Carla Bley: 'I am trying to imitate the people I love, and failing'

The jazz pianist and composer and her partner, bassist Steve Swallow, talk about the New York jazz scene of the 1960s, and the influence of Ornette Coleman and Count Basie

When word comes through about an interview with Carla Bley, ahead of her appearance in the Perspectives series at the National Concert Hall, it comes via an email from her “agent”, a certain Stephen W Swallow.

Is that Steve Swallow, pioneer of the electric bass guitar, himself a great and distinctive compositional voice, and incidentally Bley’s life partner? Yes, Swallow admits in his reply, it is. Would they be prepared to do a joint interview? Yes, he says, I’d be happy to join in.

When I get them, the two are on phones in different parts of their hideaway home near Woodstock in upstate New York. They don’t own cell phones, Swallow proudly declares, and at first, it seems as if Bley in particular doesn’t like talking on phones of any description.

Bley emerged in the early 1960s as a starkly original composer, connected to the avant garde of Ornette Coleman and others, but following her own particular, even wayward muse. Over the decades her tunes have been recorded by major figures from George Russell and Jimmy Giuffre to Jaco Pastorius and her old friend Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra.


She has always led her own groups, on piano or organ, releasing the results on her own Watt label, but it is only in the last couple of decades that she began to concentrate on her own performance – she once described herself as “1 per cent player, 99 per cent composer”.

Born in Oakland, California, in 1936, she was still a teenager when she arrived in New York “because that’s where the music was happening”, and landed a job at Birdland, one of the crucibles of modern jazz.

Cigarette girl

“I got a job as a cigarette girl, and got to listen to everybody playing,” remembers Bley, “and never sold a pack of cigarettes. I just stood there with the tray around my neck, listening to the music. If someone asked me for a pack of Luckies, I’d say, ‘No, wait until the intermission.’”

Her most vivid memories of her time working at the famous midtown Manhattan club are of the Count Basie band.“That was my favourite band and it still is. I have never succeeded in copying anything written by anyone who wrote for that band, but I keep trying.”

“I know from eavesdropping on Carla writing,” Swallow chimes in from the other room, “that that’s true. She is forever trying, and failing, to sound like that Count Basie band of the mid-1950s. And thank goodness she’s failing.”

“I’m still failing,” deadpans Bley. “I failed a couple of times today already. I am trying to imitate the people that I love to listen to, and failing. I’m not trying to do it my own way, and I’ve never tried to do it my own way . . . I don’t want to be original,” protests Bley, but without much conviction.

“I beg to differ on that one,” returns Swallow. “When we – and I mean Carla and me, but also all of us who had come to New York in the late 1950s and early 1960s to be musicians – that was the idea, that you made it up, you thought of something that hadn’t been thought of before. That’s what was valued, and that may have been a special time in New York city. It was a time when Ornette had arrived to play at the Five Spot, there were all kinds of winds blowing in the city at that time.

‘Inventing yourself’

“I do think there was a special premium placed on making something up, on inventing yourself as a musician and as a person as well, and I think that comes and goes. There’s a kind of danger now that the music has become a music of the academy, and people are treating it as an orthodoxy, but at the time, we were in our most formative years, the opposite was true. Right, Car?”

“I’m not going to give you that one,” says Bley cryptically. “I don’t know what to say. I have to absorb that. In those days, I wanted to be . . . um, I have no memory. I have no answer.”

"Well, in those days," prompts Swallow, "you were writing And Now The Queen. I don't know what you wanted to do – Anton Webern, maybe?

“Yeh, I have no idea what I was doing,” says Bley, lapsing once more into silence.

Swallow is clearly the more gregarious of the pair. Originally an upright bass player, inspired by Charles Mingus and Wilbur Ware, he too was part of the febrile New York free scene in the early 1960s, and a vital member of groups led by Jimmy Giuffre, Stan Getz and Carla’s first husband, Paul Bley. When he switched to electric bass in the early 1970s, he became one of the pioneers of that instrument in jazz, and, as well as being Carla’s resident bassist for the past four decades, has collaborated with some of the giants of modern jazz, including guitarist John Scofield and drummer Paul Motian.

“I came to the electric bass when I was 30 years old, and I’m glad of that. It’s an energising, revitalising thing, to discover a calling halfway through your life. It wasn’t something I did, it was something that happened to me. I picked up the electric bass and fell in love. And I found it liberating, to find that Paul Chambers was no longer looking over my shoulder.”


When asked to sum the other up, there is no coyness, but each claims to be somewhat mystified by their partner in life and music. “There’s so many things about Steve that really deserve an explanation,” Bley offers, prompting a good-natured guffaw from Swallow. “Some people say that he’s the nicest person on Earth, and some people value his opinion when they ask him to listen to their records. He encourages all young bass players, so if you’re a young bass player reading this, make sure you go up on the stage after the show, because Steve really wants to talk to you.”

“I can’t really tell you what Carla is like,” offers Swallow, “because she’s so elusive and ever-changing. She is, however, my hero, and I’ll leave it at that.”

“Ooh, lucky you,” chuckles Bley.

So is it perhaps this very elusiveness that best describes Bley? “Yes, I think that’s true,” agrees Swallow. “She’s a process.”

“I think that is something that could be said,” Bley concedes. “When I was a kid . . . I didn’t want to do what people expected me to do, so I think I have to amend the answer I gave you earlier, when I said I didn’t want to be original. That was just a funny answer. Um, the real truth is I did want to be different. I never wanted to be what people expected me to be and if they ever asked me anything obvious, I would just either lie or laugh.”

So the original proposition, that she is an artist of a particularly independent frame of mind, might be true after all? “I guess so,” says Bley, feigning reluctance. “Ugh, I’ve been discovered, how embarrassing.”

And at that, the two venerable jazz musicians lapse into joyous, youthful laughter.

  • Carla Bley/Steve Swallow/Andy Sheppard play the National Concert Hall, Dublin on Thursday May 25th. For more, see

Required Listening

Escalator Over the Hill (JCOA, 1971)
Bley's early magnum opus, a jazz opera sprawling over three LPs, featuring a cast of thousands, including Cream bassist Jack Bruce, guitarist John McLaughlin and a pre-fame Linda Ronstadt on vocals.

Tropic Appetites (Watt, 1974)
The album that launched Bley's Watt record label, with an eight-piece band that includes saxophonist Gato Barbieri, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Paul Motian.

Swallow (Watt, 1991)
A joy-filled family album, with Bley and her daughter Karen Mantler on keyboards, Swallow on bass, and a nine-piece band that includes vibraphonist Gary Burton and guitarist John Scofield.

Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra: Time/Life (Impulse, 2016)
A poignant elegy for Bley's lifelong friend Charlie Haden, recorded the day after the great bassist's death, with Swallow filling the bass role and Bley composing, arranging and conducting a heartbroken group of America's finest jazz musicians.

Andando el Tiempo (ECM, 2016)
Bley's second release on the ECM label, with Swallow on bass and saxophonist Andy Sheppard, revealing a unique pianist with a hugely sophisticated ear and a fragile, almost child-like technique