Carla Bley: On Her Own

Carla Bley: On Her Own

FRANK J. OTERI: Let’s get to the entrepreneurial stuff…

CARLA BLEY: That stage.

FRANK J. OTERI: WATT Records… First of all, what does WATT mean?

CARLA BLEY: My second husband called it WATT. That’s the meaning…

FRANK J. OTERI: But what does it mean?

CARLA BLEY: It means three different things. The Watts Towers in Los Angeles. It meant Samuel Beckett‘s novel WATT. And it meant “Watt the hell was that?” WATT! It meant three things and so he called it WATT.

FRANK J. OTERI: I’m glad I asked ’cause I thought it had another meaning altogether. I was totally wrong.

CARLA BLEY: What did you think?

FRANK J. OTERI: Watt is a unit of electricity.

CARLA BLEY: Oh, isn’t that great! Yes, that too!


CARLA BLEY: Four meanings…

FRANK J. OTERI: And now Steve’s stuff is on a label called XtraWATT.

CARLA BLEY: Yeah. Xtra. My publishing company is called Alrac. I sorta like those rude sounding words.

FRANK J. OTERI: What does Alrac mean?

CARLA BLEY: It’s Carla backwards.

FRANK J. OTERI: Oh, of course.

CARLA BLEY: But it’s got that Al-rac! It’s not “Celestial Harmonies” or something. And WATT is sort of a short stubby word. Xtra is a cheap word, misspelled. I sorta like that. I don’t like anything too fancy.

FRANK J. OTERI: OK, so the first record you put out on your own is the massive, massive three-LP “Chronotransduction,” as you called it, now that’s a big word. What on earth does that mean?

CARLA BLEY: That means time travel. I didn’t make it up; it was made up by a scientist.

FRANK J. OTERI: That is such an unusual recording. I listened again last night. It’s amazing. But I don’t know what to say about it. There’s so much stuff going on in it, so many different kinds of music. One minute you think you’re listening to a jazz record and then it turns into a field recording from somewhere in the Caucasus or it’s a rock record or a Broadway musical…

CARLA BLEY: Wow. Yeah. Well, I didn’t know what I was supposed to do so I did whatever came up. Anyone who wanted to be in that opera, I said “Fine. You can be in it.” I wasn’t picky about the kinds of music or the people.

FRANK J. OTERI: You consider it an opera but it existed for years as only this recording. About 10 years ago there was a stage production somewhere in Germany.

CARLA BLEY: There were 5 productions. Afterward we toured in France and did the whole summer festival circuit with the live Escalator Over The Hill.

FRANK J. OTERI: Is there a video of that anywhere? I’d love to see it.

CARLA BLEY: Yeah, I’ll give you one.

FRANK J. OTERI: Please, it’s fascinating. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the theatre works of Richard Foreman, but it strikes me…

CARLA BLEY: Oh! He is so great. I just love him!

FRANK J. OTERI: Maybe it’s the musical sensibility of Richard Foreman? It’s so out there, but it’s fun.

CARLA BLEY: I could never hook up with him. He’s not a very friendly guy. [laughs]

FRANK J. OTERI: No [laughs].

CARLA BLEY: Once I cut my fur coat in two and gave him half. We both had the same kind of a strange fur coat made from an Australian animal. Maybe it was a wallaby or something, I forget. I got mine at a thrift shop and I’m sure he did, too. It was the ugliest fur coat you’ve ever seen, but it was really warm. We both had one. Every time we met at a cultural affair we just looked at each other sideways. Once I saw him without his coat and I said, what happened to your coat? He said it just totally fell apart. I loved him so much that I cut my coat down the middle of the back, put half of it in a box, and sent it to his studio. Then I never heard from him. Next time I saw him he never mentioned it. But when I was thinking about Escalator Over The Hill, people where saying to me that I have to do it with this director; they’d name one after the other. I said I want to do it with Richard Foreman. He probably wouldn’t want to do it. It’s unrequited.

FRANK J. OTERI: That is so interesting. I heard the connection immediately.

CARLA BLEY: Wow, that’s so clever. You’ve caught on to a couple of things that I didn’t even know about. Strange.

