” has been the location for nearly all Bley’s subsequent nonlive recording projects up to this day; the couple also rented time in it to other...

  12. 8 The Lone Arranger: History and Hilarity
    (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. In particular, the Carla Bley Band era (roughly 1977–83) saw her inner comedian run rampant. Bley’s composition titles alone have pointed to her affection for the silly (Blues in Twelve Bars and Blues in Twelve Other Bars, Blunt Object, The Banana Quintet); strange puns, rhymes, and other...

  13. 9 End of Vienna: Fancy Chamber Music
    (pp. 75-82)

    In 1974, when bley wrote3/4, 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),3/4starts out as a slow minor waltz, with short two-bar cells that are repeated several times. Combining her affection for the waltz with her fondness of the mechanical, Bley has the drums create sound effects she...

  14. 10 Dreams So Real: “Jazz Is Really Where My Heart Now Lies”
    (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 but also Robert Ashley, John Cage, Fred Frith, Arto Lindsay, Butch Morris, Henry Threadgill, John Zorn, Gamelan Son of Lion, and several other groups and individuals. Perhaps signaling the previously mentioned “tectonic change” in marketing concerns endemic to the music industry following the appearance of...

  15. NOTES
    (pp. 91-98)
    (pp. 99-100)
    (pp. 101-104)
  18. INDEX
    (pp. 105-113)
  19. Back Matter
    (pp. 114-116)