Born November 10, 1932, in Montreal, Quebec, Canada; married Carla Borg (divorced); married Annette Peacock (divorced). Education: McGill Conservatory, junior diploma, c. 1943; graduated from Juilliard School of Music, 1953. Addresses: Record company--IAI Records, P.O. Box 4, Cherry Valley, NY 13320.

In 1953 Paul Bley played with jazz legend Charlie Parker at the Chez Paree in Montreal. In 1975 he participated in a joint reading-recital performance at New York University's Loeb Student Center onstage with avant-garde poet William Burroughs. In 1992 and 1994 he continued to push the frontiers of jazz at the Montreal Jazz Festival, playing alongside old friends such as John Scofield and Gary Peacock and on the same bill as world beat musicians Gonzalo Rubalcaba from Cuba and King Sunny Ade from Nigeria.

Bley has long been at the center of a number of cutting-edge movements in jazz piano. He played with Charles Mingus and Charlie Parker, with Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, and Sonny Rollins, with Bill Evans and Cecil Taylor, and--from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s--with Paul Motian on drums, Charlie Haden and Steve Swallow on bass, Jimmy Giuffre on clarinet and saxophone, and Bill Frisell on electric guitar. "Like Keith Jarrett, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, and Cecil Taylor, Bley is a unique musician, and like these pianists he has discovered and energetically cultivated his own musical vision, informed by an exacting sense of inner logic," wrote Jon Balleras for Down Beat in 1985. "It's this internal rightness of conviction that marks Bley as a major artist."

Born in Montreal on November 10, 1932, Bley began the study of violin at age five and piano at eight. At 11 he was awarded a "junior diploma" from McGill Conservatory; years later, in 1949, Bley appeared at the Alberta Lounge in place of Oscar Peterson with the Peterson trio's bassist and drummer. A Montreal pianist seven years older than Bley, Peterson had left the group for a shot at fame in New York. Bley, who was known as "Buzzy" Bley around Montreal then, impressed the elder musicians. "That was my first really serious jazz gig," he was quoted as saying in Boogie, Pete & the Senator.

Shortly thereafter, Bley moved to New York, studying composition and conducting at the Juilliard School of Music and meeting up there with Art Blakey and bassist Charles Mingus, with whom he would make his first record. While still at Juilliard, Bley started the Montreal Jazz Workshop; he invited Charlie Parker to Montreal and shared the stage with him during Parker's February 5, 1953, performance on CBFT-TV's "Jazz Workshop."

In 1958 Bley left New York for Los Angeles with his future wife, composer Carla Borg, drummer Lenni McBrowne, and bassist Hal Gaylor. Charlie Haden replaced Gaylor on the bass, David Pike joined the group, and they released an album on GNP Crescendo. Soon a new drummer, Billy Higgins, entered the fray, and the trio worked at the Hillcrest in Los Angeles. The group then hired horn players Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry--at a time when both were grossly unpopular because of their innovative playing styles. Coleman had been exploring microtonality, those pitches between the traditional notes of the horn. Shortly after hiring Coleman, Bley and the band lost their jobs to an unappreciative audience.

The group soon broke up, and Bley sat in with a number of bands in Los Angeles, where he was offered numerous positions. Based on this success, Bley and Borg decided to try sitting in with bands in New York; along the way they stopped at the Lennox School of Music in Massachusetts, where they saw Coleman again. Bley also met bassist Steve Swallow, with whom he would work as a duo over the next two years.

From a shared concert at the Lennox School of Music, the seeds of a pathbreaking trio--including Bley, Swallow, and multi-reedman and composer Jimmy Giuffre--were planted. These three performers played together through the early 1960s. Art Lange of Down Beat described the band, headed by Giuffre, as "the freshest, the freest, and the most sublime" of Giuffre's bands to that time. "So just as Coleman's music challenged the validity of the pianist as accompanist, Giuffre's music challenged the validity of the drum/bass format as a rhythm machine," Bley told Lange. "We found that one of the ways to get out of a particular era in music that has us locked in is to change the instrumentation."

Breaking new ground with Giuffre and Swallow in the early 1960s led Bley to form his own trios for the Savoy and ECM labels. The 1963 album Footloose, recorded with Swallow and guitarist Pete LaRoca for Savoy, represented a landmark step forward for Bley.

