The story of Carla Bley’s life unfolds like a Carla Bley composition: It never goes where you’d expect, but it ultimately coheres in a pleasing, singular way. Bley died on Tuesday at age 87, ending her run as perhaps the greatest living composer, as the bandleader Darcy James Argue recently described her.
The American composer, keyboardist, and arranger started her career in the 1950s as a teenage cigarette girl, selling smokes to patrons at New York jazz clubs. The job and its title both give a sense of how long ago this was, and how inhospitable the environment might have been for a young, non-singing female musician in what remains a very male milieu. She met and began a relationship with the avant-garde pianist Paul Bley, who encouraged her to put her childhood musical training to work by composing. Later, she was the secret weapon of Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, an ambitious melding of progressive political and musical impulses. She played with Jack Bruce of Cream and Nick Mason of Pink Floyd but never lost any of her jazz cred, or her edge. In 2015, she was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, a designation awarded to the greatest jazz musicians, and she led one of the best small jazz bands of the early 21st century.
The root of this versatility was Bley’s voice as a composer. She wrote tunes that shouldn’t really be hummable—they’re just too weird, and the jags and misdirections are too sharp—but that still somehow function as earworms. They’re built of the same stuff as all of the other great jazz standards: solid enough to maintain their integrity, but plastic enough to work in nearly any setting. Consider her song “Vashkar.” The first recording was in 1963, by Paul Bley’s traditional piano-bass-drums trio. In 1969, the Tony Williams Lifetime recorded a version soaked in acid, both lysergic and hydrochloric; a few years later, Jaco Pastorius, Pat Metheny, Paul Bley, and Bruce Ditmas refashioned it into woozy, Grateful Dead–like fusion. And in 2020, the Polish pianist Marcin Wasilewski found new ground to cover as he returned the tune to its acoustic roots.
You can trace the same odyssey for many of Bley’s other pieces. What besides “Ida Lupino” unites Pastorius with the guitarist Mary Halvorson, one of today’s most cutting-edge musicians? (That one of Bley’s best-known songs pays tribute to a prominent female pioneer in the arts is no accident.) Where would the bebop stalwart Art Farmer, the fusion great John McLaughlin, and the progressive vibraphonist Gary Burton find common ground other than “Sing Me Softly of the Blues”? Her work as a keyboardist shows a similar versatility. YouTube features videos of a 1975 British TV performance by a band that includes Bruce, Bley, Mick Taylor (recently departed from the Rolling Stones), and Bruce Gary (not yet the drummer for the Knack—yes, the “My Sharona” band). It was an unconventional grouping, but it worked, with Bley’s harmonic textures and solos pushing the rock-based players out of easy paths.
One crucial element of this success was Bley’s sense of play and humor. The record of hers to which I find myself most often drawn is 1977’s Dinner Music, which inexplicably pairs the avant-garde horn players Michael Mantler and Roswell Rudd with Stuff, a band composed of top studio musicians. It was another unconventional yet successful experiment: The disco-funk rhythm section helps the weirder touches of the music go down easily, if not quite so easily as the album’s title ironically suggests.
Bley could be just as creative in arranging other people’s music. Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, from 1969, includes a 21-minute medley of songs from the Spanish Civil War. It sounds like military-band music, like Charles Ives, like a storybook fantasy of Iberia, like a requiem. The record concludes with a chaotic full-band breakdown, followed by a beautiful and symphonic “We Shall Overcome,” each note perfectly placed.
Even as a respected elder, Bley sometimes expressed bold opinions. Her 2018 interview with the pianist and writer Ethan Iverson is a delight, not only for her insights into her own work and her historical recollections, but also for her piquant rejections of received wisdom. “I never liked Duke Ellington,” she told Iverson—a statement that’s something like a classical musician professing to hate Mozart. “I thought he was stealing music from Billy Strayhorn, basically. But aside from that, I didn’t like his style of playing or talking to people.”
Nor did Bley’s music lose any of its power as she aged. On February 14, 2020, she released a record with the bassist Steve Swallow, her longtime partner, and the saxophonist Andy Sheppard that was, for my money, the best jazz release of the year. The music retains a mellow mood, but Bley’s compositions provide an irresistible forward pull even without drums. They are soothing but never reductive or willing to recede into the background. When, a month later, the world shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic, I found the music—and the promise of its title, Life Goes On—an essential comfort.