Paul Bley, an obdurate and original pianist who began his career playing bebop and eventually became a major force in experimental jazz, died on Sunday at his home in Stuart, Fla. He was 83.
His record label, ECM, announced his death without giving a cause.
Mr. Bley’s style of playing was melodic, measured, bluesy, often polytonal and seemingly effortless. He took as long as he needed to finish a thought, and at the tempo he chose for it. He loved standards but distrusted the strictures of the 32-bar song form, and especially distrusted repetition. His notes could move slowly without telegraphing their destination, drawling down into nothing or cohering into bright, purposefully gapped lines, with backing chords that kept changing the tonal center.
Mr. Bley (pronounced “blay”) developed an influential language of phrasing and harmony — Keith Jarrett and Ethan Iverson were two of its many beneficiaries — but often talked about being eager to get outside his own habits. In the 1981 documentary “Imagine the Sound,” he professed not to practice or rehearse, out of what he called “a disdain for the known.” And he did not stake his work on traditional notions of acceptability, or the approval of the listener.
“I’ve spent many years learning how to play as slow as possible,” he told the Italian pianist and writer Arrigo Cappelletti in a typically provocative 2002 interview, “and then many more years learning how to play as fast as possible. I’ve spent many years trying how to play as good as possible. At the present I’m trying to spend as many years learning how to play as bad as possible.”
Hyman Paul Bley was born in Montreal on Nov. 10, 1932. His father, Joe, owned an embroidery factory; his mother, the former Betty Marcovitch, immigrated from Romania to Canada with her family when she was 9.
He started studying violin at 5 and piano at 8, and as a teenager began playing piano professionally as Buzzy Bley. In 1949, as a senior in high school, he briefly took over Oscar Peterson’s job at the Alberta Lounge in downtown Montreal.
Mr. Bley left for New York in 1950 to attend the Juilliard School. During his early years there, he played with the saxophonists Lester Young and Ben Webster, among others.
Keeping a hand in his hometown jazz scene, he helped organize the Jazz Workshop, a musician-run organization in Montreal that set up out-of-town soloists with local rhythm sections; in February 1953 he booked Charlie Parker for a concert and accompanied him. That concert was recorded, one of his first extant recordings before his first album as a leader, made nine months later with a trio that included Charles Mingus on bass and Art Blakey on drums. Through the mid-’50s, he was an adept bebop player with a spare style.
He met the pianist and composer Carla Bley, then known as Karen Borg, when she was working as a cigarette girl at the jazz nightclub Birdland; the two of them moved west, finally settling in Los Angeles, where in 1957 Mr. Bley secured a job leading a band at the Hillcrest Club six nights a week for nearly two years.
Toward the end of his time there, in 1958, he hired the saxophonist Ornette Coleman and the trumpeter Don Cherry for his band. He noticed that Coleman, in his compositions did not follow the standard 32-bar AABA song pattern, but rather what Mr. Bley called “A to Z form.” In his 1999 memoir, “Stopping Time,” he remembered that “it didn’t take more than a second to understand that this was the missing link between playing totally free, without any givens, and playing bebop with changes and steady time.”
Paul and Carla Bley were married in California in 1957, and during the following years he recorded a lot of her music: Her compositions make up most of Mr. Bley’s records “Footloose!” (1963) and “Closer” (1965), as he found his way toward his own kind of free jazz, intimate and almost folklike.
During that time, playing with the saxophonists Albert Ayler and Sonny Rollins, he defined as well as anyone the blurry line between the scratchiness of free improvisation and the virtuosity of the jazz tradition.
Paul and Carla Bley’s marriage ended in divorce. Another relationship, with the singer and composer Annette Peacock in the 1960s, resulted in more collaboration. Her compositions, which make up all of the trio record “Ballads” (1971) and some of the solo-piano record “Open, to Love” (1972), were important to his “slow as possible” period; using synthesizers, well before they became common in jazz, they performed together on record as the “Bley-Peacock Synthesizer Show.”
In 1973, with the video artist Carol Goss — whom he eventually married — Mr. Bley set up the multimedia company Improvising Artists, which released his music and others’. Ms. Goss survives him, as do his daughters, Vanessa Bley, Angelica Palmer and Solo Peacock, and two grandchildren.
Mr. Bley did much of his performing and recording from the ’80s onward in Europe, often with musicians he knew from earlier days — notably the bassist Charlie Haden, from Coleman’s group; the bassist Gary Peacock (former husband of Annette); and the saxophonist and clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre, with whom he made two chamberlike trio albums in 1961.
Increasingly he made solo records, full of his onrushing, nonrepeating ideas — the best way for him to express what he described as a series of questions.
“My solo piano playing is a question in itself,” he told Mr. Cappelletti. “The question is ‘why?,’ and after ‘why?’ comes ‘what?,’ and after ‘what?’ comes ‘when?’ ”
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