FRANK J. OTERI: So that came out, which predates the WATT label but was also a self-produced thing. You have a unique position in the record business. You’ve got your own independent label, WATT. It’s distributed by another independent label, ECM, which in turn is distributed by a major conglomerate. I mean, they keep going from one to another: BMG, before that Warner Brothers, now they’re with Universal. They keep hopping, but they always have a major distributing them, which means they’ll be at every Tower Records, Blockbuster, or where have you. You get to have your cake and eat it, too.

CARLA BLEY: Tell me about it!

FRANK J. OTERI: You’re an indie within an indie, distributed by a major. It’s a very envious position to be in.

CARLA BLEY: And I’m totally protected. I never have to meet those guys at the top. All I have to do is be nice to Manfred [laughs].

FRANK J. OTERI: Many of the members of the American Music Center, which puts out NewMusicBox, and a lot of our readers are composers—classical music composers, jazz composers, composers of all types of what I like to call “dot org” music: non-commercial music—most of us are self-published. We put out our own scores. We’re self-producing in terms of making recordings because that’s the way it is. The majors aren’t interested in this stuff. They’re interested in something that they can sell in 2 weeks and milk to death, but they’re not interested in something that has an independent voice—as you said, the gunpowder tea of music.

CARLA BLEY: How long have you been doing that?

FRANK J. OTERI: The Center has been around since 1939.

CARLA BLEY: Oh! I was going to say that this was in the last 30 years that this has been happening. Before then I think if you wrote something that a label or whatever didn’t want, you would disappear from view.

FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah, it’s very true. Sun Ra was one of the earliest people putting out stuff on his own label. Mingus

CARLA BLEY: Mingus, Stan Kenton

FRANK J. OTERI: Stan Kenton, and Harry Partch.

CARLA BLEY: Yeah, Harry Partch. Isn’t that amazing that nobody wanted that? Wow!

FRANK J. OTERI: Now when you look back on it, everybody wants all of those people.


FRANK J. OTERI: And a lot of people who where put out by the majors at that time have been completely forgotten. How many people listen to Curtis Counce at this point?

CARLA BLEY: I don’t even know who that is.

FRANK J. OTERI: This is the stuff being put out by major jazz labels at that time.

CARLA BLEY: Oh, I remember at the time, when I was with New Music Distribution Service, going to all the executives at the major labels and saying, “Look, we’re your work for you. It’s like a farm. We’ve got these young, weird looking forms of life. We’re distributing them. Why don’t you give us some money to help us do it? Because as soon as they’re ready, you can take them away from us for no charge whatsoever. Just throw a little money in the fertilizer.” I never got a cent from any of them. Yet now, luckily, all those weird looking trees survived. Not all of them I’m sure, but most of them. Turns out they get them anyway. They can discard them or cut them down—to continue the tree metaphor—chop them down and burn them…

FRANK J. OTERI: Turn them into McDonald’s paper hamburger wrappers.

CARLA BLEY: Exactly!

FRANK J. OTERI: Let’s talk about New Music Distribution Services. How did that get started?

CARLA BLEY: That got started because Mike and I had made our own recordings, two for JCOA by that time. Mike’s album was called the Jazz Composers Orchestra and mine was Escalator Over The Hill. What do you do with them once you have them? Do you pile them up in your living room or something? You’ve got to get them distributed. We quickly found out that you have to get these things distributed. How are we going to do that? No distributor is going to want them because we don’t have any reputation. So we got together with 10 different labels that we knew about. I believe they were all European at the time. In England it was Incus. In Germany it was FMP and ECM, Futura in France. It was all these people like us: weird people who got their own money together and made their own strange recordings.

FRANK J. OTERI: And it wasn’t just jazz. It was also contemporary music. Lovely Music was a part of that early on.

