Early Life and Career
During the mid-1950s, Bley toured with his own trio and also appeared in groups led by Lester Young, Chet Baker, and others. In 1957 Bley relocated to Los Angeles, where his bookings included a lengthy engagement at the Hillcrest Club. During October 1958 he led a quintet at the Hillcrest that included Ornette Coleman (alto saxophone), Don Cherry (trumpet), Billy Higgins (drums), and Charlie Haden (double bass). Like many jazz artists in that decade, Bley had played mostly in the predominant bop idiom, and it was during his engagements in Los Angeles (including the quintet with Coleman and Cherry, and free duets with the Canadian trumpeter Herb Spanier) that he began to play what later became known as free jazz. Bley married his first wife, the composer Karen Borg (later known as Carla Bley), in 1957.
Career 1960s; Free Time
Returning to New York in 1959, Bley performed and recorded in groups led by, among others, Charles Mingus, George Russell, and Don Ellis. During 1961-62, he was part of a ground-breaking free trio with Jimmy Giuffre (reeds) and Steve Swallow (double bass), and also worked with Swallow, the bassist Gary Peacock, and the drummer Paul Motian in other groups in the early 1960s. During 1963-64 he played in Sonny Rollins' quartet, touring Japan in 1963, and in 1964 Bley worked with Albert Ayler. In the latter year, Paul and Carla Bley were active in the Jazz Composers Guild, an artist-controlled organization that presented its members in a series of concerts of avant-garde and free jazz in New York. While the free jazz innovations of the late 1950s had emphasized harmonic and formal freedom, it was during the mid-1960s that Bley and others associated with the Jazz Composers Guild began to explore the possibilities of playing in free time. Bley and other members of the Jazz Composers Guild were the subject of a 1981 film documentary Imagine the Sound.
Bley led an influential and freely interactive trio during the mid-1960s, working in the USA, occasionally in Canada, and (increasingly after 1965) in Europe. Documented in a series of important recordings (such as Ramblin', Blood, and Mr. Joy), the trio's regular members included the bassists Kent Carter, Mark Levinson, and Gary Peacock and the drummers Barry Altschul and Billy Elgart. Bley married his second spouse, the composer and vocalist Annette Peacock, after his 1967 divorce from Carla Bley.
Bley's career underwent a major shift in the late 1960s, when he started to use electric instruments in live performance and in recording sessions. In addition to the electric piano, Bley adopted the Moog and ARP synthesizers, and was one of the first major artists to explore the tonal possibilities of these new instruments. Sometimes performing with Annette Peacock, his ensembles during the period 1969-72 were often billed as the Paul Bley (or Bley-Peacock) Synthesizer Show.
After his separation from Peacock, he led the electric jazz fusion group Paul Bley and Scorpio. In 1974, a Scorpio recording project evolved into the debut recording of both the guitarist Pat Metheny and the electric bassist Jaco Pastorius. Despite his focus on electric instruments during this period, in 1972 Bley recorded the first of many influential solo piano albums, Open, To Love; after 1974 he seldom performed on electric instruments.
Improvising Artists Inc.
In 1974 Bley and the video artist Carol Goss (whom he married in 1980) established the company Improvising Artists Inc. (IAI). IAI was most active in the 1970s, when it developed a catalogue of recordings by Bley and other jazz artists and promoted an ambitious roster of jazz artists for live performance. Among the artists who recorded and toured with IAI were Lester Bowie, Jimmy Giuffre, Lee Konitz, Steve Lacy, Sun Ra, and Sam Rivers. In addition to audio recordings, Goss, Bley, and IAI produced commercial music videos; they were in fact credited by Billboard magazine as having introduced the commercial music video genre. Some IAI videos were jazz performance documentaries, and others were more abstract interpretations. Editing and mixing decisions in IAI videos were improvised simultaneously as the music was performed, to parallel the creative process of jazz.
In the early 1980s, the Goss-Bleys and IAI relocated from New York City to Cherry Valley, New York.
Later Career and Honours; Canadian Activities
After 1974, Bley toured and recorded, often in Europe, as a solo artist or with changing combinations of players (usually in duos or trios, seldom larger than a quartet), and almost always as a leader or co-leader. While the groupings were fluid, Bley in his later career maintained many longstanding collaborations and re-invented some earlier ensembles (notably the trio of Bley-Peacock-Altschul, which reunited for a major tour of Japan in 1976, and that of Bley-Giuffre-Swallow, which re-formed 1989-95).
