Arts Remembrance: The Passage of a Giant — Carla Bley, 1936 – 2023

By Steve Elman

Carla Bley was an original. We will never see her like again. It is a great blessing that she left so much music.

The late Carla Bley. Photo: Cateria di Perri/ECM Records

Carla Bley died of brain cancer at 87 on October 17. It is an irreconcilable loss.

She was the greatest living jazz composer. Others certainly can claim that crown now, but it has been clear for a long time that the body of her work ought to be valued alongside that of the five other master composers in jazz history — Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, and George Russell.

Like Morton, she had a genius for saying a lot with the smallest forces.

Like Ellington, she created an individual sound for her ensembles that always took in mind the personal qualities of each musician playing.

Like Monk, she composed perfect miniatures that she interpreted definitively and that others adopted enthusiastically.

Like Mingus, she was a distinctive personality who infused ensembles large and small with a dynamic vision that had a lasting impact on everyone who performed with her.

She was one of the composers George Russell identified very early in her career as a person to watch. Like Russell, she never made much of herself as a piano stylist. Like him, she firmly established herself as the rarest to all jazz birds — a composer-leader, first, last, and always. Also like Russell, she never chose the easy or predictable way to voice her ideas.

She was an original. We will never see her like again. It is a great blessing that she left so much music.

Carla Bley, the rarest of all jazz birds: a composer-leader, first, last, and always. Photo: ECM

However, it would be unfair to create a list of her “great compositions.” Her music is so varied — from her earliest abstract pieces, to her burlesques for little big band, to her last glorious explorations of the trio format — that each of her works can find a receptive listener who will treasure it. Each opens the heart in a different way.

Like everyone else, I have great favorites — “Wrong Key Donkey,” “Song Sung Long,” “Lawns,” “Vashkar,” and of course, “Ida Lupino.” But if you have not explored her music thoroughly, you owe your ears the favor of a Carla Bley marathon. You might start with my favorites, but let your ears wander. You will find something that speaks to you.

Or, for a smile, listen to one of her neglected tunes, “440.” The title refers to the 440 cycles per second of the note “A,” which is usually sounded by a violin or oboe or piano to cue the tune-up of a band or an orchestra. In performance, her band would in fact tune up on stage and when all the instruments were about to come together, the tuning segued seamlessly into “440,” and your ears were delighted by a rollicking excursion that kicked soloists into high gear right away.

A final note: I was the emcee (perhaps the victim) for a Boston concert by her band in which she proposed that I choose the pieces to be played from a set of cards she had shuffled. The band was great and she was electric, but she frequently grimaced at the choices of tunes, as if I had made them. As with so many of her on-stage circuses, I was never sure (and still am unsure today) whether this was intended as a straight attempt to use chance methods or a gentle gibe at the fatuousness of onstage hosts. Neither alternative matters to me now. Instead, I will always be grateful to her for giving me a few moments of proximity to a giant of music.


I wrote in depth for the Fuse about her trilogy of trio albums, which are masterpieces of the small format. Read my post here.

I have curated a Spotify playlist with a selection of Bley compositions, performed by Bley and her various bands, along with cover versions of her compositions by other artists. Click here to hear it.

Here is a listing of titles and personnel on this playlist:

Fresh Impression – Carla Bley Big Band, incl. Lew Soloff, tp; Andy Sheppard, ts; Carla Bley, p; Steve Swallow, e-b; Dennis Mackrel, dm (from Big Band Theory)

All Fall Down – Espoo Big Band, incl. Antero Priha, tp; Matti Lappalainen, tb; Esa Pietilä, ts; Jarmo Savolainen, p; Marko Timonen, dm, w. Carla Bley, org; Steve Swallow, e-b (from EBB Plays Carla Bley Live at April Jazz ’93)

Jesus Maria (arr for brass qn, p & e-b by Bley) – Carla Bley, p; w. Steve Swallow, e-b: Partyka Brass Qn (from Carla’s Christmas Carols)

Permanent Wave – Steve Kuhn, p; w. Steve Swallow, e-b; Joey Baron, dm (from Wisteria)

And Now, the Queen – Steve Cardenas, g; Ted Nash, cl; Ben Allison, b (from Healing Power: The Music of Carla Bley)

Sing Me Softly of the Blues – Carla Bley, p; Steve Swallow, e-b (from Go Together)

Olhos de gato – Gary Burton, vib; Mick Goodrick, g; Abraham Laboriel, e-b; Harry Blazer, dm (from The New Quartet)

Time and Us – Rüdiger Krause (from A Guitar Named Carla)

Light or Dark – Carla Bley, org & syn; w. Steve Slagle, as; Kenny Kirkland, p; Hiram Bullock, g; Steve Swallow, e-b; Victor Lewis, dm (from Heavy Heart)

Ida Lupino (arr. Gibbs) – Mike Gibbs, cond; w. “Twelve,” incl. Julian Siegel, ts; Hans Koller, p; Michael Janisch, b; Jeff Williams, dm (from Play Gil Evans)

Dance Class (arr. Russell) – George Russell, p; w. Al Kiger, tp; David Baker, tb; Dave Young, ts; Chuck Israels, b; Joe Hunt, dm (from At the Five Spot)

Turns – Paul Bley, p; w. Marc Johnson, b; Jeff Williams, dm (from Paul Plays Carla)

Fleur Carnivore – Carla Bley Big Band, incl. Lew Soloff, tp; Gary Valente, tb; Andy Sheppard, ts; Carla Bley, p; Karen Mantler, org; Steve Swallow, e-b; Dennis Mackrel, dm (from Fleur Carnivore)

Ad Infinitum – The Lost Chords (Carla Bley, p; Andy Sheppard, ts; Steve Swallow, e-b; Billy Drummond, dm) w. Paolo Fresu, tp (from The Lost Chords Find Paolo Fresu)

The Girl Who Cried Champagne – Carla Bley, org; w. Larry Willis, p; Hiram Bullock, g; Steve Swallow, e-b; Victor Lewis, dm; Don Alias, cga (from Sextet)

Vashkar [includes quotation from Ravel’s “Bolero”] – Carla Bley, p; Andy Sheppard, ss; Steve Swallow, e-b (from Trios)

Wrong Key Donkey – Carla Bley, org; Gary Windo, ts; Bob Stewart, tu; Michael Mantler, tp; Terry Adams, p; Hugh Hopper, e-b; Andrew Cyrille, dm (from European Tour 1977)

Can’t Get My Motor to Start – Nick Mason, dm, & Fictitious Sports (incl. Karen Kraft & band members, vo; Gary Valente, tb; Gary Windo, ts; Chris Spedding, g; Terry Adams, clav & harm; Steve Swallow, e-b) (from Nick Mason’s Fictitious Sports)

Steve Elman’s more than four decades in New England public radio have included 10 years as a jazz host in the 1970s, five years as a classical host on WBUR in the 1980s, a short stint as senior producer of an arts magazine, 13 years as assistant general manager of WBUR, and fill-in classical host on 99.5 WCRB.

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