I was conceived by Carla Bley and Michael Mantler at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1965. Born in 1966, I was immediately swept into the musician's life on the road. After having checked me at the coatroom of the Berlin Jazz Festival, to the horror of the press, my parents realized that I was going to have to learn to play an instrument in order to be useful. But since I was still just a baby and they couldn't leave me alone, they had to bring me on stage with them and keep me under the piano. This is probably why I feel most at home on the stage.
In 1971, when I was four, my mother let me have a part in Escalator Over The Hill and the next year I sang on another of her records, Tropic Appetites. By 1977 I had learned to play the glockenspiel, and I joined the Carla Bley Band. I toured Europe and the States with her several times and played on her Musique Mecanique album. After playing at Carnegie Hall in 1980, where I tried to steal the show by pretending to be Carla Bley, my mother fired me, telling me "get your own band".
I realized that I was going to have to learn a more complicated instrument. After trying drums, bass, and flute, which I always lost interest in, I settled on the clarinet. I joined my elementary school band and quickly rose to the head of the clarinet section. The band director let me take the first improvised solo in the history of the Phoenicia (a small town near Woodstock, NY) elementary school. After graduating to high school I continued to play the clarinet in the band, but didn't like the music we were made to play. This was when I realized that playing other people's music was not enough, and I was going to have to write my own. The music department agreed to give me school credit for studying composition with my mother and making a tape of the music I had written to play for them, but they hated the tape so much that I was banned from any future musical activities. For the remainder of my high school years, my major musical activity was getting kicked off the music room stairs for practicing the harmonica.
Luckily I soon got a scholarship to attend the Berklee College of Music in Boston. By this time I had given up clarinet and had been playing organ in a band with Jonathan Sanborn (another musician's kid). Of course organ isn't a very practical instrument, so I played piano at Berklee. I was determined to learn more about music and they tried to teach me, but in three years I learned virtually nothing. I had my own weird style, which I probably inherited from my father. I remember being interrupted during a solo in an ensemble class by an instructor yelling, "it's your solo Karen, solo!"
"I am!” I screamed back. Still, I did meet a lot of nice people who would humor me when I played the piano and liked the music I wrote. My senior recital, called “A Little Knowledge Is A Dangerous Thing” had a lot of teachers in the audience and was a great success.
While in Boston I had made friends with other young composers and in 1986 we put together a concert of our music to play at the Mass. College of Art. Later, a group of older writers called The Jazz Composers Alliance asked me to be the guest for one of their concerts, and they performed my piece at a local jazz club. In 1987 I moved to New York City. By this time I had written enough music to make a record, so I put together a band featuring Eric Mingus, Jonathan Sanborn, Steve Weisberg, Ethan Winogrand, Marc Muller, Steven Bernstein and Pablo Calogero. We played together for about 6 months, then went into the studio and recorded My Cat Arnold, which was released in Europe and Japan in May on the XtraWatt label, and in the United States in the fall of 1989.
After noticing what a good harmonica player I was becoming, my mother asked me to be in her band for a European tour in October 1988. I enjoyed it very much, but I was eager to return to New York and start working on my own music. During July 1989 I toured Europe with my band, and afterwards appeared at the Knitting Factory and on Dave Sanborn's NBC "Night Music" television show.
Once again, I had written enough music to make another album for XtraWatt. No one in my band had quit or been fired, so in the summer of 1990 we went into the studio and recorded Karen Mantler And Her Cat Arnold Get The Flu. It was released in Europe in October, and in the United States in November.
We didn't play at The Montreal Jazz Festival in 1990. They asked us to, and we even went there, but it rained the whole time, and our stage was the only one without a cover. The festival felt so bad about it, they offered to let us come back the next year.
In October we toured Europe on a double bill with The Very Big Carla Bley Band. My mother agreed to let us come on the condition that she could borrow me and my two horn players for her band. The band was so big that a double-decker tour bus was too small for us, but somehow we managed to squeeze ourselves in, and the tour was a gigantic success.
Meanwhile, my father had been considering either giving up music or committing suicide, but instead chose to quit working for Watt and move to Europe. I had been innocently training to be his assistant for two years, so the promotion to general manager of the whole operation was quite a shock. I had no business experience, but somehow managed to learn as I went along.
