The free jazz pioneer, from the iconic Birdland to the Melbourne Jazz Festival. By Chloe Hooper.

Jazz composer Carla Bley

She reaches into the middle of the hotel’s deep velvet couch, thrusting her hand between the seat cushions, and runs her fingers back and forth as if the soft fabric is soothing. At 81, Carla Bley’s waterfall of electrified grey hair almost hides a face that’s remarkably unlined: it’s the composer’s hands that show her age. As a little kid she’d bend her double-jointed fingers into witchy shapes to scare other children, crying, “Arrgh!” “And now they are stuck in that horrible position, like when your mother says” – she shifts her Californian lilt to a taunting singsong – “ ‘If you make that expression, your face is going to stay like that!’ ”

Halfway around the world, on tour, in a city of “tall things: trees and buildings”, her early life still feels close by. She recalls staring at the sheet music of her father, a church organist, and asking him who had written the notes.

“ ‘Well,’ ” Bley now takes on a patient, paternal tone, “ ‘a composer wrote them.’ ”

“How do you do it? I want to write my notes, too,” she says, six years old again.

“ ‘Well, here’s a piece of paper, and you put in little dots, and that tells the player what notes to play.’ ”

Bley filled her paper with as many little dots as she could, “just like the stars in the sky”.

“ ‘That’s too many dots,’ ” says Bley, as her father. “ ‘Get rid of most of them.’ ”

The composition studies of Lovella May Borg, as she was then known, didn’t properly recommence until she was 17. Switching the church for jazz and hitching a ride to the east coast, she found work at New York’s famous Birdland: “My whole education is the nightclubs of old.” Here, she worked selling soft toys, often to married men for their girlfriends; or, tray attached, cigarettes. If someone tried to buy a packet during a jazz solo, she would tell them to return after it was finished.

Borg had one green pinafore she’d sewn herself, in a place where arch-femininity was defined by the frequent presence of Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland and Ava Gardner. “Everyone was in black with pearls. I never really looked like I was supposed to look,” she admits, then adds, as if only now realising: “And I didn’t want to anyway.”

One evening, the jazz pianist Paul Bley came up to buy cigarettes. She discovered, later, he didn’t smoke. He discovered she composed music. They were married and he began to play her tunes. Soon, so did other young stars of the New York free jazz movement. Carla Bley – as she’d renamed herself – now stopped consulting the psychiatrist who’d suggested electric shock therapy to cure her sense she was a composer. As she became more famous, Bley led a big band that performed her compositions – strange, sly, subversive works that The New York Times says “had an influence that’s incalculable partly for being so pervasive and diffuse, like fluoride in the water supply”.

Sitting still as a schoolgirl, trying not to fiddle with her hands, the evening’s coming down through the window. In bed, before she sleeps, she’ll hear on loop the music she’ll play for the Melbourne International Jazz Festival: “If I’m working on a few projects, my brain will just keep going like a big jukebox up there.” On high rotation is “Appearing Nightly at the Black Orchid”, about her pre-Birdland experience as an unsuccessful pianist in a cocktail bar. Bley’s repertoire had consisted of “Embraceable You”, which she played repeatedly before losing her job. “Beautiful Telephones”, her meditation on Donald Trump, is also lowering onto the jukebox wheel. At the Melbourne Recital Centre she’ll play this mournful work, encoded with fragments of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”, “My Way”, “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and Chopin’s “Funeral March”.

Despite performing in one way or another for more than 75 years, Bley doesn’t see herself as a performer. “I’m basically a composer, and I just spend most of my time alone at the desk and there’s nothing glamorous about it at all. It’s just, ‘That note sounds good, so write it down’ or ‘That note no longer sounds good, get rid of it.’

“And that’s about all there is. It’s like filling in a jigsaw puzzle. When you’re writing, you can take all the time in the world to find the next great note. But in playing, if you don’t play it right, right then, it’s gone. It’s gone and the piece keeps moving underneath you and you could fall right off of it. I wouldn’t play if I didn’t have to, but,” she concedes with an element of relief, “I think I have to.”

Bley has rearranged some of her earlier compositions to accommodate her fingers that have lost flexibility. To demonstrate how a pianist’s fingers should ideally arch, she places a “handicapped” one on the lacquer coffee table, and uses another finger to hoist it up.

Her knuckles and finger joints are reshaped by swollen bones, but it’s hard not to see in her hands’ metamorphosis this artist’s idiosyncratic talent, her uncanny elegance. It’s as if she makes arthritis look original. “I always prided myself on my huge hands and my ability to play large intervals. But that’s going away.” Bley makes a split-second decision not to dwell on things lost. “That’s okay,” she says lightly. “I know a pianist whose only got three fingers on his right hand, and he’s one of my favourite players. Whatever you’ve got there, you can make it work.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 8, 2017 as "Knowing the score".

A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

Chloe Hooper is the author of The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire, The Engagement, A Child’s Book of True Crime and The Tall Man.

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on July 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.