NEW YORK, N.Y. – Visionary Canadian-born pianist Paul Bley, a pivotal figure in the avant-garde jazz movement known for his innovative trio and solo recordings, has died. He was 83.
Bley died Sunday of natural causes at his winter residence in Stuart, Florida, said Tina Pelikan, publicist for the ECM record label, citing family members.
Throughout his career, Bley was a musical adventurer determined to find his own voice. “If I come up with a phrase that sounds like somebody else, I don’t play it,” he said in a 2006 interview for the website All About Jazz.
He challenged the bebop orthodoxy, adapting the free jazz of saxophonist Ornette Coleman for the piano, offering a quieter, moodier version. He later pioneered experiments with synthesizers.
His groundbreaking piano trios — notably with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Paul Motian — liberated rhythm instruments from their traditional supporting roles, making everyone equal as improvisers.
Bley also helped introduce promising young musicians such as guitarist Pat Metheny and electric bassist Jaco Pastorius, and influenced many musicians including pianist Keith Jarrett and guitarist Bill Frisell.
Born Nov. 10, 1932, in Montreal, Bley began studying music at age 5, starting on violin and switching to piano by age 7.
As a teenager, he was already playing gigs around Montreal, and at age 17 replaced fellow Montreal pianist Oscar Peterson at the Alberta Lounge. Bley moved to New York in 1950 to study at Juilliard, but remained active in his home city, where he formed the Montreal Jazz Workshop, playing with such bebop legends as Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins.
In New York, he participated in pianist Lennie Tristano’s experimental jazz workshops and met bassist Charles Mingus, who produced and played on Bley’s 1953 debut recording, “Introducing Paul Bley.”
In 1957, Bley moved to Los Angeles where he performed with trumpeter Chet Baker. In 1958, Bley invited a then-unknown Ornette Coleman and his quartet with drummer Billy Higgins, trumpeter Don Cherry and bassist Charlie Haden to play with him at the Hillcrest Club.
That gig led Bley to be regarded as “the man who headed the palace coup that overthrew bebop” in the Penguin Guide to Jazz. In 1959, Coleman’s quartet appeared at New York’s Five Spot jazz club and released the album “The Shape of Jazz to Come” — a seminal moment in jazz history that ushered in the free jazz movement.
Bley “was the one who understood what Ornette was doing and who brought that kind of tonal mobility and melodic freedom to the piano,” the noted critic Stanley Crouch once observed.
He married pianist and composer Karen Borg, who changed her name to Carla Bley, and the couple moved back to New York in 1959. His groups featured her compositions.
Bley worked in clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre’s avant-garde chamber jazz trio, and then formed his own group with bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Pete La Roca, releasing the influential 1963 album “Footloose.”
He turned down an invitation to join Miles Davis’ band, choosing instead to tour in 1963 with Sonny Rollins, with whom he recorded the album “Sonny Meets Hawk” featuring tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins.
Bley helped form the co-operative Jazz Composers Guild in 1964 which brought together many of the leading avant-garde jazz musicians in New York, including pianist Cecil Taylor and saxophonist Archie Shepp.
In the late 1960s, Bley became one of the first jazz musicians to use electronics and Moog synthesizers. He showcased the songs of his second wife, the synth-playing singer Annette Peacock, with whom he performed the first-ever live performance with a portable Moog audio synthesizer at Philharmonic Hall in New York in 1969 and made several recordings.
During the 1970s, Bley partnered with his future third wife, videographer Carol Goss, to create their own production company, Improvising Artists Inc., which issued LPs and some of the first music videos.
In 1972, he released his first solo piano album, “Open, to Love” for ECM, and would record a series of solo albums after 2000, including “Play Blue: Oslo Concert” (ECM) released in 2014.
Describing his solo improvised concerts, Bley told the New York Times in a 2000 interview:”The purpose of playing a concert should be to know something at the end of it that you didn’t know at the beginning.”
Bley released more than 100 albums as a leader and sideman. He was featured in the 1981 documentary “Imagine the Sound” and wrote an autobiography, “Stopping Time: Paul Bley and the Transformation of Jazz.” In 2008, he was named a member of the Order of Canada.
Private memorial services are planned.