Home SPORTS Carla Bley, Jazz Composer and Pianist, Dies at 87

Carla Bley, Jazz Composer and Pianist, Dies at 87

Carla Bley, an influential jazz composer and pianist, died in her home in Willow, N.Y. due to complications from brain cancer. She was 87. Bley’s partner of over 30 years, bassist Steve Swallow, confirmed the news to The New York Times.

A pioneer of the free jazz movement, Bley led a big band with New York’s leading musicians, a sextet including Larry Willis and Hiram Bullock and a chamberlike trio with Swallow and Andy Sheppard. Bley was the original conductor and arranger of the Liberation Music Orchestra, the ensemble Charlie Haden formed in 1969, and continued to lead it in tribute, following Haden’s death in 2014.

She was known for her 1971 jazz opera “Escalator Over the Hill,” which helped establish her unique style of operatic jazz and featured artists such as Linda Ronstadt, Jack Bruce and Charlie Haden. In 1973, it was named album of the year by British publication Melody Maker and won a Grand Prix du Disque, France’s most prestigious award for musical recordings.

From elegant songs like “Lawns” to cinematic pieces like “Fleur Carnivore,” Bley’s work spanned genres and cemented her as one of jazz’s most versatile musicians. In addition to producing her own albums, she also wrote and co-produced all the tracks on “Nick Mason’s Fictitious Sports,” the Pink Floyd drummer’s solo debut album.

She also founded multiple record labels, JCOA Records and the ECM-distributed Watt, which released work from Don Cherry and Cecil Taylor, among others. With Michael Mantler, Bley established the nonprofit New Music Distribution Service, which operated from 1972 to 1990, to connect her labels to wider audiences.

Her accolades include the Guggenheim fellowship for music composition in 1972, as well as being recognized as a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 2015. Her final album, “Life Goes On,” a collaboration with Sheppard and Swallow, was released in 2020.

Born Lovella May Borg in Oakland, Calif. on May 11, 1936, she moved to New York in the 1950s and worked as a cigarette girl at Birdland where she was first introduced to the jazz scene. She met jazz pianist Paul Bley there, whom she eventually married in 1957. Most of Bley’s earliest compositions appeared on his albums. After the two divorced in 1967, Bley married trumpeter Mantler.

Bley is survived by the daughter from that marriage, musician Karen Mantler, and Swallow.

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