Canadian pianist and free jazz composer Paul Bley has died aged 83
Paul Bley has died aged 83. On 4 January, reported Ottawa Citizen, his daughter announced: “Dear Friends, I’m deeply saddened to tell you that my father passed yesterday [...] He was at home and very comfortable with family at his side. Thank you, Vanessa Bley.”
Born on 10 November 1932 in Montreal, Canada, Bley started studying music as a five year old. When he was 13 he formed his first group called Buzzy Bley Band, and at 17 he replaced Oscar Peterson at the Montreal jazz club Alberta Lounge. The young bop pianist went on to found the Montreal Jazz Workshop, where he invited Charlie Parker to play, and in 1950 he moved to New York to study at The Juilliard School of music. In New York he worked briefly with the aforementioned Parker, Lester Young and Charles Mingus. In 1957 he moved to the West Coast, where he met Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry and his future wife Carla Bley, all three of whom he later worked with. By now he was moving towards free jazz. In the early 1960s he was a member of Jimmy Giuffre’s trio. Over time he would also play with Ben Webster, Sonny Rollins, Charlie Haden, Paul Motian, Lee Konitz, Pat Metheny, Jaco Pastorius, and many others. As Vanessa Bley wrote, “He is considered a master of the trio, but as exemplified by his solo piano albums, Paul Bley is pre-eminently a pianist’s pianist.”
In 1964 Bley worked with Albert Ayler and helped launch the New York avant-garde co-operative, Jazz Composers Guild. In 1967 he married vocalist, improvisor and composer Annette Peacock, with whom he recorded eight albums. Interviewed by Andy Hamilton in The Wire 283, Bley talks about experimenting with Bob Moog's synthesizer in 1969: “I was fortunate to be privy to the Karlheinz Stockhausen studio in Cologne at the time, which filled an entire room, from floor to ceiling, with modules [...] When I heard that Moog had added a keyboard, I was very intrigued as to whether his design was compatible with improvisation.
“He was only too happy to put his instrument through the test of an authentic improvising musician,” Bley continued, “to see what it could and what it couldn’t do.” In that feature, Hamilton states, “Bley’s crucial role in the development of early free jazz is at least as neglected as his synthesizer period.” Reassessing those times, he places two figures at the head of his free jazz pantheon: Ornette Coleman and Jimmy Giuffre. Bley was working at the Hillcrest Club in Los Angeles in 1958, when he invited Coleman and Cherry to sit in. The duo’s impact on him was radical and life-changing, Andy states, elaborating, “Bley is one of the handful of pianists – others are Joachim Kühn and Geri Allen – to have worked with Coleman successfully. Pianists can’t ‘comp’ behind Coleman, although they can play against him. This was less of a problem for Bley, who has a horn player’s attitude to harmony.”
In 1988, Bley reformed his 1960s outfit The Bley Trio with Gary Peacock and Paul Motian, releasing the album Not Two, Not One. In 2008, Bley was named a member of the Order of Canada for “his contributions as a pioneering figure in avant garde and free jazz, and for his influence on younger jazz pianists”.