In Memoriam: Carla Bley, 1936 – 2023

October 17th, 2023

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…..Carla Bley, the prolific composer, bandleader, keyboard player and towering figure in jazz music since the 1960’s, died today of brain cancer at the age of 87.

…..I spent countless hours over the years consuming her music, and was deeply affected by her ability to compose music that expressed so much beauty, complexity, and emotion – in the same composition it was possible to hear dramatic turbulence, dreamy whimsy, and romantic longing.  She was unique and brilliant, free and accessible.

…..Multiple obituaries have already been published, notably one in the  New York Times  by Nate Chinen.  You can view it by clicking here.

…..What follows is an account that the photographer Veryl Oakland shared of his time spent with Carla and her then-husband Michael Mantler during her visit to the San Francisco Bay area in 1979.  This encounter is an example of how she’d find inspiration for her music; in this case within the  “the marvelous inner workings of mechanical music boxes.”

…..Thank you, Carla…

Joe Maita

Editor/Publisher

 

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Excerpted with author’s permission from Jazz in Available Light, Illuminating the Jazz Greats from the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, by Veryl Oakland.  This first appeared in  Jerry Jazz Musician  on May 5, 2019

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CARLA BLEY (nee Carla Borg)

Composer, piano

Born: May 11, 1936

 

 

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© Veryl Oakland

Carla Bley at the Musee Mechanique arcade, San Francisco, 1979

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San Francisco, California

…..When interacting with particularly gifted people, I discovered early on that it was always best to just remain loose – be prepared for the unpredictable.

…..It was early in 1979 that I learned Carla Bley would be making her visit home to the Bay Area in fifteen years. After tracking down the brilliant composer and explaining what I wanted to do, she set the time, date, and location for our meeting. Before hanging up, all she said was, “Meet me at the Cliff House…at the Musee Mechanique arcade.”

…..I had no idea why we would meet at a music arcade. But it turned out that this little playground jewel of Carla’s was the genesis of her most recent album, completed just the previous November, entitled Musique Mecanique: The Carla Bley Band. A later review of Musique Mecanique read, “The three-part title piece of the album evokes, in glorious musical portraiture, the marvelous inner workings of mechanical music boxes.”

…..Arriving that day at the Cliff House, I found my way down the steps and around the back, which faced the ocean. At this odd spot was the arcade, a series of glass-enclosed window boxes containing all sorts of mechanical musical contraptions and scores of metallic, moving figures. People would deposit their quarters and the musical machines came to life.

…..The random displays, featuring one box after another, included the likes of “The Unbelievable Mechanical Farm,” complete with sounds of moving windmills, tractors, and farm animals; the “Laughing Sal” mannequin; “The Corn Cob Gulch Festival and Volunteer Fire Department;” the “Dueling Buffaloes;” and the “Marionettes, Puppet, and Monkey Band.”

…..Again, I wondered what we were doing here as I watched kids running around playing with the enigmatic machines, and then Carla Bley appeared along with her-then-husband Michael Mantler.

…..Just like the kids, she sprung to life; it was obvious that this place held pure magic and was once again reigniting fond memories dating all the way back to when Carla had first come here with her father at age eleven. Without uttering a word, the two entered the arcade and began depositing quarters in the different machines. Flitting about the room with her recorder, Carla captured the cacophony of competing noises blasting from the different machines, while Mantler watched what had inspired her from so many years ago.

…..Sitting down afterwards, Carla explained that what had fascinated her most during her many trips to the arcade was the malfunctioning of the mechanical boxes. “I loved the broken machines,” she told me. “Those sounds have remained in my head to this day. Wrong notes and getting stuck were two of my favorite things.”

…..Listening to that quirky little album some time later, it was almost as if I could hear her fertile mind at work.

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© Veryl Oakland

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Listen to Carla Bley play “Musique Mecanique II (At Midnight)” [JCOA Records]

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Listen to Carla play “Life Goes On,” from her 2020 album of the same name [Universal Music Group]

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All photographs copyright Veryl Oakland. All text and photographs excerpted with author’s permission from Jazz in Available Light, Illuminating the Jazz Greats from the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s

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You can read Mr. Oakland’s introduction to the “Jazz in Available Light” series, published on Jerry Jazz Musician, by clicking here

Visit his web page

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Click here to read (and listen to) “Carla Bley” – a poem by Daniel Brown

Click here to read my essay, “Reflecting on departing an office space of 20 years, and rediscovering Carla Bley”

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