The Oakland, Calif., native and five-time Grammy nominee was born Karen Borg, and changed her name to Carla in 1957. She married jazz pianist Paul Bley that same year, and kept his last name even after the couple divorced in 1967. Throughout their marriage, the couple toured together and Paul Bley’s 1964 album Barrage featured Carla’s compositions entirely.
Throughout her career, Bley released albums as a bandleader and collaborator. She’s had three albums hit the top 20 on Billboard’s Jazz Albums chart, with Carla’s Christmas Carols (in collaboration with Andy Sheppard and The Partyka Brass Quintet) peaking at No. 16 in 2009, Andando El Tiempo (in collaboration with Sheppard and Steve Swallow) peaking at No. 14 in 2019 and Trios (with Sheppard and Swallow) peaking at No. 19 in 2013. Two of her solo albums, Heavy Heart and The Very Big Carla Bley Band, peaked at No. 27 and 25 on the Billboard Traditional Jazz Albums chart, respectively.
She was also prominent in the jazz music business, as she was involved in organizing the Jazz Composers Guild in 1964. She also founded record labels JCOA Records and the ECM-distributed Watt. She worked with Michael Mantler — whom she was married to until 1991 — to open the nonprofit New Music Distribution Service, which expanded JCOA, ECM and other labels to larger audiences.
Bley released her final album, a collaborative project with Sheppard and Swallow titled Life Goes On, in 2020.
She was also decorated with awards throughout her life, receiving the 1972 Guggenheim Fellowship for music composition. In 2015, she received the NEA Jazz Masters Award.