Pianist Paul Bley, a key figure in modern jazz for six decades, worked early in his career with jazz masters Charlie Parker and Lester Young before becoming a champion of electronic music and an inspiration to younger musicians, including pianist Keith Jarrett and guitarist Bill Frisell.
The Canadian-born Mr. Bley (pronounced “blay”) released more than 100 albums, each of them vastly different from the one before. Music writers Richard Cook and Brian Morton described him in “The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings” as “a restless experimenter with an inbuilt resistance to stopping long in any one place.”
Mr. Bley, who stretched the limits of the avant-garde with his innovative and continually changing musical styles, died Jan. 3 at his home in Stuart, Fla. He was 83.
Tina Pelikan, a publicist for ECM Records, announced the death. The cause was not disclosed.
Mr. Bley made his professional debut at 16 as a fleet-fingered, conservatory-trained bebop pianist. He recorded his first album in 1953 with Charles Mingus, the protean bassist and composer, and drummer Art Blakey.
By the late 1950s, Mr. Bley was in Los Angeles, where he led a group that featured Ornette Coleman, the experimental visionary who redefined jazz before his death in 2015. Mr. Bley also was part of groups with clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre, bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Paul Motian.
In 1964, Mr. Bley helped form the Jazz Composers Guild, a center of “free jazz,” along with pianist Cecil Taylor, trombonist Roswell Rudd, saxophonist Archie Shepp and bandleader Sun Ra. Unlike other figures of the avant-garde, Mr. Bley was a quiet revolutionary who remained grounded in the musical fundamentals of jazz.
He continued to perform with mainstream musicians and in 1963 appeared on the landmark recording “Sonny Meets Hawk” with saxophonists Sonny Rollins and Coleman Hawkins. Mr. Bley’s piano solo on “All the Things You Are” on that album became something of a musical touchstone.
“When I heard Paul Bley’s piano solo, a whole new universe of harmonic possibilities opened up for me,” guitarist Pat Metheny told the Ottawa Citizen. “Even a non-musician can sense something amazing is happening. On one level, what he’s doing is very complex, but it’s also completely accessible, very open . . . and in the end, something very personal becomes very universal.”
In 1969, Mr. Bley presented an early concert on the Moog synthesizer, believing that the electronic instrument would open a new palette of musical expression. In time, however, he returned to the standard acoustic piano, noting that it allowed for a greater expression of a musician’s personality.
He became particularly known for his eclectic solo performances in concert settings, often reaching inside the piano to pluck its strings or strike the instrument’s frame as he experimented with rhythmic patterns and the limits of harmony.
Hyman Paul Bley was born Nov. 10, 1932, in Montreal and was adopted shortly after his birth. His adoptive father ran an embroidery factory.
“Buzzy” Bley, as he was known in his youth, began playing violin at 5, then piano at 8. He studied at a conservatory at McGill University before beginning his jazz career in 1949, when he substituted for Canadian pianist Oscar Peterson at a Montreal nightclub.
The next year, Mr. Bley moved to New York, where he studied at the Juilliard School and worked on the side as a jazz pianist. He also organized a jazz workshop in Montreal, bringing in top musicians from New York.
At 20, he approached saxophonist Charlie Parker, the brilliant bebop pioneer who was notoriously undependable because of his drug addiction.
“I’d been filled in about everything,” Mr. Bley told Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper in 1984. “So I knocked on the door and invited him to the workshop.
“He said, ‘When is it?’
“I said, ‘Now — we leave in 20 minutes.’
“There was no use in discussing anything in advance with him. So I took him to Montreal, didn’t let him out of my sight, and after the concert took him back to the plane — I didn’t want to be responsible for getting him lost on my gig.”
Mr. Bley moved to California in 1957, the same year he married Karen Borg, who became better known as the jazz composer and bandleader Carla Bley. The marriage ended in divorce. Mr. Bley also had a relationship with musician and composer Annette Peacock. He remained friendly with both women and often recorded their compositions.
Survivors include his wife of 43 years, Carol Goss, a videographer, of Stuart and Cherry Valley, N.Y.; a daughter from his relationship with Peacock; two daughters from his second marriage; and two grandchildren.
Mr. Bley’s major recordings included “Open, to Love” (1972), an album of contemplative ballads; “If We May” (1993), in which he returned to the bebop and standards of his youth; and 2007’s “Solo in Mondsee,” named one of the year’s best jazz recordings by many critics.
In later years, he lived in Cherry Valley and Stuart. His autobiography, “Stopping Time,” appeared in 1999.
Mr. Bley, who was known as a peerless raconteur, described the first time he introduced the Moog synthesizer to New York’s Village Vanguard jazz club, which was owned by the irascible Max Gordon.
Midway through the performance, the contraption broke down.
“So there I was,” Mr. Bley told the Montreal Gazette in 2007, “literally on the floor, with a flashlight in one hand and a microphone in the other, saying, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I hope you’ll bear with us, there’s a bit of a technical problem here.’
“Max told me three things at the end of that matinee. ‘Get out. Stay out. And don’t come back!’ It wasn’t easy to continue a career in electronics.”