Paul Bley - Biography

By Stuart Kremsky


         Pianist and electronic music pioneer Paul Bley is an utterly fearless improvisor, consistently original and thoughtful regardless of the context. Over the decades, his work with artists from Chet Baker, Ornette Coleman and Sonny Rollins to Evan Parker and Sam Rivers has served to connect the dots between be-bop invention and avant garde exploration. Steve Lake has written that his “particular artistic sensibility was an important blueprint for an aesthetic viewpoint now so widespread as to be an would be nice to think that more of today's instrumentalists (and not just pianists) at least knew to whom they owe a debt.”


            Paul Bley was born on November 10, 1932, in Montréal, Québec, Canada. A childhood prodigy, he gave violin recitals at age five, and was taking piano lessons two years later. At eleven he graduated from the McGill Conservatory, where he’d studied their musical curriculum in addition to his public school education. Oscar Peterson, leaving Montréal for New York, arranged for the seventeen year old Bley to take over his regular gig at the Alberta Lounge. As a founder of the Montreal Jazz Workshop, he brought such stars as Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Brew Moore and Alan Eager to town in order to share the stage with them.


            Bley left for New York in 1950. He studied at the Julliard School of Music until 1954. During this period he led a quintet with alto saxist Jackie McLean and trumpeter Donald Byrd, and also toured with Lester Young, Ben Webster, and Roy Eldridge. Through his role as the president of the Associated Jazz Societies of New York, Bley met Charles Mingus, who hired him to conduct his octet for an October 1953 recording on Debut. The label, co-owned by Mingus and drummer Max Roach, also recorded Bley's debut album the next month, a trio effort with Mingus and drummer Art Blakey.


            Bley toured with his own trio during the mid-Fifties, and also played in bands led by Charlie Mariano, Chet Baker, and others. He met Carla Borg in 1956, and they married the next year. Bley encouraged her to compose, and for several years compositions by Carla Bley formed a large part of his repertoire. The pair relocated to Los Angeles in 1957. Bley got a steady gig at the Hillcrest Club, and he soon met progressive musicians in town like bassists Scott LaFaro and Charlie Haden, saxophonist Ornette Coleman, and trumpeter Don Cherry. Live recordings from October 1958 with Coleman, Cherry, Haden, and drummer Billy Higgins later appeared on the America label and Bley’s own Improvising Artists imprint.


            Interested in further exploring the freer jazz that he’d been experimenting with in Los Angeles, Bley returned to New York in 1959 where he performed and recorded with Mingus, Don Ellis, George Russell, and Roland Kirk. A gig with reedist Jimmy Giuffre at the Five Spot evolved into the popular Giuffre 3, with bassist Steve Swallow. The trio toured Europe in 1961, and recorded for Verve and CBS.


            In 1963, Bley joined the Sonny Rollins quartet for about a year, touring Japan and recording for RCA Victor.


In the same year, Bley become a charter member of trumpeter Bill Dixon’s Jazz Composer's Guild, along with Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp, Sun Ra, Carla Bley, and others. This project was designed to improve the public’s perception of jazz and to have the musicians take more control of their music by organizing and presenting their own concerts and recordings.


            Throughout the Sixties, the pianist also continued to perform and record with his own trios, which at various points included, among others, bassists Swallow and Gary Peacock, and drummers Paul Motian, Pete La Roca, and Barry Altschul. After leaving Rollins, he concentrated on the trio setting in the mid-Sixties, recording mostly in Europe. His marriage with Carla Bley ended in divorce in 1967. A romantic and musical relationship with vocalist and composer Annette Peacock followed. The pair’s growing interest in electronic music culminated in the first live synthesizer performance at Philharmonic Hall on December 26, 1969. Peacock occasionally performed as a vocalist in Bley’s bands from 1969-72, which were usually billed as the Paul Bley (or Bley-Peacock) Synthesizer Show.


            Bley first recorded as a solo artist for ECM in 1972. “Open, To Love” was the beginning of a relationship between artist and label that has endured into the 21st century. Bley’s relationship with Peacock ended, and in 1973 he met video artist Carol Goss. The label they created, Improvising Artists (IAI), issued historic recordings by Bley, and new releases by Bley, Sun Ra, Sam Rivers, and Marion Brown, among others. The label’s big coup was the initial recording session by electric bassist Jaco Pastorius in June 1974, which also introduced guitarist Pat Metheny. The firm also produced commercial music videos, later credited by Billboard magazine as a pioneer in the genre. Some IAI productions documented jazz performances, while others were more abstract. Mixing and editing decisions were often improvised in real time.


            Since the Seventies, Bley has traveled the world, recording for many of the globe’s well-known jazz labels. Along the way, he’s collaborated with musicians across a broad spectrum of jazz. On nearly 100 albums, Bley has been teamed with artists including guitarists John Scofield, John Abercrombie, Bill Frisell, and Bill Connors, bassists Marc Johnson, Niels-Henning qrsted Pedersen, Arild Andersen, Cecil McBee, and Kent Carter, percussionists Han Bennink, Billy Hart, Tony Oxley, and Bruce Ditmas, vibraphonist Gary Burton, and saxophonists John Surman, John Gilmore, and Lee Konitz, among many others.


            Bley was reunited with Giuffre and Swallow in 1989 when they teamed for two albums called The Life Of The Trio (Owl), and they continued the collaboration with tours and more recordings in the Nineties. Bley’s solo synthesizer album, Synth Thesis (1994 - Postcards), was highly praised in Down Beat. His other projects have featured an ever-changing cast of players in small groups, often in stimulating instrumental combinations, like a duo with drummer Motian (Notes, 1986 - ECM), a trio with saxophonist Evan Parker and bassist Barre Phillips (Time Will Tell, 1994 - ECM), or a duo with guitarist Sonny Greenwich (Outside In, 1994 - Justin Time). Bley continues to play and perform as a solo, with a well-received series of albums on the Canadian Justin Time label. 


            The pianist was a featured artist in the 1981 documentary Imagine The Sound. Bley joined the faculty of the New England Conservatory of Music in the early Nineties, where one of his notable students has been pianist Satoko Fujii. Their album of piano duets, Something About Water, came out in 1995 on Libra Records. An hour-long biographical film (Jazz Collection: Paul Bley) appeared on cable TV in 1998, and the following year saw the publication of Stopping Time: Paul Bley and the Transformation of Jazz, an autobiography co-written with David Lee. Time Will Tell: Conversations with Paul Bley, a series of interviews by Norman Meehan appeared in 2003. The latest book on his career is Paul Bley: The Logic of Chance by Arrigo Cappelletti, translated from the Italian by pianist Greg Burk.


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