In talking to Qwest TV, Carla Bley laughs a lot as she sifts through some of her significant historical moments of melody-making and free improvisations and even dredges up a memory that she has never talked about before.

Before our conversation starts rolling, she engages with Steve about how their house in the deep woods in the Woodstock, New York, area is their refuge. Woods surround the wooden structure on a dead-end street in an isolated sector of Willow, and there’s a stream down below that is quite active with a steady flow given this winter’s snowfall, still evident in pockets near the house where the sun has yet to peek into.

Carla says, “We’re amazed about everything in this place.” Steve concurs: “We try to notice how gorgeous it is. This is the last year we’ll be heating the house with wood fires. We’re switching to profane, doing the anti-eco thing. I can’t go another season hauling the wood in here.” Carla pipes in, “It will still be in the stove but with fake logs.” She frowns at that move to modernity, even though the pair has yet to adapt to smartphones—which wouldn’t work anyway out here without the cell coverage to tap into. Plus, no doorbell. Just loud knocks.

This is where Carla’s culture of spontaneity resides—stylistically unpredictable music of playful mystery, soulful contemplation, humor and grace. The late jazz scribe Nat Hentoff once wrote that “her scores for jazz big bands are matched only by those of Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus for yearning lyricism, explosive exultation and other expressions of the human condition.”

Carla sits down at the kitchen table overseeing the brook as Steve takes his exit. “If Steve’s with me when I talk to people, I usually ask him everything to make sure I’ve got it right,” she says, to which Steve replies, “I’m going downstairs to practice like a dog just like all good bass players should. I’m seizing the moment. As long as she’s occupied, I can go practice.”

So, Qwest TV starts our meandering conversation on the same theme: Do you practice as much as Steve?

Every single day when I’m home. Before a tour, I’ll play for a couple of hours, and then I join Steve downstairs and we play for an hour and a half together. I prefer not to play at all when I’m working on a piece. The playing part is not the part that I do best. That’s what I have to work on the most. The writing comes out easily. Pencil and paper. No computer. But Steve forces me to play and write every day. He tells me to get to the piano to make us some money. He thinks of me as the cash cow.

You are.

I know that. I give him a lot of gigs. That’s my secret with men. Give them gigs, and they’re like putty in my hands.

I’ve read that you consider yourself a 99 percent composer and a 1 percent pianist.

That’s true, but right now I think I’m 2 percent. I love getting better instead of getting worse. If you practice, you can’t help but get better. Steve’s downstairs, and he’s desperate to keep getting better.

Let’s dial way back to your childhood. You were born in Oakland, California on May 11, 1936.

I lived on 1642 8th Avenue. Not in the hills. The flatlands. I lived about a mile away from the Oakland Airport, which then was just a little shack. What an improvement now. My father was a pianist and church choir master. He encouraged me to play. It came with the territory. He was a teacher, so he taught me. It was a chore. I became a professional at 3. I would go around in the church singing songs like “This Little Light of Mine” with a cup in my hand and people would put coins in. Even then, I knew I wasn’t playing for free. Once my mother tried to give me a lesson and I bit her because I was so angry I couldn’t get my fingering correct. She died when I was 8. She was sick. I don’t have any unpleasant memories about her. But my father always reminded me that I bit her. Then my daughter became a biter. She would bite other children at school. I guess it goes with the family.

What did you do when you were younger in Oakland?

I left high school in 10th grade. I became a roller skater when I was 14. That was my serious hobby. I was almost a professional. I would skate in competitions, but I didn’t place very high. But I loved to listen to music. My excuse was to find music I liked and skate to it. It was very Oakland then. Skating rinks, bowling alleys, 75-cent dinners at the market. Back home, there was a succession of students coming to our house, and there was a curtain between my room and the room where my father gave the lessons. I heard all the scales and all the mistakes of those poor students who were being forced by their parents to learn music. I saved all those mistakes and I used them daily. It’s hard to find good mistakes anymore with all the recording machines they have today. The singers get their pitch corrected so they can try to get the hits.


Qwest-TV-Carla-Bley-Steve-Swallow-Duet-minWatch Carla Bley & Steve Swallow duet on Qwest TV


What made you decide to come to New York?

