In 1961 I was a sixteen-year old freshman at Bard College with a real hunger to hear jazz. It was a new-found passion dating back to the summer when I heard Miles Davis’s performance of “Summertime” on a juke box in a pizza parlor in South Fallsburgh, New York. As soon as it came on, it was like being hit by lightning.
At Bard I was bowled over by the availability of jazz records in the college library. The late 50s and early 60s were the heyday of hard bop and I became a fan of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and Charlie Mingus.
But it was also an opportunity to hear live jazz for the first time. That year Paul Bley came to Bard, a pianist that a friend described as a be-bopper influenced by Bud Powell. Smoking a joint beforehand, I strolled over to Tewksbury Hall and sat down for my first live jazz concert. Wow! I can’t remember who the bass player and the drummer were but I’ll never forget the saxophone player: Pharoah Sanders (this is not the same spelling as the Egyptian kings but it was the one that Sun Ra gave to his young sideman who was born Farrell Sanders.)
I had no idea that Bley was on the leading edge of the avant-garde that was just taking shape. I can’t remember much about the rhythm section but Sanders blew my fucking mind. Each solo started off with the standard chord progressions but somewhere near their apex, he began what can only be described as screaming through his horn. Whether it was the pot or the sheer power of Sanders’s solo, or a combination of the two, I was converted to a style of jazz that would become known as the New Thing a year or two later. Other musicians in this movement were the Ayler brothers, Archie Shepp and Ornette Coleman.
It was no accident that in my freshman year I also heard LeRoi Jones, as he was known at the time, reading from his “The System of Dante’s Hell”. Like Pharoah Sanders, who would go on to make recordings like “Black Unity”, Jones was an early exponent of Black Nationalism. For me, the jazz avant-garde and Black Nationalism were my guideposts long before I got involved with the political avant-garde and perhaps made my transition a little easier.
You can hear Sanders playing with Paul Bley and Don Cherry, another New Thing proponent here:
This was the second time Bley had played at Bard. In 1959 he was part of a jazz festival organized by pianist Ran Blake who would go on to an outstanding career as an avant-garde jazz musician himself. I had some dealings with Blake in 1965 when I organized a gospel concert at Bard. Ran was pushing for the Sweet Daddy Grace band but the college chaplain put the nix on them performing in the school chapel since the last time they were there, they were too rowdy for his Episcopalian sensibility. Instead we booked Johnny Peoples and the Brooklyn Skyways who put on a memorable concert in the gym.
I have to admit that despite being smitten by the concert of Paul Bley’s band in 1961, I never collected his records. Indeed, I have been much more into his ex-wife Carla Bley’s recordings, especially those done in conjunction with bassist Charlie Haden who was a leftist like her.
But I do want to put in a good word for a record led by saxophone player Sonny Rollins made in 1963 titled “Sonny Meets Hawk” that included Bley on piano. Hawk, of course, is Coleman Hawkins. I consider it one of the 10 greatest jazz records of all time. It is distinguished by the affinity that Rollins, a modernist but not a New Thing musician, has with an ostensible swing relic Coleman Hawkins. In fact Hawkins was always eager to connect with younger modernist musicians going back to Charlie Parker who he played with in 1950:
In “Open Sky: Sonny Rollins and His World of Improvisation”, Eric Nisenson describes the great aplomb with which Hawkins met his younger cohorts:
The most amazing thing about this album is how unruffled Hawkins is by the often strange sounds being created by both Sonny and Paul Bley (the band was the same as at Newport. although Bob Cranshaw substituted for Henry Grimes at the second session). The first tune, on the album, “Yesterdays,” begins with Sonny’s unaccompanied introduction, during which he briefly alludes to the famous Bird blues “Now’s the Time.” As the tune goes into tempo, Hawkins states the theme, or rather implies the melody. His statement is typically dramatic and moving, never for a moment sounding anything but utterly modern and never sacrificing his inimitable musical persona. Sonny begins by emulating Hawkins’s brief trill at the end of his solo; Sonny makes it the core of his own improvised solo statement, using it as the basis of his solo just as he had in the past used melodic fragments for thematic development. The exploration of pure sound throughout this album prefigures the work of Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders and, in the last couple of years of his life, John Coltrane.
And here’s the performance of “Yesterdays”. I would only add that Bley’s piano playing keeps everything sewn together like a golden thread. I find every note played by every musician completely haunting. In fact it is the spirit of the lyrics of the tune that dwells in this post:
Days I knew as happy sweet
Olden days, golden days
Days of mad romance and love
Then gay youth was mine, truth was mine
Joyous free in flame and life
Then sooth was mine
Sad am I, glad am I
For today I’m dreamin’ of yesterdays
His record label, ECM, announced his death without giving a cause.
