Carla Bley: On Her Own

Musical Origins

FRANK J. OTERI: I want to go back to the very, very beginning. What was your very first exposure to music?

CARLA BLEY: Well, that was before the ’70s! [laughs] My first exposure to music was my father. He was a piano teacher and he played the organ in church and he was the choirmaster. It was a sort of a non-denominational Christian church and all the music I heard were hymns. Not even gospel. It was just straight hymns from the hymnbook in four-part harmony. Not even classical music. “There’s Power in the Blood,” “Rock of Ages”… Those sort of things. That was my first musical experience.

FRANK J. OTERI: I can still hear that in your brass voicings even to this day.

CARLA BLEY: It’s really true. That sort of hung around. I found that jazz was pretty similar. The harmonies weren’t that much different from the hymns. So when I made the big leap from church music to jazz, it didn’t seem that much different to me.

FRANK J. OTERI: Let’s talk more about that leap. I want to know more about you being a teenager and winding up working at Birdland. Those were very heady times for jazz in New York.

CARLA BLEY: Oh, I was there! I saw it all, except I got there a little after Charlie Parker. Otherwise, I saw it all, I think. God, I can’t believe those days! I just wanted to hear the music and I didn’t have any money. So I thought I’ll just get a job there and that was so smart. That was my education. I worked at Birdland, Basin Street, the Jazz Gallery, and the Five Spot a little bit, as anything. As a cigarette girl, as a seller of stuffed animals, as a photographer with a camera around my neck… I would go up to a table and say, “Would you like a picture of you and your girlfriend.” And the guy would say, “No! God!” I think I maybe took only two or three pictures the whole time I worked as a photo girl. I would just stand next to the bandstand and absorb all the music. That’s where I learned everything.

FRANK J. OTERI: And you were really there at the dawn of the free jazz movement.

CARLA BLEY: I was right there. That didn’t last too long.

FRANK J. OTERI: But it had repercussions in the music that have caused rifts that have still not completely healed. Nowadays, there are some folks who try to deny that this is part of jazz’s history. It was a very contentious period, and you were sort of molded by that.

CARLA BLEY: I was molding it! I had the audacity to say, “Well, let’s do this!” And it never worked. I don’t know, we thought it was important to change. I can’t imagine why I wanted to change that incredible music that I had come up on. It’s just that I guess you’re supposed to take things a step further, and I thought I could but of course I couldn’t. Right now I think the music that happened before free jazz is the most beautiful music in jazz history. So it didn’t work. But everyone uses it now as an element. I use it. Even in “The National Anthem,” I set the saxophones off doing whatever they want to do for a couple of minutes and said just play. You can do that. Everyone knows how to do that. But it’s not very successful. We had to take like maybe four takes before we got anything that was listenable. Four guys that don’t know each other playing for the first time with no hint of what they’re doing could be very unsuccessful. One of the guys just said, “I’m gonna ruin this.” And he ruined it and then it was OK.

FRANK J. OTERI: Which guy was it?

CARLA BLEY: It was Craig Handy. All of a sudden he started playing his low D-flat in a destructive manner and, oh, I was so happy because before that everybody was sort of pussy-footing around on C major and all of a sudden he did that and all of a sudden it worked!

FRANK J. OTERI: That’s one of my favorite tracks on your new album, so we’re going to get back to that, but we still have a lot of ground to cover before we do. So, let’s go back. Here you were, a cigarette girl at Birdland. How did you get all these big important musicians to start working with you? How did you make the leap from being an onlooker of the scene to being in the center of the scene?

CARLA BLEY: That was slow. I had a gig at a coffee shop called the Phase Two—I think that’s what it was called—down in Greenwich Village, and I paid guys five dollars an afternoon to work with me. And I got a lot of guys. A lot of guys needed that five! And so I remember at the time, that’s when I first worked with Steve—my boyfriend, Steve Swallow.

FRANK J. OTERI: Wow, it goes all the way back to then.

CARLA BLEY: Yeah, he was younger than me. He was a little kid almost, and I knew him before that because he came to Basin Street with his father to hear Gene Krupa and I was the cigarette girl. And there he was with his father sitting in the front row listening to Gene Krupa. And afterwards Gene Krupa came up and talked to little Stevie Swallow and I remembered it later when Steve talked about it. I remember that little kid sitting in the front row. But I played with him for the first time when he was about 19. He was playing with my husband at that time. Then I hired him for 5 dollars to play with me. So, that’s how I made the transition: money. You can buy those guys!

FRANK J. OTERI: Your influences as a composer. Who are the people you admired when you were starting out?

CARLA BLEY: Before jazz or after?

FRANK J. OTERI: Both.

CARLA BLEY: Way back, the first guy I liked was Erik Satie. Quite by accident… I had a tape recorder, a wire recorder—God, my father gave me a wire recorder… I turned on the radio and recorded the first thing I heard. It happened to be Parade by Satie. Then it broke. So it was the only piece I had. And I listened to it all the time.

FRANK J. OTERI: To that typewriter…

CARLA BLEY: It had a typewriter in it? You know I bought a CD of it recently. It’s wonderful. I still like it.

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s a piece that contains the seeds of your anything goes approach.

CARLA BLEY: It was so different from what my father was doing, you know. He was playing Rachmaninoff and that kind of stuff all the time very badly at the piano and teaching. So I heard students playing scales badly and I heard him playing Rachmaninoff badly. I got to love bad music and the Erik Satie seemed like it was pretty awful and so that was my first influence. And then I think in the jazz world, I went to hear Lionel Hampton, his Flying Home Band. I just switched over right then. That was that.