While his visits to Canada were infrequent in the 1960s and 1970s, Bley's connections with the Canadian jazz scene began to grow in the 1980s. Bley recorded, for Justin Time and other Canadian record labels, with several Canadian musicians including Jon Ballantyne, Jane Bunnett, Sonny Greenwich, Yannick Rieu, Herb Spanier, and Kenny Wheeler. He performed at Canadian jazz and new music festivals, including the Festival international de jazz de Montréal, which honoured him with a concert series in 1992 and which accorded him the Prix Oscar Peterson in 1994. In 1998, the Bravo! and Arte television networks broadcast a biographical documentary on Bley. In the early 1990s Bley added teaching to his career, when he joined the faculty of the New England Conservatory of Music. He was inducted into the Order of Canada in 2008.
Repertoire and Assessment
In addition to performing his own compositions and jazz standards, Bley was an important interpreter and exponent of the compositions of Ornette Coleman, Carla Bley, and Annette Peacock. While Bley's performances usually included improvisations on pre-composed music, he also engaged in the spontaneous solo and ensemble creation of new compositions, in both live concert and recording studio settings. Bley's music was increasingly characterized by informality, little or no rehearsal, and spareness, and his tendency to engage in musical dialogue during ensemble performances was in keeping with his view of music as a social activity best undertaken with friends. His improvisations and compositions, and the musicians with whom he chose to play, also revealed an interest in dissonance, tone qualities, atonality, microtonality, and serialism.
Restlessness and an openness to innovation were evident in Bley's career, for example in his shifts from bop to free jazz, from standard to free time, and from acoustic to electric instruments. A prolific and influential recording artist with almost 100 issued recordings, Bley led a lengthy and truly international career, with tours and listeners in the Americas, Europe, Japan, and elsewhere.
His archives are held by the Library and Archives of Canada.
Paul Bley. Heath or Ind double-bass, Levitt drums. 1954. Emarcy MG-36092/Wing MGW-60001
Solemn Meditation. Pike vibraphone, Haden double-bass, McBrowne drums.1957. GNP Crescendo GNPS-31
The Fabulous Paul Bley Quintet. 1958 (1976). Cherry trumpet, Coleman alto saxophone, Haden double-bass, Higgins drums. Inner City IC-1007
Footloose. 1962, 1963. Swallow double-bass, LaRoca drums. Savoy MG-12182/BYG 529.114 (reissued in part on Floater, Savoy SJL-1148, and in whole, with other titles added, as Floater Syndrome, Vogue VG-655)
With Gary Peacock. 1963. Peacock double-bass. ECM 1003
Turning Point. 1964, 1968 (1976). Gilmore tenor saxophone, Peacock double-bass, Motian drums. IAI 373841 (1964 recordings reissued, with other titles added, as Turns, Savoy WL-71410)
Barrage. Johnson trumpet, Allen alto saxophone, Gomez double-bass, Graves drums.1964. ESP Disk 1008
Closer. Swallow double-bass, Altschul drums.1965. ESP Disk 1021
Copenhagen and Haarlem. (1975). 2-Arista Freedom 1901 (reissue of Touching, Carter double-bass, Altschul drums,1965, Fontana S 688.60ZL; and Blood, Paul Bley in Haarlem, Levinson double-bass, Altschul drums,1966, Poly S- 623258)
Ramblin. Levinson double-bass, Altschul drums.1966. BYG S 529.313
Blood. Levinson double-bass, Altschul drums. 1966. Fontana S 883.911CY
Virtuosi. 1967 (1976). IAI 373.844
Ballads. Levinson or Peacock double-bass, Altschul drums. 1967. ECM 1010
Mr. Joy. Peacock double-bass, Elgart drums. 1968. Limelight SLS-86060/Trip TLP-5587
Paul Bley Trio. Pavone double-bass, Altschul drums. 1968. RCI 305
Bley-Peacock Synthesizer Show: Revenge: The Bigger the Love, the Greater the Hate. Bley synthesizer and electric piano, Peacock voice and synthesizer, Robinson clarinet, Moore double-bass, Cook drums, etc. 1969. Poly 2425.043
