Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians
Pianist Paul Bley has a rare ability to carefully yet playfully balance many musical elements: structure and freedom, gentle lyricism and intricate phrasing, complexity and simplicity. His cerebral approach to jazz piano and pioneering experiments with synthesizers had a profound influence on contemporary players, from Keith Jarrett to Ethan Iverson.
Paul Bley was born in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, on November 10, 1932. His adoptive parents were Betty Marcovitch, an immigrant from Romania, and Joe Bley, owner of an embroidery factory.
Bley’s musical training began early, and he developed quickly. He began studying classical music on violin and moved to piano by age seven. He studied music in public school, took private lessons, and enrolled at the McGill Conservatory in his early teens.
By the late 1940s, Bley was performing gigs around Montreal. Bley recalls his first professional gig was with Al Cowans and his Tramp Band, an all-black band, a rarity in Canada at the time. When fellow Montreal pianist Oscar Peterson moved to New York in 1949, Peterson recommended Bley to replace him at the city's famed Alberta Lounge. He accepted the invitation, but the residency was short-lived – Bley himself moved to New York in 1950.
Bley enrolled at Juilliard, where he studied until 1954. He immediately immersed himself in the New York jazz scene, performing bebop with Jackie McLean and Donald Byrd, and touring with Swing Era legends Roy Eldridge, Ben Webster, and Lester Young.
Bley remained loyal to the Montreal music scene, and returned to the city frequently. In 1952 he helped form the Montreal Jazz Workshop, a collective of Montreal musicians who invited some of the era's renowned bebop musicians to visit the city, and to perform on Canadian television. Bley enticed Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins to pass through Montreal and play with the Workshop - with the young Bley himself returning to play piano.
Throughout his time at Juilliard, Bley frequented Lennie Tristano’s workshops and famed jam sessions. He also became the President of the Associated Jazz Societies of New York in 1952, which put him in contact with Charles Mingus. Mingus hired Bley to conduct some of his early ‘50s ensembles, and in turn, Mingus played bass on Bley’s debut recording, Introducing Paul Bley, a 1953 trio date with Mingus and Art Blakey.
In 1957, Bley moved to California, and began performing with trumpeter Chet Baker upon his arrival. Regular gigs (as a leader) at The Hillcrest Club in San Francisco soon followed. In 1958, he hired the quartet Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Billy Higgins and Charlie Haden to perform with him at the Hillcrest Club.
It was during these gigs that Bley realized that his expansive training in various styles of music – combined with the excitement of Coleman’s approach to jazz – had led him to a musical crossroads. In his own words, Bley was becoming more and more interested in discovering “new advances in improvising,” and working with the Coleman quartet provided him with exciting, freer possibilities that he would develop in the coming years.
Shortly before leaving California, Bley married pianist and composer Karen Borg, now known as Carla Bley.
Upon his return to New York, Bley split his time between hard bop and free jazz, performing and recording with Charles Mingus, George Russell, Don Ellis, and forming a trio with clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre and bassist Steve Swallow.
This trio’s unconventional combinations of playing in and out of traditional time (and with and without chord changes) while maintaining an improvisational, blues-based foundation can be heard on“Emphasis” and “Jesus Maria,” both released in 1961.
In 1963, Bley joined Sonny Rollins’ band and performed on the legendary collaboration between Sonny Rollins and Coleman Hawkins, entitled Sonny Meets Hawk. The fascinating session in which the avant-garde skillfully clashes with swing tradition is evidenced on the classic reworking of “Lover Man.”
Bley joined the Jazz Composer’s Guild in 1964, and collaborated with many of its avant-garde composers, all searching for and creating the “new thing” in jazz. These included Albert Ayler, Archie Schepp, Roswell Rudd, and Carla Bley. He also solidified his own working trio with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Paul Motian.
Offering an alternative to the conventional beauty of the Bill Evans piano trio, Bley, Peacock, and Motian (who also played with Evans) pushed boundaries of jazz with their combination of forward-thinking free playing and time-honored tradition. When Peacock and Motian were unavailable, Bley also performed in piano trios with bassists Kent Carter and Marc Levinson, and drummers Barry Altschul and Billy Elgart.
In 1968, Bley began experimenting with electronic keyboards and synthesizers, and on December 26, 1969, performed the first-ever live performance with a portable moog audio synthesizer at Philharmonic Hall in New York City. Bley went on to make ten synthesizer recordings between 1969 and 1971, most of which were collaborations with his second wife, pianist and vocalist Annette Peacock.
Throughout the 1970s, Bley made recordings for ECM records, many of them solo piano performances that highlighted the dichotomous relationship between structure and freedom present throughout much of Bley’s recorded output. “Closer” from 1972’s Open to Love is a fine example of work from this period.
In 1973, Bley and video artist Carol Goss formed Improvising Artists, a collective of jazz performers and video artists responsible for the creation of some of the very first music videos. Bley and Goss married in 1980.
In the early 1970s, Bley formed an electric group, Scorpio, in which he played piano, synthesizers, and Fender Rhodes, with a revolving cast of bassists and drummers, including Dave Holland and Barry Altschul. In 1974, Bley participated in a session that marked the debut performances of both Jaco Pastorius and Pat Metheny, Pastorius, Metheny, Ditmas, Bley.
Throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, Bley continued to tour and record, mostly outside of the United States. He toured again with Chet Baker, reassembled his trio with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Barry Altschul for a tour of Japan in 1976, and reunited with Jimmy Giuffre and Steve Swallow in late 1989, resulting in the Life of a Trio: Saturday and Life of a Trio: Sunday recordings. Bley also performed/recorded with Kenny Wheeler, Lee Konitz, and Charlie Haden, and released albums both as a solo piano artist and as a bandleader.
In the 1990s, Bley continued to perform and began a second career as an educator, joining the faculty at the New England Conservatory of Music. In 1994, Bley was awarded the Prix Oscar Peterson Award at the Montreal Jazz Festival, where a concert series was held in his honor. In 1998, Bravo! Television presented a biographical documentary on Bley’s life and musical influence, and in 1999, Bley released an autobiography entitled Stopping Time: Paul Bley and the Transformation of Jazz.
Bley has covered a lot of ground in his more than sixty years in jazz. What's more, from his sessions with Mingus, Rollins, and Coleman, through his avant-garde solo and trio recordings, to his leadership in jazz education and technology, Bley has quietly transformed the landscape of modern jazz.
Discography: As a Leader:
As a Leader:
Introducing Paul Bley (1953), Paul Bley (1954), Live at the Hillcrest Club (1958), Solemn Meditation (1958), The Floater (1962), Footloose! (1962), With Gary Peacock (1963), Syndrome (1963), Turning Point (1964), Turns (1964), Barrage (1964), Copenhagen with Haarlem (1965), Touching (1965), Closer (1965), Ramblin’ (1966), Blood (1966), Ballads (1967), Paul Bley in Harlem (1967), Virtuosi (1967), Mr. Joy (1968), Canada (1968), Synthesizer Show (1970), I’m the One (1972), Open, To Love (1972), Solo Piano (1972), Paul Bley and Scorpio (1972), Alone, Again (1974), Quiet Song (1974), Japan Suite (1976), Axis (1977), Ramblings (1980), Tango Palace (1983), Sonor (1983), Tears (1983), Questions (1985), Hot (1985), The Paul Bley Group (1985), My Standard (1985), Fragments (1986), Paul Bley Quartet (1987), Solo (1987), Notes (1987), Live at Sweet Basil (1988), The Nearness of You (1988), Bebopbebopbebopbebop (1989), Partners (1989), Blues for Red (1989), In a Row (1990), Paul Bley and Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen (1990), Memoirs (1990), Changing Hands (1991), Lyrics (1991), In the Evenings Out There (1991), Plays Carla Bley (1991), If We May (1993), Synth Thesis (1993), Time Will Tell (1994), Outside In (1994), Live (1994), Caravan Suite (1994), Indian Summer (1994), Rejoicing (1994), Modern Chant (1994), Copenhagen Jazz House (1994), Emerald Blue (1994), Fabulous Paul Bley Quintet (1994), Sweet Time (1995), 12 (+6) In a Row (1995), Annette (1995), Speechless (1995), Live Again (1995), Montmartre Live (1996), Reality Check (1996), Hands On (1997), Mindset (1997), Notes on Ornette (1998), Chaos (1998), Zen Palace (1999), Not Two, Not One (1999), In Harlem Blood (1999), In Haarlem (1999), Jazz’n (E)motion (1999), Basics (2001), Homage to Carla (2001), Sankt Gerold (2001), Know Time (2001), Echo (2002), Saturday (2002), Paul Bley (2003), Nothing to Declare (2004), Circles (2004), One Year After (2005), Improvisie (2006), In Monzeh (2007), Solo in Mondsee (2007)
Additional Recordings (Selected):
In a Soulful Mood (Charles Mingus, 1960), Jazz in the Space Age (George Russell, 1960), Mingus Revisited (Charles Mingus, 1960), Mingus! (Charles Mingus, 1960), Pre-Bird (Charles Mingus, 1960), 1961 (Jimmy Giuffre 3, 1961), Out of Nowhere (Don Ellis, 1961), Reincarnation of a Lovebird (Charles Mingus, 1961), Essence (Don Ellis, 1961), Sonny Meets Hawk! (Sonny Rollins and Coleman Hawkins, 1963), Jaco Pastorius (Jaco Pastorius, 1976), Pyramid (Lee Konitz, Paul Bley, Bill Conners, 1977), Diane: Chet Baker and Paul Bley (1985), Montreal Tapes, Vol. 1 (Charlie Haden, 1989), Right Time, Right Place (Gary Burton and Paul Bley, 1990), Adventure Playground (John Surman, 1991), Rhapsody (Lee Konitz, 1993), Touche (Kenny Wheeler and Paul Bley, 1996), Out of Nowhere (Lee Konitz/Paul Bley Quartet, 1997)
Bley, Paul, with David Lee. Stopping Time: Paul Bley and the Transformation of Jazz. Montreal: Vehicule Press, 1999.
Meehan, Norman. Conversations with Paul Bley. Berkeley: Berkeley Hills Books, 2003.
Contributor: Eric Novod