Carla Bley, Jazz Composer, Arranger and Provocateur, Dies at 87

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Born Lovella May Borg in Oakland, Calif., on May 11, 1936, Ms. Bley came to music largely through the ministrations of her father, Emil Carl Borg, a church organist, choirmaster and piano teacher. She was 8 when her mother, Arline (Anderson) Borg, died of heart failure.

Ms. Bley’s childhood was dominated by church meetings rather than movies or pop culture. “I was doused in religion, soaked in it, terrified of going to hell,” she recalled in 1974. But she was also an instinctual nonconformist, and by her teens she had broken free of those religious moorings, initially to pursue an interest in competitive roller-skating.

She first encountered jazz at age 12, via a concert by the vibraphonist Lionel Hampton. At 17, she hitchhiked across the country to New York City, epicenter of the jazz scene. She worked as a cigarette girl at Birdland, where the Count Basie Orchestra was often in residence. “I was just this girl from Oakland in a green dress I made myself, looking totally out of place, un-New Yorkerly, holding cigarettes,” she recalled. “I think I was noticeable.”

One musician who took notice was the pianist Paul Bley. They married in 1957, and he encouraged her to write; most of her earliest compositions appeared on his albums. The noted composer George Russell provided further validation when he commissioned her to write for his sextet. Some of her other pieces, like “Ictus” and “Jesus Maria,” were recorded by the clarinetist and saxophonist Jimmy Giuffre’s trio, with Mr. Swallow and Mr. Bley.

Jazz was undergoing a creative revolution in the 1960s — and, partly by association, Ms. Bley found herself at the turbulent center of an emerging avant-garde. She was a founder of the Jazz Composers Guild, which sought better working conditions for musicians. Though short-lived, it yielded a productive institution: the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, which Ms. Bley formed with the Austrian trumpeter Michael Mantler. After she divorced Mr. Bley in 1967, she and Mr. Mantler married.

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