Paul Bley | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Paul Bley

Hyman Paul Bley, pianist, electric keyboardist, composer (born 10 November 1932 in Montréal, QC; died 3 January 2016 in Stuart, Florida.)
Bley, Paul
Jazz pianist Paul Bley (photo by Mark Miller).

Hyman Paul Bley, pianist, electric keyboardist, composer (born 10 November 1932 in Montréal, QC; died 3 January 2016 in Stuart, Florida.) He studied violin, then piano, as a child, attended the McGill Conservatory and began his career working at Laurentian resort spots and in Montréal nightclubs during his mid-teens. While commuting to New York for studies at the Juilliard School of Music (1950-3), he was an important figure in the Montreal Jazz Workshop (1952-3). Bley often accompanied the New York musicians that the workshop brought to the city, among them the legendary alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, with whom he played on CBC-TV in February 1953.

Bley settled in New York later in 1953, although he returned with some frequency to Montréal throughout the 1950s. He made his first commercial recording, Introducing Paul Bley in 1953 with 2 of New York's leading modernists, bassist Charles Mingus and drummer Art Blakey, a clear indication of his rising star. In 1955 he toured with trumpeter Chet Baker and in 1957 he moved to Los Angeles, where he led a quintet that included the ground-breaking alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman. Under Coleman's influence, Bley began to move away from the structural formalities of his youthful bebop style, developing a freer, more personal and impulsive manner of improvisation that would in turn influence many other pianists, not least Keith Jarrett.

Returning to New York in 1959, Bley worked and recorded during the next 5 years with musicians as illustrious as Mingus, composer George Russell, clarinetist Jimmy Guiffre, trumpeter Don Ellis and saxophonist Sonny Rollins, at the same time associating with Albert Ayler and other avant-gardists. Ultimately, though, he would work outside of any specific style and by the mid-1960s was leading his own trios almost exclusively, drawing on a small repertoire of his own compositions and those of his first and second wives, Carla Bley and Annette Peacock. His music was especially well-received in Europe; US audiences were slower to embrace its intimacy, emotional ambiguity and unassuming innovation, and Canadian audiences slower still.

Bley was among the pioneers of the synthesizer in jazz during the late 1960s and made his first solo recording, the celebrated Open, To Love, in 1972. His interest in electronics waned by the mid-1970s, but solo piano would be an increasingly favoured format in the 1980s and 1990s. He has made more than 80 LPs or CDs, recording freely for US, European and, latterly, Canadian companies. Notable titles in his discography include Closer (1965), Bebop (1989), Time Will Tell (1994) and Reality Check (1994), as well as Jimmy Giuffre's acclaimed Free Fall (1962) and 2-volume Diary of a Trio (1989).

Despite the critical esteem in which Bley is held internationally, he remains a largely unheralded figure in Canada, overshadowed among the country's jazz musicians by fellow Montréalers Oscar PETERSON and Maynard FERGUSON. Aside from the occasional festival appearance, his Canadian performances have been infrequent since the 1950s. He has, however, been heard in a series of CD collaborations for the Montréal label Justin Time with compatriots Jon Ballantyne (A Musing, 1991), Jane BUNNETT (Double Time, 1993), trumpeter Herbie Spanier and percussionist Geordie McDonald (Know Time, 1993), Sonny GREENWICH (Outside In, 1994) and Kenny WHEELER ([touché], 1996).

Further Reading

Challenge yourself - take the CC Quiz!

The Canadian Encyclopedia is a project of Historica Canada, a non-profit, nonpartisan organization devoted to teaching Canadians more about our shared country.  We also produce the Heritage Minutes and other programs. If you believe all Canadians should have access to free, impartial, fact-checked, regularly updated information about Canada’s history and culture in both official languages, please consider donating today. All donations above $3 will receive a tax receipt.

Book a Speaker