"Since the Montreal-born, long-US resident Bley's 50's debut with Mingus and Blakey, he's worked with more first-rate, wide ranging original musical minds than anyone but Miles...." (H. Mandel Downbeat April 1995).
Bley gave violin recitals at age five. By age seven he was studying piano. He went through numerous classical teachers - including one Frenchman that had him play, balancing filled water glasses on the tops of his hands. At age 11 he graduated from the McGill Conservatory - having taken on their musical curriculum in addition to his public school education. Bley, who was known as "Buzzy" in his early adolescence, formed a band and played clubs and summer hotel jobs in the Laurentian Mountains at age 13. Four years later he replaced Oscar Peterson at the Alberta Lounge. Bley founded the Montreal Jazz Workshop and brought Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Brew Moore and Alan Eager to Montreal inorder to perform with them.
In 1950 Bley left for New York City. He studied at the Julliard School of Music from 1950-54. While at Julliard, Bley had a band with Jackie MacLean, Donald Byrd, Arthur Taylor, Doug Watkins. In this period he toured with Lester Young, Ben Webster, Roy Eldridge and Bill Harris. He was a frequent visitor at the famed Saturday night sessions at Lenny Tristano's studio. Bley served as president of the Associated Jazz Societies of New York in 1952, which led to Charlie Mingus hiring Bley to conduct his ensemble. Mingus also recorded Bley's debut album, along with himself and Art Blakey, on his label, Debut Records.
In 1957, Bley went to California where his bands included: Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, Billy Higgens, Bobby Hutchinson, Scotty LaFaro, Lawrence Marable, and Dave Pike. In 1959 Bley returned to New York, where he played with Roland Kirk, Oliver Nelson, and Jimmy Giuffre at the Five Spot Cafe. This group evolved into the Jimmy Giuffre 3, including Bley and Steve Swallow, which brought Bley to Europe for the first time in 1961. They recorded for Verve and CBS.
In 1963 Bley and Herbie Hancock were invited to play with the bands of Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins, who were performing on a double bill on a Monday night at Birdland. Both pianists were offered both jobs. Hancock gave Bley first choice. Bley chose to join the Rollins quartet for a year to record and go to tour Japan. Bley's own trio with Gary Peacock and Paul Motian of the 1960's became the standard by which other trios would be measured.
In 1964, Bill Dixon invited Bley to become a member of the Jazz Composer's Guild, which included: Archie Shepp, Sonny Rollins, John Tchicai, Roswell Rudd, Carla Bley, Mike Mantle, Cecil Taylor, and Burton Greene. By 1968 Bley was working with audio synthesis. He gave the first live performance to date on synthesizer at Philarmonic Hall in New York City. He released several synthesizer albums recorded on the original Arp 2500.
In 1972, Bley made his first solo piano recording for ECM records. In 1973 Bley met video artist, Carol Goss, and together they created Improvising Artists (IAI). In 1978 a Billboard Magazine cover story credited IAI for creating the first "music video", as a result of the recorded and live performance collaborations it produced between jazz musicians and video artists.
Bley continued his work with electric quartets. In 1974, IAI brought Jaco Pastorious to New York for his debut recording. Mysteriously, these sessions, produced Pat Metheney's debut recording as well. Though Metheney had never been hired to play with the band, he sat in at a gig prior to the recording date and then stayed with Bley's quartet, which also included drummer, Bruce Ditmas.
Bley has released close to 100 CD's. Some of the artists he's recorded with include: Ben Webster, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Jimmy Giuffre, John Scofield, John Abercrombie, Bill Frisell, Chet Baker, Bill Connors, Steve Swallow, Gary Peacock, Jaco Pastorius, Pat Metheny, Red Mitchell, Marc Johnson, Niels Henning Orsted Pedersen, Arild Andersen, Kent Carter, Barre Phillips, Paul Motian, Barry Altschul, Han Benninck, Billy Hart, Tony Oxley, Bruce Ditmas, Cecil McBee, Gary Burton, Marion Brown, Jane Bunnet, Hans Koch, John Surman, John Gilmore, Evan Parker, Lee Konitz, Sam Rivers, Herbie Spanier, and Bill Evans.
In 1994 Bley received 5 stars from Downbeat for a solo synthesizer album recorded for Postcards Records and toured with Giuffre and Swallow. Bley tour Europe, Japan and North America as a solist and with duos and trios.
In 1998 the American Physical Society contacted Bley and asked if they could publish his photo in the Century of Physics Time Line Wall Char and Web Site. They said that he is the only musician to be included with a century of Noble Prize winners in physics because of his innovations in adapting the audio synthesizer for the first live performance, which Bley gave at Philarmonic Hall on December 26, 1969. The 22 foot APS Time Line wall chart will be printed and distributed to every physics classroom in the USA and will appear on the internet at the end of March 1999. The American Physical Society's website for the Time Line is: http://www.aps.org/centennial/projects/
An exhaustive discography, over 220 pages long, of Bleys released and unreleased recordings is available from Henk Gluck: http://www.improvart.com/bley/discogra.htm
In 1998 a one hour long biographical television program was made for BRAVO! and ARTE and an autobiographical book, entitled STOPPING TIME: Paul Bley and the Transformation of Jazz, was published in the autumn of 1999 by Vehicule Press (ISBN 1-55065-111-0).