The best part of my new job was that Arnold and I could be together again. But Carla and Steve were always on the road, so we were all alone. The winter of 1991 was long and hard. By spring, we were both very depressed. The ten pounds I had gained Arnold had lost, and on April 25 (my birthday) he died.
I spent the next three months composing a requiem for him called “Arnold's Dead”, which we premiered at The Montreal Jazz Festival in July 1991. Just as it had the previous year, it rained the whole time we were there, but luckily the promoters had the foresight to give us a stage with a roof this time. I was still very depressed about Arnold's death, and I guess the audience could tell because by the end of the concert the whole audience was howling "Arnold" in despair.
I returned home with not much hope of performing again, but luckily Steve Swallow hired me to play synthesizer on his record Swallow, which we recorded in September 1991. It was great playing with such advanced musicians, but I missed my band and was determined to continue performing with them.
My second record had gone without much notice from the media, so there was very little interest from promoters. With nowhere else to turn, I convinced my father to become my booking agent, and he got us a weeklong tour of Germany in October. I was distressed to learn that my baritone player was busy playing with Mario Bauza, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise because I ended up hiring Gary Valente.
Later that month I was hired to play organ on a recording by drummer Motohiko Hino. Sailing Stone was released in January 1992 and also featured Mike Stern, Steve Swallow and Dave Liebman.
Not much happened during the following six months. Most of my time was spent running the business. I also wrote a lot of depressing songs.
It was starting to seem like I would never get another gig. So I called my father in Copenhagen to see how he was doing. He had been writing music, and asked if I would like to play piano on a recording he was planning to make in June with The Balanescu String Quartet. I also got to sing a duet with Jack Bruce, and the resulting compact disc, Folly Seeing All This, was released on ECM in March 1993.
In July 1992 I returned to Europe as the organ player in The Very Big Carla Bley Band. We spent a week at the Glasgow Jazz Festival, and another week at The Umbria Jazz Festival in Italy.
By this time it was becoming apparent that I was better suited to music than business, and Carla suggested I start training somebody to take over my responsibilities at Watt. We were lucky to find Ilene Mark, and by January 1993 I was able to move back to New York City.
There didn't seem to be much work for me in the city, so I was about to look for a job as a waitress when Motohiko Hino called me to play with him again. We recorded an album in March called It’s There, and also played a gig at The Knitting Factory.
A few months later I got a call from Terry Adams, the leader of NRBQ, who asked me to sing one of his songs at The Bottom Line in New York. I considered it a great honor, because I'd always admired Terry, and I even got paid!
Once again, in July 1993, I went to Europe as my mother's organ player. We toured for a month and recorded Big Band Theory.
In February 1994 I got another call from Terry Adams, who wanted me to play glockenspiel and harmonica in a band he was putting together to accompany David Greenberger's Duplex Planet Radio Hour. We performed it at St. Ann's church in Brooklyn, and it was broadcast on public radio.
After doing another European tour with The Carla Bley Big Band later that month, I returned to New York City and once again found I had no way to support myself. I began playing solo piano at a restaurant in exchange for free meals. Occasionally I got a call for a paying gig. I played with guitar player Dan Rose, and also made a few guest appearances with a band called Lazy Boy. Times were hard. The Internal Revenue Service was after me for not paying taxes, and Con Edison (the local power company) had turned off my electricity. Three years had passed since my last record, and there was no way I could afford to hire a band.
Luckily, in 1995 I ran into Michael Evans, a drummer I had met while living in Boston. He expressed interest in playing with me, and we began sorting through the pile of music I had written since Arnold's death. Since we both play a variety of instruments, we realized that we could work as a duo. During this time we also realized that we had fallen in love and moved in together. After playing a few gigs on the east coast, we went into the studio and recorded Farewell in December 1995. It was released in Europe in the spring, and in the United States in the fall of 1996.
I spent most of the summer of 1996 in Europe. First, I did another tour with The Carla Bley Big Band in July. During that tour we recorded a live album in Italy called The Carla Bley Big Band Goes To Church. After that I went to Copenhagen to work with my father, who hired me to sing in an opera he had written called The School Of Understanding. This also concluded with a recording, which was released on ECM records in 1997.
