Canadian pianist Paul Bley dies, Aged 83

By Matt Micucci

An innovator of free jazz, Bley also contributed to shaping the career and success of many key exponents of the movement such as Ornette Coleman and Charlie Haden.

“Practice makes perfect. Imperfect is better.” Canadian pianist Paul Bley died January 3, 2016 at home with his family, aged 83. He was known for his outstanding contributions to the free jazz movement of the sixties, for which he is regarded as both influential and innovative.

Born in Montreal on November 10, 1932, he began his music studies at the age of five. In the fifties, he founded the Jazz Workshop in his home town, performing piano and recording with the likes of Charlie Parker, Lester Young and Ben Webster.

On top of being an exceptional pianist, renowned for his characteristics that featured strong senses both of melodic voicing and space, he was highly regarded as a conductor, having conducted the orchestra on such albums as 1953’s Charles Mingus and His Orchestra.

Bassist Charles Mingus would subsequently return the favour by producing his first album as leader, Introducing Paul Bley, released that same year, which also featured the great Art Blakey on drums. This early album revealed Bley’s interest in experimentation and innovation.

By the end of the decade, he had found other musicians that would help him further these explorations. For instance, bassist Charlie Haden and vibraphonist Dave Pike made their recording debut on his third album Solemn Meditation (1958), and would later hire Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry and Billy Higgins.

He is considered a master of the trio, but as exemplified by his solo piano albums, Paul Bley is preeminently a pianists’ pianist.

In 1964 Bley was instrumental in the formation of the Jazz Composers Guild, a co-operative organization which brought together many free jazz musicians in New York: Roswell Rudd, Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp, Carla Bley, Michael Mantler, Sun Ra, and others. The guild organized weekly concerts and created a forum for the “jazz revolution” of 1964.

During the seventies, Bley, in partnership with videographer Carol Goss, was responsible for an important multi-media initiative, Improvising Artists, which issued LPs and videos documenting the solo piano recordings by Sun Ra and other works of free jazz with Giuffre, Lee Konitz, Gary Peacock, Lester Bowie, John Gilmore, Jaco Pastorius, Pat Metheny, Steve Lacy and others.

In the nineties, he continued to influence the careers of talented aspiring jazz musicians as an educator at the New England Music Conservatory, and taught such students as Sakoto Fuiji and Yitzah Yedid. He published his autobiography Stopping Time: Paul Bley and the Transformation of Jazz in 1999 and in 2008 was made a Member of the Order of Canada.

He is survived by his wife of forty three years, Carol Goss, their daughters, Vanessa Bley and Angelica Palmer, grandchildren Felix and Zoletta Palmer, as well as daughter, Solo Peacock.

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