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Remembering jazz pianist Carla Bley, dead at 87

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

The composer Carla Bley moved to New York City when she was 17, sleeping on benches and working menial jobs just to be close to jazz music. This was in the 1950s, and since then she wrote hundreds of compositions, some of which are now considered standards. Bley died this week in her home near Woodstock, N.Y. According to her husband, she died of complications from brain cancer. She was 87. NPR's Andrew Limbong has this appreciation.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Carla Bley was an experimentalist who pushed the boundaries of her creative form all her life, as evidenced by her sprawling, diverse and ambitious jazz opera "Escalator Over The Hill."

(SOUNDBITE OF CARLA BLEY'S "HOTEL OVERTURE")

LIMBONG: By all accounts, Bley was a capital-A artist. But there's also a moment in this 1973 NPR interview where the host commends her for her work as a capital-A administrator, and it sounds like she couldn't be happier.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CARLA BLEY: To be able to function as a musician and as an administrator is a compliment that I would never have thought I could have received in my whole life because, you know, most musicians spoil themselves as far as getting practical things done.

LIMBONG: After some years in the trenches of the New York City jazz scene, Bley co-founded New Music Distribution Service, a nonprofit record distributor, to help independent artists sell their boundary-pushing records, circumventing a system she grew disillusioned with.

BLEY: And since we sell the records for quite a high price, the musicians are finding it able to survive without large record companies. And this is a dedication of mine, and I'm as interested in it as I am in my own music at the moment.

LIMBONG: Bley was born in 1936, in Oakland, Calif. Her dad taught her piano when she was 3. She wrote her first piece at 6. Her father was a church organist and disapproved of her playing jazz so much that he never saw her perform. In a 2016 interview with NPR, she said that was his loss, but she kind of understood.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BLEY: We smoked and drank and used drugs. It was just really the devil's music. And, boy, was that great. As a little church girl, I was in heaven.

LIMBONG: The music she wrote could be big and bombastic or pensive and whimsical.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARLA BLEY'S "IDA LUPINO")

LIMBONG: Her later work with her longtime husband, bassist Steve Swallow, leaned more towards spare and minimalist.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARLA BLEY, ANDY SHEPPARD AND STEVE SWALLOW'S "ANDANDO EL TIEMPO: CAMINO AL VOLVER")

LIMBONG: These recordings prominently centered her piano-playing, something she was never fully comfortable with, but that was the vehicle she chose to tell her stories. With music, she told NPR in 2016, you can get away with stuff that makes no sense in words. Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARLA BLEY, ANDY SHEPPARD AND STEVE SWALLOW'S "ANDANDO EL TIEMPO: CAMINO AL VOLVER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.