Paul Bley, visionary jazz pianist, dies at 83
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.
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.
This undated photo provided by ECM Records shows the visionary Canadian-born pianist Paul Bley.