CARLA BLEY: That was later. This all started with jazz because that was the only people we knew at that point. There were maybe 10 of us, and we distributed each other’s records. We did this for a couple of years for free. If we have a new record we would send it to all these countries. If they had a new record out they would send it to us. We would each try to distribute them as best as possible: to stores or to friends, take out ads, whatever. We did this for no money, but we soon realized we couldn’t do it. We were losing money. We weren’t in the position where we could lose money. The musicians can’t lose money! So we started charging a quarter for every record we distributed. And then it when up to 50 cents. There was a lot of theft going on. The people who would store our records stole them and sold them to other people. By the time NMDS finally collapsed, we were charging $1.80. We kept saying how much do we need to cover ourselves?

FRANK J. OTERI: I haven’t heard this version of the demise of NMDS. The version I always heard when I was a teenager, when Tower Records had just opened and I went down to the New Music Distribution shop in SoHo a few times—I bought my first Alvin Lucier LP there, might have bought some of my first free jazz albums there—and I was told that NMDS fell apart because of the rise of the CD. All these people turned around and returned the LPs, they were flooded by product that they couldn’t get rid of, and that killed them.

CARLA BLEY: No, I never heard that. I could tell you more about that but it wouldn’t be interesting to your readers.

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s completely interesting.


FRANK J. OTERI: Oh yes, it is.

CARLA BLEY: You know, Timothy Marquand, who was the head or president of JCOA, was just here 2 days ago, and we talked about all this, so it’s fresh in my mind. I think it started going under when our office manager got sick. We didn’t fire him because he was really sick, and then he died. During the time that he was sick he didn’t pay the New York State taxes. By the time we found out about it, the taxes were big—more than we could handle. So when the board that we had gotten together to help NMDS found out that the taxes weren’t paid, everyone quit within one second. I was there at the meeting… I quit, I quit, I quit, I quit, I quit, get my coat, my umbrella, out the door. It was just like bam! I think it was hundreds of thousands of dollars…

FRANK J. OTERI: Who was liable?

CARLA BLEY: The board members! That’s why they had to quit!

FRANK J. OTERI: So once there was no board, the State never got the money?

CARLA BLEY: Yes, we’ve been paying it back ever since, along with the musicians and everyone else. So the illness of our office manager was one of the things that happened. After him we got another office manager who was really not the right person. That person was more into world music than into jazz and classical music. They would say, let’s take the money from the sale of the Chick Corea album and buy 20 recordings of this African tribe that nobody ever heard of, or something. And I said wait a minute, we’re looking after our own first. We can’t look after other kinds of music, you know. By that time we were even doing rock ‘n’ roll. We were doing anybody that knew about us, who needed us, and was doing—I guess it was called—new music.

FRANK J. OTERI: New, independent…

CARLA BLEY: Yeah, new music. We wanted to stick with new music and not do world music. A lot of it was traditional. I think that was the excuse. We just couldn’t get bigger. But this guy was just mostly interested in that. We’d get salesmen who would call and say if you take 10 of this, I’ll give you 20 of those cheaper. By that time we were charging $3 an album or something—like whatever Sam Goody would pay or something. We were no bargain. The only thing we were the bargain to were the musicians because we accepted anyone. That was what set us apart. You have an album that you want distributed… sure! Whatever it is! It doesn’t have a cover? No problem! We don’t need a cover. It doesn’t have a number? Can you put a number on it? You don’t want a number on it? Well, okay! Then we took all these…

FRANK J. OTERI: You took the earliest Glenn Branca and Sonic Youth records.

CARLA BLEY: Yup, and Philip Glass. We were his first distributor. We did Laurie Anderson, Gil Scott Heron. Whenever someone had a hit we’d just fire ‘em. We’d say you don’t need us anymore. Come on, give the other guys a break.

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s kind of like Moe Asch‘s philosophy of Folkways. Once he had a hit record he’d say, some other label take it off of me please, I’m not interested!

CARLA BLEY: That’s exactly what we did because we couldn’t be swamped by things. Like Chick Corea’s Return to Forever: we said that’s it, we can’t do it.

FRANK J. OTERI: So you did stuff on majors then because that was Warner Brothers.

CARLA BLEY: It wasn’t at that point. No, it couldn’t have been.

FRANK J. OTERI: Oh, earlier on his stuff was on ECM.

