Hyman Paul Bley, CM (November 10, 1932 – January 3, 2016) was a Canadian pianist known for his contributions to the free jazz movement of the 1960s as well as his innovations and influence on trio playing and his early live performance on the Moog and Arp audio synthesizers. Bley was a long-time resident of the United States. His music has been described by Ben Ratliff of the New York Times as “deeply original and aesthetically aggressive”. Bley’s prolific output includes influential recordings from the 1950s through to his solo piano records of the 2000s.
Bley was born in Montreal, Quebec, on November 10, 1932. As a teenager he played with touring American bands, including Al Cowan’s Tramp Band. In 1949, when Bley was starting his senior year of high school, Oscar Peterson asked Bley to fulfill his contract at the Alberta Lounge in Montreal. The next year Bley left Montreal for New York City and Juilliard.
In 1951, on a return trip to Montreal, Bley organized the Jazz Workshop with a group of Montreal musicians. In 1953 Bley invited the bebop alto saxophonist and composer Charlie Parker to the Jazz Workshop, where he played and recorded with him. When Bley returned to New York City he hired Jackie McLean, Al Levitt and Doug Watkins to play an extended gig at the Copa City on Long Island. From the early 1950s until 1960 Paul did a series of trios with Al Levitt and Peter Ind; recordings of this trio in 1954 were included in the Mercury album “Paul Bley”. In 1953 the Shaw Agency booked Bley and his trio to tour with Lester Young, billed as “Lester Young and the Paul Bley Trio” in ads. He also performed with tenor saxophonist Ben Webster at that time. He then conducted for bassist Charles Mingus on the Charles Mingus and His Orchestra album. Additionally, in 1953, Mingus produced the Introducing Paul Bley album for his label, Debut Records with Mingus on bass and drummer Art Blakey. (In 1960 Bley recorded again with the Charles Mingus Group.)
In 1954 Bley received a call from Chet Baker inviting him to play opposite Baker’s quintet at Jazz City in Hollywood, California for the month of March. This was followed by a tour with singer Dakota Staton.
Down Beat Magazine interviewed Bley for its July 13, 1955 issue. The prescient title of the article read, “PAUL BLEY, Jazz Is Just About Ready For Another Revolution”. The article, reprinted in Down Beat’s 50th Anniversary edition, quoted Bley as saying, “I’d like to write longer forms, I’d like to write music without a chordal center.”
Bley’s trio with Hal Gaylor and Lennie McBrowne toured across the US in 1956, including a club in Juarez. Mexico. The tour culminated with an invitation to play a 1956 New Year’s Eve gig at Lucile Ball and Desi Arnez‘s home in Palm Springs. During the evening, Bley collapsed on the bandstand with a bleeding ulcer and Lucy immediately took him to the Palm Springs hospital where she proceeded to pay for all of his medical care. Bley, who had met Karen Borg while she was working as a cigarette girl at Birdland in NYC, married her after she came out to meet him in Los Angeles, where she became Carla Bley.