I was forwarded a letter from his daughter Vanessa. It reads as follows.
I'm deeply saddened to tell you that my father passed yesterday. Below is our official statement. He was at home and very comfortable with family at his side.
PAUL BLEY OBITUARY
Paul Bley, renowned jazz pianist, died January 3, 2016, at home with his family. Born November 10, 1932, in Montreal, QC, he began music studies at the age of five. At 13, he formed the “Buzzy Bley Band.” At 17, he took over for Oscar Peterson at the Alberta Lounge, invited Charlie Parker to play at the Montreal Jazz Workshop, which he co-founded, made a film with Stan Kenton and then headed to NYC to attend Julliard.
His international career has spanned seven decades. He's played and recorded with Lester Young, Ben Webster, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, Chet Baker, Jimmy Giuffre, Charlie Haden, Paul Motian, Lee Konitz, Pat Metheny, Jaco Pastorious and many others. He is considered a master of the trio, but as exemplified by his solo piano albums, Paul Bley is preeminently a pianists' pianist.
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.
Private memorial services will be held in Stuart, FL, Cherry Valley, NY and wherever you play a Paul Bley record.”
I never got to meet Paul Bley but I did meet some of those who performed with him. He was serious about Jazz and, they all agreed, you had better know your craft if you are going to sit in with Paul Bley. He was demanding because the music is the thing. “Check your ego at the door and play your instrument,” one drummer told me.
I was fascinated by Bley. He was a huge part of the Free Jazz scene in the 1960s. He was also a founding member of the Jazz Composers Guild in 1964 with giants like Cecil Taylor. But then, Bley was a giant himself.
His first album was Introducing Paul Bley in 1953. He was recognized as an important figure immediately. By 1974, he was craved by every Jazz player imaginable and, in that year, he recorded the great album Jaco with Jaco Pastorius and Pat Metheny. In 1990, he released Memoirs and was joined by the greats Charlie Haden and Paul Motian.
From 2000 to 2014, it was all solo piano albums. That was his great love and that was his final word to us.
His music was melodic and spacious. I mention melodic because Jazz is not always melodic. Percussionist Steven Kroon once told me, “Many composers think, ‘I want this song to be in the key or G or whatever.’ I think, ‘I want to play this in 6/8 time.’” His melodies were brilliant and intricate.
But Bley was also spacious—meaning that Bley also knew when not to play, when to allow anticipation for the next note to build or to make room for other players.
He also made use of all of the piano. Sometimes he would use the lower keys to hammer out rhythms, sometimes he would play the strings of the piano directly.
Bley and videographer Carol Goss are credited in a Billboard Magazine cover story with the first “music video” as a result of the recorded and live performance collaborations they produced with jazz musicians and video artists.
As wonderful as his music was—and it truly was wonderful—perhaps his artistry was equaled by his teaching ability. He taught at the New England Conservatory of Music and while there taught the likes of Sakoto Fujii. Fujii has released over 70 albums in only 20 years and it is all due to the industry and dedication she learned from Paul Bley.
One of my favorite pieces he performed was The Nearness of You from his trio’s album of the same name. If you listen carefully, you can hear Bley humming/singing along with his playing. It is available on YouTube. Do yourself a favor and give it a listen.
There are now and have been many great musicians in the world. So many great composers. But the loss of even one is almost always unbearable.
Fare thee well, Paul Bley. I miss you already.