I went to the Oakland Auditorium to hear Lionel Hampton when I was 12. I was changed forever. That’s the kind of music I wanted to pursue. The band was marching up and down the aisles, and it was unusual music that I had never heard in church. My father called it the devil’s music. Even years later when I worked in the Bay Area clubs, he wouldn’t come because he felt it was the devil’s music and he was a righteous person. He was kind of like a Baptist evangelical. He wasn’t like [Pentecostal evangelist] Aimee Semple McPherson who would stand on a stage in a white gown and preach. My father lived to be 92 or 93, and he never came to see me play. The rest of my family—cousins, aunts, uncles—would come but not him. First he would say that he made a mistake and had scheduled choir practice for the night, but then he eventually told me. He did not believe in the music I was playing and didn’t want to be touched by the devil. That was weird, but the good thing in him not coming is I could smoke at my shows. I wasn’t allowed to smoke cigarettes around him.

How did you get to New York from 3,000 miles away?

At 17, I hitchhiked the whole way. It was so romantic. My whole life has been that way. Strange and romantic. The first place I lived in New York was on a bench in Grand Central Station. I guess you could say I was homeless. But then I almost immediately went to Café Bohemia in Greenwich Village and I just listened. My ears were falling off. I heard Miles Davis play my first night there. My life was magical. He was with Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones and probably John Coltrane, but I wasn’t paying attention to him. I just listened to Miles. I can’t explain it in words but only in notes. The notes were perfect.

What happened next?

I kept going to Café Bohemia, but then I got a job at Birdland as a cigarette girl and I got to hear the music all the time. Every band, every night. I don’t remember how I got that job. Maybe a wanted ad in the newspaper? But I couldn’t quit because I didn’t make enough money to go back to Oakland. I had to hand in all my tips. I could never keep them. And if I didn’t make enough money in tips, they’d take it out of my salary. At the time, Birdland was a mob-run club. But I was fascinated by it. I’d do anything just to hear that music. I got a hotel room about a block from Birdland where a lot of the musicians stayed. So I also sold stuffed animals and was the photography girl who went to tables and asked if couples would like to commemorate their evening. Some guys would say, no, please, I don’t want my wife to see this. Those were my listener years.

Did you catch Bird?

Charlie Parker was still alive. I never saw him, but I would stand outside the clubs and listen. I was smitten like a teenager. There are a lot of people who still adore jazz and I am one of them. It’s not just a teenage thing anymore. Your identity is tied in with it even though I did not qualify to be a musician in that world—and I still don’t qualify, but they make some exceptions for me now.

I don’t know if I was that special.. But I was useful as a composer and arranger. Every time [Paul Bley] needed a tune, he would ask me for one. One night he needed five tunes and I came up with all five in one night.

But you’re a star.

I am a star—and you know that has nothing to do with music. My agent once told me, you’re a star, so that’s different. He was booking me with someone who wasn’t a star. I said, are you kidding? He’s so much better than me. My agent looked at me and said, “He’s not a star.” So I began to notice what that meant, but it never rang true even though I do understand that now.

Did you see Thelonious Monk perform?

You need big ears to hear Thelonious Monk’s music. He wrote all these songs in a small room, in a small apartment with his wife and kids screaming. He wrote all these songs and he didn’t need any quiet. That’s what makes him so great. He had a strong identity. But when I did see him at first I thought he was mentally ill or strung out, but he could play. I love doing my arrangement of “Misterioso.”

How did you transition from selling cigarettes to being a part of the jazz scene?

That had already started before I was working at Birdland. Anything I heard on the radio would influence me. I wrote an arrangement of “Lullaby at Birdland” in a John Lewis style. It was crazy music. It was all from the radio. I didn’t have a phonograph. I got one years later. The first record I bought—and I listened to it again and again— was Where Did the Love Go by the Supremes [1964]. That was my favorite and I still quote “baby baby” in many of my songs. That was not the typical thing for a jazz player to like, but when the whole Motown thing came along, I was totally in love with it. Even today, I have a collection of everything Motown recorded, and I studied a lot of different people.

But back in the ‘50s?

