Born Carla Borg, Bley learned the fundamentals of music as a child from her father, a church musician. Thereafter, she was mostly self-taught. Bley moved to New York around 1955, where she worked as a cigarette girl and occasional pianist. She married pianist Paul Bley, for whom she began to write tunes (she also wrote for George Russell and Jimmy Giuffre). In 1964, with her second husband, trumpeter Michael Mantler, Bley formed the Jazz Composer's Guild Orchestra, which a year later became known simply as the Jazz Composer's Orchestra. Two years later, Bley helped found the Jazz Composer's Orchestra Association, a nonprofit organization designed to present, distribute, and produce unconventional forms of jazz.
In 1967, vibist Gary Burton's quartet recorded Bley's cycle of tunes A Genuine Tong Funeral, which brought her to the attention of the general public for the first time. In 1969, Bley composed and arranged music for Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra. In 1971, Bley completed the work that cemented her reputation, the jazz opera Escalator Over the Hill. In the '70s and '80s, Bley continued to run the JCOA and compose and record for her own Watt label. The JCOA essentially folded in the late '80s, but Bley's creative life has continued mostly unabated. For much of the past two decades, she's maintained a midsized big band with fairly stable personnel to tour and record. She's also worked a great deal with the bassist Steve Swallow, in duo and in ensembles of varying size.
Bley wrote the music for the soundtrack to the 1985 film Mortelle Randone. She also contributed new compositions to the Liberation Music Orchestra's second incarnation in 1983. All through the '80s, '90s, and into the new millennium, Bley continued releasing albums through ECM, ranging from duets with bassist Steve Swallow to the Very Big Carla Bley Band. She released a third duets album with Steve Swallow, Are We There Yet?, in 2000; Looking for America in 2003; The Lost Chords Find Paolo Fresu in 2007; and the big band album Appearing Nightly in 2008. ~ Chris Kelsey, Rovi