In September, Michael Evans joined me in Europe for a tour to promote our newly released cd. It was just the two of us and about 400 pounds of musical equipment. We traveled everywhere by train, and just barely made it to each gig. Our hard work paid off though; the music was well received, and we went home with money in our pockets.
Back in New York City, the new cd had just been released and we needed to promote it. Unlike in Europe, this meant spending money, not earning it, so we could only afford to play a few clubs before we were broke again. By chance, a friend of mine who worked at a local Starbuck's coffee house was setting up a new music series to take place there every Friday. Although there was no real stage or sound system, they were offering a guaranteed salary, so we started playing there once a month. This went on for most of the winter and spring of 1997.
At this stage in my life, I finally resigned myself to the fact that my time was best spent working on my own music, since I rarely received calls to play with other bands. However, there were a few notable gigs during that winter: my mother was asked to write an arrangement for David Byrne, and she hired me as the organ player. Another dubious honor was being asked to play in “The Most Unwanted Orchestra”, a band put together by David Soldier based on a survey of what people's least favorite instruments were (the band included tuba, bagpipes, banjo and harmonica). We played one gig at the knitting factory, but then I never heard from him again.
In May 1997 The Carla Bley Big Band did a tour of England. Carla had also been commissioned to put together another band called Fancy Chamber Music featuring classical musicians along with herself and Steve Swallow. My responsibility as organ player in the big band was expanded to include being the page-turner for Carla during the chamber music portion of the show.
About one year earlier, Carla had been approached by a promoter in Cologne, Germany to organize a performance of Escalator Over The Hill for June 1997. When Escalator was originally recorded I was only 4 years old and had a very small part. Now she was asking me to sing all of her parts and play synthesizer! I also did a lot of the copying for the band and helped coach the singers.
My exposure to “opera” continued that winter when I returned to Europe for a performance of The School Of Understanding at the Hebbel Theater in Berlin. I returned to New York City, and continued playing gigs at local clubs like The Knitting Factory and Tonic as a duo with Michael Evans. However, I was no longer happy with this limited format, and began dreaming of writing an opera of my own. Since Arnold had now been dead for many years, I decided that I should search for a new pet, and that this could be the theme for my new project. I spent the winter writing songs with titles like “Turtles”, “Life Is Sheep” and “Why Not A Bear?”
In the summer of 1998 Escalator Over The Hill toured Europe. When we played in Paris I was introduced to a man who worked at EMI France. At the time I didn’t think much of it, but a few days later this same man, Jean-Philippe Rolland, contacted me and expressed great interest in my future recording plans! It sounded too good to be true, but when I told him about my pet project he loved the idea and said he would like to release it on Virgin Classics.
For the next six months all my time was spent writing music and thinking about who would be in the band.
Although I intended to write an opera, I realized that I didn’t know many good singers, so I hired Eric Mingus and decided the rest of the roles would have to be sung by the band. I was lucky to have met a great bass player the previous year, Kato Hideki, who had been playing with my drummer extensively and seemed like the perfect choice. Finding a keyboard player was easy too. Arturo O’Farrill and I had both been in my mother’s band when we were just teenagers, and when I called him he agreed that it would be great to play together again.
I started playing gigs with this band, and although I now had a great rhythm section, it was missing something. I needed a guitar player. I decided to go straight to the top, and called Hiram Bullock. I was so happy when he said yes!
Now all I needed were some horns. Steven Bernstein had played trumpet in my original band, and although he was now very busy playing with The Lounge Lizards and his own band Sex Mob, he agreed to squeeze me into his schedule. It seemed obvious to me that I should also hire the baritone player Pablo Calogero, another member of my original band. Finally, I called Gary Valente. I’ve always loved the way he plays trombone, and was lucky to get him.
In august 1999 we went into the studio and recorded Karen Mantler’s Pet Project, which was released in 2000 by Virgin Classics.
One of the advantages of recording for a big label is that it has lots of money. It was no problem to convince them that the studio sessions should be filmed. In September I spent 2 days in an editing studio creating videos for 2 of the songs. The company liked the result so much that they decided to include this footage on the cd.
I was very happy with the way the cd turned out and I figured that with such a great product all I had to do was sit back and wait for the offers to come flooding in. it didn’t quite work out that way. Plagued by a relentless series of mergers and takeovers, Virgin Classics no longer wanted to have anything to do with interesting, original music. Jean-Philippe Rolland was forbidden to sign any new artists and kept busy producing a 200th version of Mozart’s Mass in C.
