A career spent with musicians like Charlie Parker and Lennie Tristano, Charles Mingus and Sonny Rollins, Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman, Carla Bley and Annette Peacock — that's just the first 20 or so years — began in Paul Bley's hometown of Montreal. When the virtuoso performer Oscar Peterson was summoned away on tour, a teenage Bley was asked to replace him in Peterson's trio.
Bley soon enrolled at the Juilliard School, which placed him in New York City amid the bebop wave which had landed upon the city's jazz community. In 1953, he made his debut recording, a trio date for the small record label started by Charles Mingus, with the big-name backing of Mingus on bass and Art Blakey on drums.
It would take a while longer for Bley to develop a musical identity he was proud to call his own, but he said he was already thinking about it when he moved to Los Angeles in the late 1950s. While working a regular engagement at the Hillcrest Club, in a black neighborhood of L.A., Bley welcomed two young performers with an original concept into his group. The new band was highly polarizing, especially when it eventually moved to the jazz hub of New York City. By that point, the stir was about the alto saxophonist and trumpeter: Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry.
Bley did not travel with the group to New York, but his head was turned by its possibilities. He would eventually feel compelled to return to New York, where he found himself in different improvising contexts: in an innovative trio with clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre, recording with jazz theoretician George Russell, performing again with Mingus, touring with saxophone giant Sonny Rollins, playing with free improvisers Sunny Murray and Albert Ayler, joining a musicians' collective called the Jazz Composers Guild with his wife at the time, composer Carla Bley. His own recordings at the time, often using bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Paul Motian, began to reflect his evolving ideas, as they bridged song structure with improvisatory freedom.
The open-ended promise of free jazz exerted a great influence on Bley for the rest of his career. "It's free only in the sense that you're not bringing written music to the table," he said in an episode of Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz. "In place of the written music, you're bringing the acoustics of the room that you're playing in, the nationality of the audience, the weather of the evening and you-name-it."
Bley also was an early adopter of electronic synthesizers, recording often with composer/vocalist Annette Peacock — his second wife. Bley also married music with video recording and video art, founding a record label called Improvising Artists with videographer Carol Goss — his third wife. Notably, the label featured the recording debuts of Jaco Pastorius and Pat Metheny. In 2005, Metheny praised Bley on NPR's Talk Of The Nation, particularly his solo on a 1963 recording of "All The Things You Are" (from the album Sonny Meets Hawk!).
"His solo really did kind of open up a whole new universe of harmonic possibilities and is really, in my opinion, one of the greatest solos in jazz," Metheny said.
Bley continued to tour, record and eventually teach throughout the remainder of his life. "[H]e blueprinted a concept of the avant-garde that looked to romantic rumination over visceral, atonal tinkering," Evan Haga wrote in an NPR Music feature. In 2000, Bley spoke with fellow pianist Marian McPartland for Piano Jazz.
"There's a responsibility to being Paul Bley and having 120 records out," he said. "The responsibility is not to repeat yourself. There's 120 things I can no longer play, having already recorded them. ... What you're not going to play becomes the real decision, and what's left is what you do play."
McPartland asked him whether he perceived a clear direction he wanted to explore presently.
"I think the music contains all the information already," Bley said. "Just by tuning into the playing, it informs all those questions."