Barney Wilen's mother was French, his father a successful American dentist-turned-inventor. He grew up mostly on the French Riviera; the family left during World War II but returned upon its conclusion. According to Wilen himself, he was convinced to become a musician by his mother's friend, the poet Blaise Cendrars. As a teenager he started a youth jazz club in Nice, where he played often. He moved to Paris in the mid-'50s and worked with such American musicians as Bud Powell, Benny Golson, Miles Davis, and J.J. Johnson at the Club St. Germain. His emerging reputation received a boost in 1957 when he played with Davis on the soundtrack to the Louis Malle film Lift to the Scaffold. Two years later, he performed with Art Blakey and Thelonious Monk on the soundtrack to Roger Vadim's Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1960). Wilen began working in a rock-influenced style during the '60s, recording an album entitled Dear Prof. Leary in 1968. In the early '70s, Wilen led a failed expedition of filmmakers, musicians, and journalists to travel to Africa to document pygmy music. Later Wilen played in a punk rock band called Moko and founded a French Jazzmobile-type organization that took music to people living in outlying areas. He also worked in theater. By the mid-'90s, he was working once again in a bebop vein in a band with the pianist Laurent de Wilde. Much of Wilen's later work was documented on the Japanese Venus label.