Attempts to book a European tour for my band failed. It took a few months for me to realize that nothing was going to happen unless I took matters into my own hands.
If I wanted to continue working with my decidedly unprofitable band I knew I was going to have to find a source of money. I took a full time job serving coffee and sandwiches at a place called Olive’s, which was very popular with the fashion and advertising people in soho. After I had saved enough money, I booked a gig at The Knitting Factory in July 2000 to celebrate the US release of Pet Project. I had a lot of fun playing with my new eight piece band, but nobody from the record label came and, as expected, I lost all of my money doing it.
Instead of booking another local gig, I returned to trying to figure out how to make a living. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life serving coffee, but having an eight piece band did not seem to be the answer. I decided to try panhandling on the street. I had an old accordion that I had never really learned to play, and I had the idea that I could earn some spare change while practicing. I took it out to the busiest corner I could find in Greenwich Village and put out a sign that said: please help me pay for lessons. Most everyone who passed me commented on how badly I needed lessons and gave me a few coins. By the end of the night I had earned seven dollars! I might have continued doing this, but the accordion was so heavy that one night I dropped it and it broke. To be honest, I was sort of relieved. It was hard work carrying that thing around.
In October 2000 I got one of those rare calls from someone who wanted to hire me as a singer. I sang the title track on bass player and bandleader Joe Gallant’s cd Shadowhead.
Although it went against my better judgment, in December I booked another gig for my band at The Knitting Factory. This time I cut two of the horns and just used Gary Valente on trombone. I still lost money, but one good thing came of it: I shared the bill with David Garland, who besides being a musician had several shows on radio station WNYC. He invited me to be his guest on his weekly program called “Spinning On Air.” Thinking that this might help bring in more customers, I booked another gig to coincide with the broadcast. This time I played at a club called Tonic and decided to use the full band. As usual, I lost money and swore that I would never perform in public again.
My vow didn’t last long. In May I got another call from someone wanting me to sing. The booking agent for The Knitting Factory, Glenn Max, had moved to London to run The Royal Festival Hall and he had convinced Robert Wyatt to host the annual “Meltdown” festival. Robert suggested that I be asked to participate and Glenn decided that I should be one of the guest vocalists appearing with trombone player Annie Whitehead’s band, which was doing a tribute to Robert.
Based on the strength of getting this high-profile gig, I convinced Virgin Classics to finally release my cd in France and bring me to Paris before the concert to do two days of press. Then I flew to London and sang three of Robert’s songs to a packed house.
I have never considered myself a singer, so I felt quite out of place sharing the stage with people like Julie Tippetts and Elvis Costello. I was even more puzzled when I got paid at the end of the night. It would seem that I should give up writing music and having my own band in order to become a singer or full-time harmonica player. Unable to accept this, I returned to New York and went straight back to work at Olive’s, where I plan to continue serving coffee with a smile until I can save enough money to play another gig with my band.
as a leader:
My Cat Arnold (XtraWatt/3)
Karen Mantler And Her Cat Arnold Get The Flu (XtraWatt/5)
Karen Mantler’s Pet Project (Virgin Classics)
Escalator Over The Hill (Carla Bley - JCOA/EOTH)
Tropic Appetites (Carla Bley - Watt/1)
Musique Mecanique (Carla Bley - Watt/9)
I Can't Stand Another Night... (Steve Weisberg - XtraWatt/1)
Fleur Carnivore (Carla Bley - Watt/21)
The Watt Works Family Album (Watt/22)
The Very Big Carla Bley Band (Carla Bley - Watt/23)
Carried Away (Robbie Dupree - Village Green/Gold Castle)
Swallow (Steve Swallow - XtraWatt/6)
Sailing Stone (Motohiko Hino - Fun House/Gramavision)
Folly Seeing All This (Michael Mantler - ECM)
It's There (Motohiko Hino - Fun House/Gramavision)
Big Band Theory (Carla Bley - Watt/25)
The Carla Bley Big Band Goes To Church (Carla Bley - Watt/27)
The School Of Understanding (Michael Mantler - ECM)
Shadowhead (Joe Gallant & Illuminati – Black Mirror)