CARLA BLEY: It must have been on ECM. Yes, it was on ECM. We did ECM. We were ECM’s distributor in the early days. And now they’re my distributors.

FRANK J. OTERI: That is so interesting. How did that change happen?

CARLA BLEY: Oh that’s too long! My life is too long! We could never fit this in. Ay ay ay.

FRANK J. OTERI: This is an important piece of the puzzle.

CARLA BLEY: Okay, ECM was one of those original 10 that we distributed—we, as in we all distributed each others’, we were all equal. ECM had a couple of big sellers, which was the problem with ECM.

FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah, the Cologne concert, Keith Jarrett.

CARLA BLEY: No, we didn’t do it by then. I don’t think we were distributing them at that time. Anyway, Michael Mantler, my second husband, and I decided that we were too big for the New Music Distribution Service. We were selling too many records. We needed another distributor because it wasn’t fair. It seemed like we were doing NMDS for our own purposes. We were very high-minded, noble people, you know. I wasn’t just that we wanted to get famous or something. We were at a studio in London doing overdubs with Julie Tippetts for my album Tropic Appetites and Richard Branson came by. He wasn’t a big-time back then, just some rich kid.

FRANK J. OTERI: He didn’t have the airline yet?

CARLA BLEY: [laughs] No, he didn’t have the airline. He did have Virgin Records and he came by and said that he would like to distribute Escalator Over the Hill. I said, okay. You know I’ll distribute yours, too, if you want. And we said, okay. We were sort of thinking that we were going to have to leave NMDS. So, we were distributed by Virgin for about 3 years. I started getting interested in business at the point. I would go to the sales meetings with all the salespeople there and I’d give a little speech about the whole ECM catalog and the WATT catalog because I think he was distributing ECM at that time. But then Richard fired me. I don’t know why. I got really mad at him and I said, you can’t fire me, or something. I chased him around room. I remember I chased him up into the rafters of his house. He was crouched on the rafters up in the attic and I was screaming at him from below. Finally, I realized he was serious and no longer wanted to distribute JCOA and ECM anymore. He was more into the reggae stuff at that point. So I felt terrible. Within one hour ECM picked it up and said, we’ll distribute it. I don’t recall how ECM fit into all this, but within an hour they became our distributor and JCOA’s distributor, too.

FRANK J. OTERI: Terrific! Now your situation, which has been successful for you over 30 years, versus being signed to, say, Sony, or being signed to Verve, or being signed to Blue Note—would you want to be on those labels?

CARLA BLEY: Oh, not now, but of course I did at that point. I used to go around to Teo Macero at Columbia, or Nesuhi Ertegun at Atlantic, or Frances Wolf at Blue Note—I had my presentation together and my tapes together. And they said, look, there’s no market for this, we can’t do it, very sorry. Finally we had to start it ourselves. We started the Jazz Composers Orchestra and Escalator Over the Hill. We fundraised ourselves: made every penny, put ourselves deep into hock, and made rich people give us money. That’s how we did it. After that point I got interested in that and I didn’t want to leave the outcome of my life up to anyone else. I though I’d rather be my own director. I wouldn’t want to be dropped. A lot of people have been dropped. If I were to be dropped! I would be horrified if I got dropped from something. That time I did get dropped—the distribution by Virgin—that was a horrifying moment, but that was the only time that has really happened.

FRANK J. OTERI: But now you have a product that is completely yours, and no one can take it out of print.

CARLA BLEY: No, ECM just keeps it all in print. They could put it out of print.

FRANK J. OTERI: But you have your own label, you could take it somewhere else.

CARLA BLEY: I would take it somewhere else.

FRANK J. OTERI: You own it.

CARLA BLEY: Boy, am I in a good situation, huh? It’s really great. Wow!

FRANK J. OTERI: Getting back to some of the music, I want to talk about some of my favorite things of yours. I know we’re jumping back into the past again, but then we’re going to jump back into the future. I love Musique Mecanique. That album features an extremely young Eugene Chadbourne. He’s really made a name for himself with electric rake and all his crazy country experiments.

CARLA BLEY: Shockabilly.

FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah. But I think that record with you is his earliest recording.

CARLA BLEY: No, we distributed one of his records at NMDS.


CARLA BLEY: He put out his own record.

FRANK J. OTERI: So that’s how you found him.

CARLA BLEY: No. I found him at a concert in Toronto. A painter friend of mine, Mark Snow, said, you got to hear this guitar player, you’ll just love him. I went, and I just loved him. It was at a gallery. It wasn’t even a club.

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s a very, very unique record on many levels.

CARLA BLEY: Terry Adams… wasn’t that amazing? I met him because he came to a Jazz Composers Orchestra session and said, I recorded one of your tunes. He was this weird, wonderful guy from Kentucky. I was really surprised. I just put in everybody I knew at that point.

FRANK J. OTERI: Soon after that record you put out a whole series of records with a pretty much consistent group of people. Getting back to an earlier thread we were talking about, how do you get the sounds that you want out of a group of people? Your response was you have to be there. But you had a pretty tight regular group—Roswell Rudd and Steve… There was a definite group of people who played together. The people who where on the Europe ’77 tour album.


FRANK J. OTERI: That’s a very, very tight sound.

CARLA BLEY: Well, that had nothing to do with me. They had their own sound. I used them. That was the end of it. My choice to use them was the creation of the sound because they wouldn’t sound like anything I would want them to sound like if they didn’t sound like that in the first place. Those people wouldn’t do that or they couldn’t do that. You just choose. You hire the sound that you want.

FRANK J. OTERI: How big of an ensemble can you have sound that tight?

CARLA BLEY: Escalator Over The Hill—I’ll give you a video of the live concert—was great!

FRANK J. OTERI: How many players total?

CARLA BLEY: I used about 35 something.

FRANK J. OTERI: That’s big!

CARLA BLEY: They sounded perfect!

FRANK J. OTERI: I know on the recording that there are different people on each track. It wasn’t the same consistent group.

CARLA BLEY: That’s true, and it was recorded over the period of years—many different sessions, many different locations.

FRANK J. OTERI: In terms of a touring group, a more recent record that I love is Big Band Theory. In that group you have something like 9 horns on there: 5 trumpets, French horns—maybe 10 horns—trombones…

CARLA BLEY: No, that was Fleur Carnivore with a 10-horn band. The others are standard big bands.

FRANK J. OTERI: There’s a lot of brass.


FRANK J. OTERI: There are voicings on there with moments that feel like that entire brass section is moving like a single line. I think the only other time I heard brass sound that tight was on Willie Colón salsa records from the early ’70s.


FRANK J. OTERI: I mean I love how tight that group is!

CARLA BLEY: Thank you! I didn’t know that was unusual at all.

FRANK J. OTERI: I think it is.

CARLA BLEY: I’m so thrilled. Wow, it’s great. I’m just sitting here thinking about it. [pauses] Mmmm. I don’t know why.

FRANK J. OTERI: Did you tour with them a lot before it was recorded? Or did that happen in the studio and then you toured with it? What’s the process?

CARLA BLEY: The process has been, until this last album, to do a tour and record sometime during the tour. Two thirds of the way through is usually best because it would cost a fortune to go into a New York studio and hire guys—like I just did. So I always did these things either live, or at a studio when we had just a couple days off. There was not much that I could control with planning that. I had the band together so I didn’t have to worry about someone not being able to make it, or having to go home early or something. I had those guys. They were in my band. They were in my bus and in my hotel. I got to do whatever I wanted with them for the duration of the tour, so that how I made all my albums.

FRANK J. OTERI: Do you record all the gigs on the tour?

CARLA BLEY: No, definitely not. Well, if it’s a small group maybe we can record—like the duo things where we recorded 10 different gigs. But this last album, Looking For America, I said, I want to make an album with the best New York musicians, I want to make it at the best New York studio, and I want to have a rehearsal in advance, which is something! God, who gets rehearsals? You know, I want to rehearse! Maybe I’ll have two rehearsals. I’m going to save my money and do it. And I did it. So, finally I have a studio recording with great musicians. But I think it pretty much sounds like my other albums.

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