Pianist Paul Bley was once described by Downbeat Magazine as having worked with “more first-rate, wide-ranging, original musical minds than anyone but Miles”.
Indeed, Bley was a formidable force in jazz although his reputation as such was known perhaps more so among his peers than with the listening public at large. Less inclined towards popular standards and melodically appealing compositions, Bley was nonetheless an innovator and masterful technician. He was perhaps the first to harness the genius that was Ornette Coleman, having invited Coleman to play with him in the late 1950s and significantly influenced the likes of Keith Jarrett.
Bley was born on November 10, 1932 and began studying piano by age seven. By eleven, he had graduated from the McGill Conservatory of Music and by thirteen he was already playing gigs in and around the Laurentians outside Montreal.
In the 1950s, Bley formed the Jazz Workshop in Montreal and invited such luminaries of the time as Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins to Montreal to perform with him. He also studied at Julliard in New York City from 1950-54, during which time he formed a band that included Jackie Mclean, Doug Watkins, Donald Byrd and Art Taylor. And as if that wasn’t busy enough for the young Bley, he also found time to tour with Lester Young, Roy Eldgride and Ben Webster during this period.
Perhaps his most important career opportunity during the 1950s occurred when Bley met Charles Mingus, which resulted in Mingus hiring Bley to conduct his ensemble. Mingus also introduced Bley to Art Blakey, who joined Bley and Mingus on Bley’s first recording as a leader, 1953’s Introducing Paul Bley.
In the late 1950s, Bley spent a couple of years out west in California where members of his group included the free-jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman, Charlie Haden, Billy Higgins, Bobby Hutcherson, Don Cherry and Scott LaFaro. He return to New York in 1959 and performed regularly at the Five Spot Cafe with Jimmy Giuffre as a member of the Jimmy Giuffre 3.
In the early 1960s, both Bley and Herbie Hancock were simultaneously offered gigs with Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins. Graciously, Hancock offered Bley the first choice, whereby Bley chose to join Rollins’ group. He recorded as a member of Rollins’ group on 1963’s Sonny Meets Hawk! with Coleman Hawkins and toured Japan later that year with Rollins as well.
Always a progressive musical thinker and innovator, Bley was also one of the pioneers of synthesizer use in jazz, with the first public performance utilizing them in 1969 at the Philharmonic Hall in New York City.
In the 1970s Bley began recording for ECM Records and founded the label Improvising Artists (IAI) along with his third wife, Carol Goss. IAI was instrumental in the development of what was then soon to become two of the biggest trail-blazers in the fusion genre; Pat Metheny and Jaco Pastorius. The label released the inaugural recording of Metheny and Pastorius, Jaco, in 1974, which included Bley and Bruce Ditmas on drums.
IAI also released a number of other recordings and videos which featured the likes of Dave Holland, Lee Konitz and Sun Ra, leading Billboard Magazine to have credited the company with creating the first commercial music video.
Bley was active well into the 2000s touring internationally and recording. He was featured in the 1981 film Imagine the Sound performing and discussing his music and in the 1990s he joined the faculty at the New England Conservatory of Music.
Bley published two autobiographies, 1999’s Stopping Time and 2003’s Time Will Telland was also inducted as a Member of the Order of Canada in 2008.
Paul Bley died at his home in Stuart, Florida on January 3, 2016.