In retrospect Bley considered Footloose to be his first truly significant recording: it demonstrates his emphasis on process instead of structure in improvisation and elaborates on his restrained, deliberate, personal approach. During the rest of the 1960s, Bley reexamined rhythm, harmony, form, and tempo in his playing and paved the way for other innovative players such as Keith Jarrett and Bill Frisell.

Early synthesizers became available by the beginning of the 1970s, altering the sound of jazz piano. Bley pioneered some of these explorations. Around this time, he played with Bruce Ditmas on drums, a fledgling Pat Metheny on guitar, and Jaco Pastorius on bass. The 1993 release Jaco, recorded two decades earlier with Metheny and Pastorius, was hailed by Josef Woodard of Down Beat as "a raw-nerved, fascinating document, both of Bley's foray into electronic jazz and as a crude archival snapshot of future jazz legends."

In 1976 Bley's lifelong struggle between artistic freedom and commercial viability led him to found his own label, Improvising Artists Inc. (IAI), to promote experimental jazz. Although the label folded four years later, many of the recordings--such as his solo album Alone Again and a 1964 quartet reissue, Turning Point, with Jimmy Giuffre--remain available.

The 1980s and 1990s proved to be a long period of consolidation for Bley, during which he revisited and reinterpreted some of his earlier musical forms. Specifically, he returned to standards and experimented with a unique approach to bebop. A number of his albums from throughout his career were reissued on compact disc in the early 1990s. In addition, Bley reunited with his old musical comrades, including Giuffre, Motian, and Haden.

In 1991 Bley, Giuffre, and Swallow came together once again--25 years after their first encounter--to record The Life of a Trio: Saturday and Sunday. A New York Times reviewer asserted, "Thoughtful, exacting jazz of this sort has been too long ignored." Likewise, Lange commented in Down Beat: "Over the course of these 28 solos, duos, and trios, a sense of warmth and intimacy is maintained; dynamics are usually restrained, there's a delicacy of interaction, and sheer lyricism is the foremost concern. Like so many Monet canvasses, the impressionistic blue hues are tinged with mystery, with melancholy, but also with joy and a deeper understanding of human complexities. Beautiful."

The following year, Memoirs, a collaborative effort featuring Bley, Motian, and Haden, was released. "Memoirs serves as a tidy summation of Bley's gifts as an individual and a musical conversationalist," noted Woodard. "Motian is roughly to the drums what Bley is to the piano, capable of sculpting icy, paradoxical emotions; on a moment's notice, they can venture 'out' where tonal centers and rhythmic pulses are not invited." Francis Davis of the Village Voice cited "Latin Genetics" and "Monk's Dream" on Memoirs as evidence that Bley was Ornette Coleman's "cagiest reinterpreter." Bley also released a CD in tribute to each of his former wives, Carla Borg (Bley) and Annette Peacock.

Some music critics contend that Bley has never completely won the recognition due his playing. Still, his lifelong mission to reinvigorate jazz by stretching its limits have brought him lasting distinction. In the midst of his reunion recordings and reissues in the early 1990s, Bley was quoted in Down Beat as describing his ongoing purpose: "If I thought for a moment that there was nothing new to be done, whether it was playing a tune in a different way or taking [Austrian composer Arnold] Schoenberg's atonality as a premise for a project, then I would happily retire to the country and enjoy the company of my children and come out only for those events that were really useful."

by Nicholas Patti

Paul Bley's Career

First played professionally as "Buzzy" Bley at Alberta Lounge, following Montreal pianist Oscar Peterson in trio, 1949; brought Charlie Parker to Montreal for "Jazz Workshop," 1953; joined horn player Ornette Coleman onstage in Los Angeles, 1958; played in trio led by Jimmy Giuffre, early 1960s; played across Canada, the United States, and Europe, beginning in 1960s; with Pat Metheny, pioneered early electric piano and jazz synthesizers, early 1970s; headed own label, Improvising Artists Inc. (IAI), 1976-80; reunited with old partners, including Giuffre, Steve Swallow, Paul Motian, Gary Peacock, and others, late 1980s-mid-1990s.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

April 27, 2004: Bley's album, Nothing to Declare, was released. Source:,, April 29, 2004.

Further Reading


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