Well, when I was at Birdland, Paul Bley bought a pack of cigarettes from me even though he didn’t smoke. Maybe that was 1956. I had been playing gigs at coffeehouses and be paid $5 for an afternoon. And I would hire some other guys, and I used to hire Steve whenever he needed money. Steve was a poor boy too. He lived in a loft. I met him when I was a cigarette girl at Basin Street East, and he came to a show with his father because he was underage. He sat in the front row to listen to Clifford Brown. I didn’t meet him. I just saw him. He remembers going to that show and seeing me—a gorgeous woman with a primitive dress that looked like she made it herself. I had.

Back to Paul Bley, did he know you were a piano player?

No, I guess he just liked the way I looked or walked. I think that maybe he just picked up women one after the other. I don’t know if I was that special… But I was useful as a composer and arranger. Every time he needed a tune, he would ask me for one. One night he needed five tunes and I came up with all five in one night.

Did that open you up to the jazz world?

It was more through Steve Swallow because he’d bring my tunes with him everywhere he went. He worked with Art Farmer and Steve Kuhn and then Gary Burton who adored my “dark opera with words” compositions A Genuine Tong Funeral. I had abandoned getting anyone to record it. It was living on a shelf. But Steve turned Gary on to it, and he recorded it {1967].

So you knew Steve almost from the beginning. Did you ever know he would be your romantic partner?

Absolutely not. I thought he was a drip. He even went to Yale University but left midway through his second year. I only married Paul and later Michael [Mantler] to get them into the country. Paul was from Canada and Michael was from Austria. They needed a green card. I was friends with them, so each asked me to get married and I said, of course. I didn’t value marriage or myself, so that’s a perfect combination for giving it away.

Carla Bley & Steve Swallow

Watch Steve Swallow Quintet feat. Carla Bley on Qwest TV

You didn’t value yourself?

No, but I got better a few years later when I started to play piano with Steve. He said, you know how to read, so here’s the Real Book. Play the melody with your right hand and with your left hand you have to read symbols—and then have to deal with letters and numbers. Oh my God. So I slowly learned how to play, and when I wanted to play I’d call him up. He was living in Connecticut with his wife and two kids. So he would come over when I told him I needed a lesson. But we had nothing romantic going on. In fact, with Paul and Michael, there was no romance. I never married Steve which shows you I didn’t value marriage. 

Did Michael influence you to go into the avant-garde world?

Oh no, it was Ornette Coleman. I was married to Paul and he was going to Los Angeles to play at the Hillcrest Club with Charlie Haden, so I went with him. Then Charlie went with Ornette, Don Cherry and Billy Higgins. Pretty soon Ornette came to New York, and I tried to play free. I had lost respect for bebop then—temporarily, I assure you— and started to play free. You don’t even have to try to play free, it just sort of happens. Anything you play without knowing what you’re doing is freedom to make mistakes. It’s like punk rock. Maybe it was punk jazz. Ornette and Donny were totally amazing guys. People are calling me up now to know more about Donny. So I had moved back to New York and I got jobs at clubs and Jazz Gallery to just listen to them. I worked in the cloakroom. I didn’t get to know them very well. I was just a fly on the wall.

You founded with Michael the Jazz Composers Orchestra in 1965.

In 1964, they let me be in the Jazz Composers Guild even though I was a woman. Sun Ra objected. He said, any ship with a woman onboard is going to sink. I felt again like a fly on the wall. If I ever said anything, it wasn’t taken seriously. But one of my biggest breaks came from Archie Shepp. I’ve never mentioned this to anyone in my interviews over the years. Michael and I had formed the Jazz Composers Orchestra in 1965, so Archie knew about me. So he asked me to write a big band piece for his big band. That was a big break to have him ask me to do that. After that, the biggest break was Charlie Haden who asked me to do his very first album as a leader, Liberation Music Orchestra. In 1969 he commissioned me to write all these compositions and then arrange and orchestrate them. He had a couple of tunes in mind, but he didn’t write them out. He’d sing them to me on the telephone and I’d write them down and put chords to them. So, I was the arranger. He was the player. He got to play more without writing.