Improvisie. Bley synthesizer and keybds, Peacock voice, synthesizer and keybds, Bennink drums. 1970. America 30 AM-6121
Dual Unity. Bley synthesizer and electric piano, Peacock piano, Pavone double-bass, Cook drums. 1970, 1971. Freedom SFLP-40-109
The Paul Bley Synthesizer Show. Bley synthesizer and keybds, Youngstein, Moore or Tusa double-bass, Haas or Moses drums. 1970, 1971. Milestone MSP-9033
Open, to Love. 1972. ECM 1023
Scorpio. Bley synthesizer and keybds, Holland double-bass, Altschul drums. 1972. Milestone MSP-9046
Paul Bley NHØP. Bley piano and electric piano, Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen double-bass. 1973. SteepleChase SCS-1005
Alone Again. 1974. IAI 373.840
Pastorius/Metheny/Ditmas/Bley. Bley electric piano, Metheny guitar, Pastorius (electric) bass guitar, Ditmas drums. 1974. IAI 373.846
Quiet Song. Bley piano and electric piano, Giuffre clarinet, fl & tenor saxophone, Connors guitar. 1974. IAI 373.839
Japan Suite. Peacock double-bass, Altschul drums. 1976. IAI 373.849
Axis. 1977. IAI 373.853
Tears. 1983. Owl 034
Tango Palace. 1983. Soul Note SN-1090
Sonor. McDonald percussion. 1983. Soul Note SN-1085
Diane. Baker trumpet & vcl. 1985. SteepleChase SCCD-31207
The Paul Bley Group. Scofield guitar, Swallow (electric) bass guitar, Altschul drums. 1985. Soul Note SN-1140
My Standard. Lundgaard double-bass, Hart drums. 1985. SteepleChase SCS-1214/with additional titles on CD, SCCD-31214
Live. Lundgaard double-bass. 1986. SteepleChase SCCD-31223
Fragments. Surman soprano saxophone and bass clarinet, Frisell guitar, Motian drums. 1986. ECM 1320
Notes. Motian drums. 1987. Soul Note 121-190-1
Indian Summer. McClure double-bass, Altschul drums. 1987 (1991). SteepleChase SCCD-31286
The Paul Bley Quartet. Surman soprano saxophone and bass clarinet, Frisell guitar, Motian drums. 1987. ECM 1365
Solo. 1987. Justin Time JUST-28 (CD)
Solo Piano. 1988. SteepleChase SCS-1236
The Nearness of You. McClure double-bass, Hart drums. 1989. SteepleChase SCCD-31246
Bebop. Cranshaw double-bass, Copeland drums. 1989. SteepleChase SCCD-31259
Rejoicing. Urbaniak violin, McClure double-bass, Altschul drums. 1989. SteepleChase SCCD-31274
Partners. Peacock double-bass. 1989. Owl 058 (CD)
Life of a Trio: Saturday. Giuffre soprano saxophone, clarinet, Swallow (electric) bass guitar. 1989. Owl 059 (CD)
Life of a Trio: Sunday. Giuffre soprano saxophone, clarinet, Swallow (electric) bass guitar. 1989. Owl 060 (CD)
Right Place Right Time. Burton vibraphone. 1990. Sonet SNTCD-1038
12 (+ 6) in a Row. Koglmann fl horn, Koch clarinet, saxes. 1990. Hat ART CD-6081
Parker On the Road. 1953 (1975). Jazz Showcase 5003
Russell Jazz in the Space Age. 1959. 2-MCA 4017
Mingus Revisited. 1960. Mer 60627
- Mingus. 1960. Candid 9021
Giuffre Fusion. 1961. Verve 6839
- Thesis. 1961. Verve 68402
- Free Fall. 1962. Col CS-8764
Ellis Essence. 1962. Pacific Jazz S55
Rollins Sonny Meets Hawk. 1963. 2-RCA Victor (France) 741074/5 (reissued in 1990 on CD as All The Things You Are 1963-1964, Bluebird 2179-2-RB)
Jazz Composer's Orchestra Communication. 1964, 1965. Fontana S 881.011ZY
Peacock I'm the One. 1971. RCA LSP 4578
Marion Brown Sweet Earth Flying. 1974. Impulse 9275
Bob Mover The Night Bathers. 1986. Justin Time JUST-14
Yannick Rieu Yannick Rieu Ensemble. 1989. Amplitude JACD-4011
Franz Koglmann A White Line. 1989. hat ART 6048 (CD)
A detailed listing of Bley's recordings to 1977 is published in the Canadian Jazz Discography
Author David Fraser
Fulford, Bob. "Paul Bley: jazz is just about ready for another revolution, says Canada's young pianist," Down Beat, vol 22, 13 Jul 1955 (reprinted in vol. 61, Jul 1994)
Heckman, Don. "Paul Bley," Down Beat, vol 31, 12 Mar 1964
Dobbin, Len. "Paul Bley," Coda, vol 7, Jun-Jul 1965