Mr. Bley’s style of playing was melodic, measured, bluesy, often polytonal and seemingly effortless. He took as long as he needed to finish a thought, and at the tempo he chose for it. He loved standards but distrusted the strictures of the 32-bar song form, and especially distrusted repetition. His notes could move slowly without telegraphing their destination, drawling down into nothing or cohering into bright, purposefully gapped lines, with backing chords that kept changing the tonal center.
Mr. Bley (pronounced “blay”) developed an influential language of phrasing and harmony — Keith Jarrett and Ethan Iverson were two of its many beneficiaries — but often talked about being eager to get outside his own habits. In the 1981 documentary “Imagine the Sound,” he professed not to practice or rehearse, out of what he called “a disdain for the known.” And he did not stake his work on traditional notions of acceptability, or the approval of the listener.
“I’ve spent many years learning how to play as slow as possible,” he told the Italian pianist and writer Arrigo Cappelletti in a typically provocative 2002 interview, “and then many more years learning how to play as fast as possible. I’ve spent many years trying how to play as good as possible. At the present I’m trying to spend as many years learning how to play as bad as possible.”
Hyman Paul Bley was born in Montreal on Nov. 10, 1932. His father, Joe, owned an embroidery factory; his mother, the former Betty Marcovitch, immigrated from Romania to Canada with her family when she was 9.
He started studying violin at 5 and piano at 8, and as a teenager began playing piano professionally as Buzzy Bley. In 1949, as a senior in high school, he briefly took over Oscar Peterson’s job at the Alberta Lounge in downtown Montreal.
Mr. Bley left for New York in 1950 to attend the Juilliard School. During his early years there, he played with the saxophonists Lester Young and Ben Webster, among others.
Keeping a hand in his hometown jazz scene, he helped organize the Jazz Workshop, a musician-run organization in Montreal that set up out-of-town soloists with local rhythm sections; in February 1953 he booked Charlie Parker for a concert and accompanied him. That concert was recorded, one of his first extant recordings before his first album as a leader, made nine months later with a trio that included Charles Mingus on bass and Art Blakey on drums. Through the mid-’50s, he was an adept bebop player with a spare style.
He met the pianist and composer Carla Bley, then known as Karen Borg, when she was working as a cigarette girl at the jazz nightclub Birdland; the two of them moved west, finally settling in Los Angeles, where in 1957 Mr. Bley secured a job leading a band at the Hillcrest Club six nights a week for nearly two years.
Toward the end of his time there, in 1958, he hired the saxophonist Ornette Coleman and the trumpeter Don Cherry for his band. He noticed that Coleman, in his compositions did not follow the standard 32-bar AABA song pattern, but rather what Mr. Bley called “A to Z form.” In his 1999 memoir, “Stopping Time,” he remembered that “it didn’t take more than a second to understand that this was the missing link between playing totally free, without any givens, and playing bebop with changes and steady time.”
Paul and Carla Bley were married in California in 1957, and during the following years he recorded a lot of her music: Her compositions make up most of Mr. Bley’s records “Footloose!” (1963) and “Closer” (1965), as he found his way toward his own kind of free jazz, intimate and almost folklike.
During that time, playing with the saxophonists Albert Ayler and Sonny Rollins, he defined as well as anyone the blurry line between the scratchiness of free improvisation and the virtuosity of the jazz tradition.
Paul and Carla Bley’s marriage ended in divorce. Another relationship, with the singer and composer Annette Peacock in the 1960s, resulted in more collaboration. Her compositions, which make up all of the trio record “Ballads” (1971) and some of the solo-piano record “Open, to Love” (1972), were important to his “slow as possible” period; using synthesizers, well before they became common in jazz, they performed together on record as the “Bley-Peacock Synthesizer Show.”
In 1973, with the video artist Carol Goss — whom he eventually married — Mr. Bley set up the multimedia company Improvising Artists, which released his music and others’. Ms. Goss survives him, as do his daughters, Vanessa Bley, Angelica Palmer and Solo Peacock, and two grandchildren.
Mr. Bley did much of his performing and recording from the ’80s onward in Europe, often with musicians he knew from earlier days — notably the bassist Charlie Haden, from Coleman’s group; the bassist Gary Peacock (former husband of Annette); and the saxophonist and clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre, with whom he made two chamberlike trio albums in 1961.
Increasingly he made solo records, full of his onrushing, nonrepeating ideas — the best way for him to express what he described as a series of questions.
“My solo piano playing is a question in itself,” he told Mr. Cappelletti. “The question is ‘why?,’ and after ‘why?’ comes ‘what?,’ and after ‘what?’ comes ‘when?’ ”