She also weighs in on the creation of her youthful magnum opus: Escalator Over the Hill: “It takes a long time to listen to,” she says. “It’s insane.” She pauses with a smile and adds, “Insane is good.”

What was Charlie Haden like?

I met him when he played with Paul Bley and then Ornette Coleman in Los Angeles. He was definitely a fellow soul who I wanted to keep united with as far as the music goes. We enjoyed each other’s company, but we had no romantic relationship. Actually if I was in an interview that I didn’t like the direction of where it was going, I’d tell the interviewer that I was the mother of Charlie’s three children. In New York, Charlie would sometimes need $5—if you know what I mean— so he would show up at the coffeehouse where I was playing and earning only $5. It was the same sometimes with Bill Evans who’d sit down and play a couple songs when he needed the money.

In the meantime, you began working on what some people consider to be your most ambitious and wildly adventurous piece, Escalator Over the Hill, that took three years to complete, from 1968-1971. How did that start?

Paul was playing with Mingus after Roland Hanna, so I got to get into all the shows at the Five Spot or some club for a couple of months. I came every night as well as this guy Paul Haines. We introduced ourselves. He was a poet and we talked about doing something together. He was a writer of words, and I was a writer of notes. We thought, let’s do an opera. It really started without my knowledge or permission. I had a piece I was working on for myself, and I was sitting at the piano. I was stuck. He was living in Paris, and he sent me a poem. It fit exactly, syllable by syllable, into what I was writing. And his poem gave me the next phrase that I was missing. It was called “Detective Writer Daughter.” That was the first piece for Escalator. I wrote right back, and said the opera is beginning. Meanwhile he was corresponding to me from India. It wasn’t very orderly, and it took a long time. He sent me more writings, and I didn’t leave out one word, not even an “and” or “if” of “but.” I used every word he sent.

I’ve read you used 53 players, from Linda Ronstadt to Don Cherry.

News traveled fast about what I was doing and people wanted to jump in. I had met Jack Bruce backstage when he was playing with Cream, and he told me he really liked Gary Burton’s A Genuine Tong Funeral. So he joined in. I said yes to everyone even if they couldn’t play or they couldn’t sing. I paid union rates. Sometimes we ran out of money until more came in. We recorded over 100 hours of music. We used to keep all the tapes safely in Iron Mountain [where masters from major labels were stored] until we figured out how much money it was costing us. We took all the two-inch tapes and they’re downstairs at the house. They’re probably not in good shape, shredded. No one was interested in issuing it. But we did on the label JCOA Records which Michael and I had started to record Jazz Composers Orchestra music. We also invited people like Don Cherry, Leroy Jenkins, Roswell Rudd to make records. Then we formed New Music Distribution Service which is how ECM Records got in the door in the U.S. We had no idea if we were of any value, but we wanted to help get free music out to the world.

Escalator Over the Hill: Carla Bley’s Crazy Opera

Who else besides ECM did you distribute?

There were four or five labels, like Evan Parker’s Incus Records, Futura, FMP. We‘d drive to Elizabeth, New Jersey, to pick up shiploads of albums, then we’d ship twenty Escalators in return. It was crazy. It didn’t pay for us to do it, but we get each other’s music out there. It lasted five years.

In addition to Motown, you were also a listener of pop music.

I liked the Sgt. Peppers album for a while, but that’s just something you have to go through. You don’t have to be doing that when you’re 80. It doesn’t match. I don’t listen to the music Motown is making now. They should still have Valerie Simpson who wrote some of the greatest Motown tunes. I played in some pop bands like the Golden Palominos as an organ player for a couple of Anton Fier’s projects. And I love Terry Adams’s NRBQ bands from over the years. He played in my band on my first European tour in 1976

You also had a punk band when that was popping.

Yes, it was 1979 and I put together Penny Cillin and the Burning Sensations with two of my students at Karl Berger’s Creative Music Studio in Woodstock: trumpeter Steven Bernstein and saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum—both from Berkeley, California. I had a lot of fun with them. You don’t really have to do anything. I wrote songs with lyrics like ”You’re wervy and swervy.” Everybody sang. Nick Mason, the drummer from Pink Floyd, didn’t write but was wanting to make his first record, a vanity project. His car mechanic told him about me and I sent him a cassette of the Penny Cillin tunes. And he loved them. In fact, he recorded all the tunes and released them as Fictitious Sports [1981].