Merceron, G. "Pudique Bley," Jazz Hot, 219, Apr 1966
Knox, Keith. "Paul Bley," Jazz Monthly, vol 12, Dec 1966
Cuscuna, Michael. "Paul Bley: being together," Down Beat, vol 35, 17 Oct 1968
Goddet, Laurent. "Un canadien bien tranquille," Jazz Hot, 276, Oct 1971
Interview: "Paul Bley: 'I'm a real timelife player'," MM (Denmark?), Feb 1973
Klee, Joe and Smith, Will. "Focus on Paul Bley," Down Beat, vol 41, 17 Jan 1974
MacDonald, Geordie and Wawanash, Sheila. "Why don't we try it my way: an interview with Paul Bley," Shades (Toronto), 4, ca. 1974-1980
Peterson, I.S. and Goddet, Laurent. "Discographie de Paul Bley," Jazz Hot, 332, Nov 1976
Dutilh, Alex. "Paul Bley: Lecture d'une photographie," Jazz Hot, 334, Feb 1977
Dutilh, Alex. "L'Interrogation," Jazz Hot, 335, Mar 1977
Lyons, Len. "Paul Bley improvising artist," Contemporary Keyboard, vol 3, May 1977
Smith, Bill. "Paul Bley Interview: a conversation with Bill Smith," Coda, 166, Apr-May 1979 (includes Peterson-Goddet discography from Jazz Hot, Nov 1976)
Zwerin, Mike. "Paul Bley: ramblin' with the disappearing man," Wire, 24, Feb 1986
Miller, Mark. Boogie, Pete & The Senator: Canadian Musicians in Jazz : The Eighties (Toronto 1987)
Gilmore, John. Swinging in Paradise: The Story of Jazz in Montreal (Montreal 1988)
Fayenz, Franco. "Paul Bley: una vita d'avanguardia," Musica Jazz, vol 44, June 1988
Miller, Mark. Cool Blues: Charlie Parker in Canada, 1953 (London, Ont, 1989)
Gilmore, John. Who's Who of Jazz in Montreal: Ragtime to 1970 (Montreal 1989)
Galliano, Franco. "Paul Bley: il jazz è una conversazione," Musica Oggi, vol 5, June 1990
"Les nouvelles amours d'un trio [Bley-Giuffre-Swallow]," Jazz Magazine, 399, Dec 1990
Lange, Art. "Bley in , Bley out: Paul Bley," Downbeat, vol 59, Aug 1992
Yanow, Scott. "Paul Bley: the IAI story," Coda, 251, Sept-Oct 1993
Brunet, Alain. 'Paul Bley, Prix Oscar-Peterson,' Montreal La Presse, 9 Jul 1994
Kluck, Henk. Bley Play: The Paul Bley Recordings (Emmen, The Netherlands, 1996)
Blumenfeld, Larry. "Traditions: Paul Bley, Kenny Wheeler ... losing our religion," Jazziz, vol 14, Feb 1997
Bley, Paul, with Lee, David. Stopping Time: Paul Bley and the Transformation of Jazz (Montreal 1999)
Hayes, David. Riding the next wave: he has played with Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman... so why isn't everyone listening to Paul Bley? Saturday Night, vol 116, 27 Jan 2001
Miller, Mark. The Miller Companion to Jazz in Canada and Canadians in Jazz (Toronto 2001)
Fraser, David. "The Paul Bley fonds at the Music Division of the Library and Archives of Canada," CAML Review, vol 31 (Aug 2003) / 'Le Fonds Paul Bley de la Division de la musique, Bibliothèque et Archives du Canada,' Revue de l'ACBM, vol 31 (août 2003)
Meehan, Norman. Time Will Tell: Conversations with Paul Bley (Albany, California, 2003)
Cappelletti, Arrigo. Paul Bley: La Logica del Caso (2004)
Links to Other Sites
This official website of acclaimed jazz pianist Paul Bley features a biography, discography, video catalogue, and related articles.
A profile of performer Carla Bley, wife of musician Paul Bley.
Inside The Music
Listen to past episodes of CBC's "Inside The Music" program featuring some of Canada's leading musicians. Click on the audio player to start streaming.
Listen to a brief audio clip of a recording by Paul Bley. From the AV Trust website.
Governor General's appointments to the Order of Canada
Scroll down the page and click on the links to brief biographical notes of recent appointees to the Order of Canada. Click on "Find a Recipient" on the left side of the page to find previous recipients. From the website for the Governor General of Canada.
Shawnadithit grew anxious waiting for her uncle, Longnon, to return to camp at the junction of Badger Brook and the Exploits River, deep in the wilds of Newfoundland...