FRANK J. OTERI: So many people have written that you were influenced by Kurt Weill

CARLA BLEY: I never heard Kurt Weill until I was in my 30s. Isn’t that interesting?

FRANK J. OTERI: I hear other influences that people don’t normally bring up. I hear Charles Ives in a lot of what you do.

CARLA BLEY: You know, somebody just mentioned that to me last year, and I swear I didn’t hear Charles Ives until three years ago. But I think I heard it all sifted down through movie music. I must have heard some Kurt Weill. I went to The Threepenny Opera when I moved to New York with Michael Mantler. So I was in my 30s when I first heard that. But I must have heard some of it watered down. I think I was influenced by English Music Hall music.

FRANK J. OTERI: I can sort of hear that.

CARLA BLEY: I like that um-pah um-pah thing. I don’t know why.

FRANK J. OTERI: In terms of jazz things, I hear a Mingus influence.

CARLA BLEY: I went every night to hear Mingus. Every single night when he was at some club in the Village because my husband was playing in the band. I would sit there and my head would go down and would come up four hours later full of music. I didn’t talk to anybody. I didn’t drink anything. I just listened and absorbed like a horrible sponge.

FRANK J. OTERI: In fact, Mingus released Paul Bley’s very first record on Debut, his own tiny independent label.

CARLA BLEY: That’s true. I forgot about that.

FRANK J. OTERI: There’s another area of influence, of a musician forming an independent record label, which is something I’d like to talk with you about at length because you’ve not only had success as a composer but you’ve also had success as an entrepreneur, running your own record company all these years. It’s sort of a unique situation in this business. But we’re getting ahead again…

CARLA BLEY: OK. Go back to my childhood…

FRANK J. OTERI: OK. Other influences. I even hear some Albert Ayler in what you do.

CARLA BLEY: Absolutely. He opened the door. He said it’s OK to be maudlin. And I thought, “Oh, thank you, I so want to be maudlin,” and that was it.

FRANK J. OTERI: But also, he created music that squeaked and squawked and was really out there, but yet at the same time there was an um-pah beat or some other sort of steadiness that a listener could hold on to. He was not afraid of being fun at the same time that he was being out.

CARLA BLEY: And that totally opened the door for me. I’ve got to give it to him.

FRANK J. OTERI: In terms of orchestration, Don Ellis… Any contact with him?

CARLA BLEY: No contact with him except that I think he worked with George Russell. I never heard anything he orchestrated. He had a big band? I gotta hear that.

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s great stuff and I think it’s very simpatico with the things you do.

CARLA BLEY: I did know of him through George Russell.

FRANK J. OTERI: George Russell, too, to some extent is also a kindred spirit; That “You Are My Sunshine” arrangement he did…

CARLA BLEY: That’s beautiful, isn’t it. I like that.

FRANK J. OTERI: The trumpeter on his first recording of that is Don Ellis.

CARLA BLEY: And the bass player is Steve Swallow.

FRANK J. OTERI: He sure is. And Sheila Jordan‘s singing.

CARLA BLEY: She sang that great.

FRANK J. OTERI: I’m glad we’re mentioning Sheila because everybody else we’ve talked about so far is a guy. Being a woman composer, and more specifically, being a woman composer in jazz, who are the role models? Who were the role models back then?

CARLA BLEY: I’ll answer that, but I thought you were going to say: “Everybody I mention Sheila Jordan to thinks she’s great!” Have you ever met anyone who didn’t like Sheila Jordan ever? That’s because she never got any measure of success like she should have gotten. She’s not threatening to anyone and she’s a wonderful person, so everyone adores her. But if Sheila’s on the cover of Time magazine, people would say: “She can’t sing” or “So-and-so sings better than that” and “My God, she’s 70 years old.” But Sheila is beloved in the whole community. Isn’t that wonderful?

FRANK J. OTERI: I wish she were more known than she is, though…

CARLA BLEY: But then we would hate her… So why don’t we mention women composers?

FRANK J. OTERI: Great!

CARLA BLEY: I haven’t been influenced by anyone for a long time, so we’d have to go back to Duke Ellington and all that stuff. Who did that tune for Dizzy Gillespie?

FRANK J. OTERI: Mary Lou Williams?

CARLA BLEY: No, not her. “Anitra’s Dance“… She was a trombone player… Melba Liston! That’s a pretty good arrangement. She just took a little bit of Grieg and added stuff to it, but I love that tune. It’s the only tune I ever heard. I never heard any Mary Lou Williams. I didn’t have a comprehensive education; I heard who was working at the clubs. I didn’t study jazz history. I didn’t know who was around. It was whoever was hired by the Mafia at Birdland, that was who I learned from.

FRANK J. OTERI: And in terms of training before you got exposed to jazz? Did you train in classical music at all?

CARLA BLEY: No, I didn’t. I never studied anything.

FRANK J. OTERI: So you’re completely self-taught!

CARLA BLEY: No, my father taught me until I was four, or five maybe, and then my mother tried and I bit her. I bit my mother at the age of five and they gave up on me. That was it. I never learned anything else.

FRANK J. OTERI: Did you stay in contact with them later on?

CARLA BLEY: You mean after I bit her? Well, they forgave me. [laughs] They said OK, don’t bite. Try not to bite!

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