Paul Bley, a modern master of the jazz piano whose career spanned seven decades and who rose through the ranks by performing with such legends as Charlie Parker, Lester Young and Charles Mingus in the ’50s, died at home in Stuart, Fla., according to his longtime label ECM. He was 83.
An early champion of controversial “free jazz” pioneer Ornette Coleman, whose quartet he hired and accompanied in 1958 to play at the Hillcrest Club in Los Angeles, Bley has always trafficked in avant grade circles, and his solo improvisational gifts could be said to have influenced such later innovators of the form as Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea (Bley, like Jarrett and Corea, used all aspects of his instrument, including plucking the piano strings.) Perhaps the one constant in Bley’s career — characterized by a rigorous, at times severe aesthetic in his recordings that rarely matched the warmth and dynamism of his live performances — was his unpredictability.
In its review of Bley’s duet performance with the late bassist Charlie Haden at the Jazz Bakery in Culver City, the L.A. Times wrote: “The only constants were the ongoing depth of sometimes strange, frequently beautiful harmonies the pianist employed and his intent to take listeners deep into improvisational adventures.”
Bley, born Nov. 10 in Montreal, Quebec, proved a virtuoso from an early age, when he began music studies at the age of five. He formed the Buzzy Bley Band at age 13, and by the time he was 17, he filled piano giant Oscar Peterson’s seat at the Alberta Lounge. He was already wielding sufficient influence as a musician and tastemaker that he invited Parker to play at the Montreal Jazz Workshop, which he co-founded, made a film with big band leader Stan Kenton and ended up in New York City to attend Julliard.
In the early 1960s he became one third of the Jimmy Giuffre 3, with Giuffre on clarinet and Steve Swallow on bass. The trio was characterized by its thoughtful understatement and high degree of innovation, with a repertoire that included compositions by Bley’s first wife, Carla Bley. (Bley’s second wife, Annette Peacock, wrote much of Bley’s material from the mid-’60s on.
In 1964, Bley was a key figure in the formation of the Jazz Composers Guild, which rallied some of the more noted free jazz musicians in New York at the time, including Carla Bley, Cecile Taylor, Archie Shepp and Sun Ra.
He was also one of the first jazz pianists to embrace electric keyboards in the late ’60s, pioneering the use of Moog synthesizers before an audience at NYC’s Philharmonic Hall in 1969 and in a series of recordings with Peacock, including the use of the melodic electric piano and modulated synthesizer.
But Bley was first and foremost an acoustic pianist, and a master of the trio format, and his storied career, which comprised more than 80 recordings as leader or co-leader, included celebrated collaborations with Chet Baker, Lee Konitz, Gary Peacock, Pat Metheny and Jaco Pastorius, among many others.
He is survived by his wife of 43 years, Carol Gross, 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, Fla. and Cherry Vallet, NY.