CARLA BLEY: The First Lady of Jazz

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Carla Bley: I hardly play any gigs in the States at all

Ahead of the London Jazz Festival, American pianist Carla Bley talks to Ivan Hewett about her longevity, homeland, days as a cigarette girl and long battle with pop.

If there were a poll to choose the First Lady of Jazz, chances are the choice would fall on a perilously thin, 75-year-old black-clad composer and pianist, with a startlingly youthful shock of blonde hair – Carla Bley. Since releasing her first albums in the late Sixties, she’s become one of jazz’s great composers, a leader of some of the best bands of recent decades, and a pianist of delicate touch and wide harmonic resource.

In 1955, when she was just 17, a different sort of stardom beckoned. “I got crazy about figure-skating, which was just about the only thing to do in Oakland, where I grew up,” says Bley. “It was either the rink or the mortuary. Well, I went there every hour I could spare, and then I entered the Californian championships. I came seventh, which I guess isn’t bad. They said I was expressive but couldn’t do all those fancy triple whirls.”

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