You have a great sense of humor in your music.

That’s the way everyone is in the big band. We’re always making each other laugh or doing horribly funny things like filling somebody’s trumpet up with water before they play a solo. Once when we played the music live from Goes to Church [1996], the whole brass section lowered their pants to their ankles and played the horn parts—naked from the waist down. I approved of that stuff. I encouraged it. I was just commissioned to write a big band piece for Arturo O’Farrill. He says he’s very influenced by me. I think he’s being generous because I was influenced by the crazy things he would do like stand onstage without moving. I love it when people laugh. All of my musicians are funny, except for some real sour ones who end up being fodder for our jokes. Charlie and I had wonderful jokes, but he didn’t bring it into his music. I did.

I think it’s also funny that you recorded one of most covered songs, “Ida Lupino,” backwards as “Oni Puladi.”

It sounds pretty good. Jack Bruce wanted Cream to record it. I think the rest of the band was just putting up with me. I went to one of their rehearsals. I sat there all day and Jack couldn’t convince them to do it.


Watch Carla Bley Sextet on Qwest TV



It’s interesting that you once distributed Manfred Eicher’s ECM label and now he’s recording you. He’s commented that you are in “the tradition of radical originality.”

I never heard that. I like it. It sounds like a song lyric.

Would you describe yourself in that way?

No, I’m trying to be normal, to sound totally classical, but I fail. Miserably.

Because that’s not who you are.

But I want to be.

But you can’t because you’re Carla Bley.

I guess I do want to be Carla Bley.

Who would you want to be?

Keith Jarrett. What a piano player. Or Larry Willis. I could go on. People who play one note and it’s beautiful. I just hit the notes as hard as I can.

And your relationship with Manfred?

He’s not like anyone else. He’s a man who had such a strong musical taste to a point where he could make a living out of it. When we first distributed his albums, he wasn’t well-known in the U.S. But he believed so hard with what all of us weirdos were doing. He had extreme musical tastes and a great sense of business. He had the solutions on how to make it happen. He’s the kind of person who has so much power, even though he has no idea how much power he has.

You’re going to be meeting up with Manfred in Switzerland this spring to record your new record with Steve and your longtime saxophonist Andy Shepherd.

I’ve been working with Andy for 25 years. He’s on every album I make, whether as the only soloist on his tenor or playing horn backgrounds in the big band. I need him. For the trio, I need to have someone up there onstage for people to look at while I play. He stands up there and is so handsome and dresses really well. All he has to do is give the gift of one note and you know it’s him. He has the most beautiful sound, and I love the way his vibrato goes really slow. The word is beauty. I once transcribed a solo of his, and it didn’t appeal to me. But it doesn’t matter what he plays, it’s how he plays it. He could play “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and I would collapse with joy.

What about the tunes?

There are only three songs on the new album, but each tune has three parts, like the piece “Copy Cat” that we did at Jazz Standard. Then there’s another three-part piece called “Life Goes On.” That composition followed this illness I had and that I survived from. After that, I thought, “Life goes on.” It’s a simple blues that sounds like real life. It’s hard playing these for just a trio and not a big band where I can play a tiny solo every three songs. Now I have to play a lot more. I have to learn how to play a decent solo.

So many of your compositions have three or more movements. Do you deliberately write like that?

I write long because I can’t figure out an ending. Seriously, I write until it has an ending. Look at Escalator. There was no ending. I kept writing and writing and writing to be perfect. It has to have an ending for it to be perfect. On the new album there’s another three-part piece, “Beautiful Telephones,” inspired by Donald Trump’s comment on his first visit to the Oval Office after his election. That’s one of the comments he made. That’s funny. I don’t want to do damage with my music like Charlie might have done with his serious political tone. I’d rather write music that makes fun of the president.

Photo @Daniel Vass

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Centre national du cinéma et de l'image animée | With the support of the Creative Europe programme of the European Union With the support of the Creative Europe programme of the European Union