Cecil Taylor

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Cecil Taylor
Cecil taylor E5122329-2.jpg
Taylor at the Moers Festival, 2008
Background information
Birth name Cecil Percival Taylor
Born (1929-03-15)March 15, 1929
Corona, Queens, New York, U.S.
Died April 5, 2018(2018-04-05) (aged 89)
Brooklyn, New York City
Genres Jazz, avant-garde jazz, free jazz
Occupation(s) Musician, bandleader, composer, poet
Instruments Piano
Years active 1956-2018
Labels Transition, Blue Note, Freedom, Hathut, Enja, FMP
Associated acts Steve Lacy, Jimmy Lyons, Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, Buell Neidlinger, Alan Silva, William Parker, Sunny Murray, Andrew Cyrille, Tony Oxley, Anthony Braxton, Alan Silva, Art Ensemble of Chicago, John Coltrane

Cecil Percival Taylor (March 15, 1929 - April 5, 2018)[1][2][3][4][5][6] was an American pianist and poet.[7][8]

Taylor was classically trained and was one of the pioneers of free jazz. His music is characterized by an energetic, physical approach, resulting in complex improvisation which frequently involves tone clusters and intricate polyrhythms. His technique has been compared to percussion. Referring to the number of keys on a standard piano, Val Wilmer used the phrase "eighty-eight tuned drums" to describe Taylor's pianism.[9] He has been called "like Art Tatum with contemporary-classical leanings".[10]

Early life[edit]

Taylor was raised in the Corona, Queens neighborhood of New York City.[11] As an only child to a middle-class family, Taylor's mother encouraged him to play music at an early age. He began playing piano at age six and went on to study at the New York College of Music and New England Conservatory. At the New England Conservatory, Taylor majored in composition and arranging. During his time there, he also became familiar with contemporary European art music. Bartók and Stockhausen notably influenced his music.[12]

In 1955, Taylor moved from Boston to New York City. He formed a quartet with soprano saxophonist, Steve Lacy, the bassist Buell Neidlinger, and drummer Dennis Charles.[12]

Taylor's first recording, Jazz Advance, featured Lacy and was released in 1956.[13] It is described by Cook and Morton in the Penguin Guide to Jazz: "While there are still many nods to conventional post-bop form in this set, it already points to the freedoms in which the pianist would later immerse himself."[14] Taylor's Quartet featuring Lacy also appeared at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival which went on to be made into the album At Newport.[15] He collaborated with saxophonist John Coltrane in 1958 (Stereo Drive, currently available as Coltrane Time).[16]

1950s and 1960s[edit]

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Taylor's music grew more complex and moved away from existing jazz styles. Gigs were often hard to come by, and club owners found Taylor's approach to performance (long pieces) unhelpful in conducting business.[17] His 1959 LP Looking Ahead!, showcased his innovation as a creator in comparison to the jazz mainstream. Unlike others at the time, Taylor utilized virtuosic techniques and made swift stylistic shifts from phrase to phrase. These qualities, among others, still remain notable distinctions of Taylor's music today.[18]

Landmark recordings, like Unit Structures (1966), also appeared. With 'the Unit', musicians developed often volcanic new forms of conversational interplay. In the early 1960s, an uncredited Albert Ayler worked for a time with Taylor, jamming and appearing on at least one recording, Four, which was unreleased until appearing on the 2004 Albert Ayler box set Holy Ghost: Rare & Unissued Recordings (1962–70).[19]

By 1961, Taylor was working regularly with alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, one of his most important and consistent collaborators. Taylor, Lyons and drummer Sunny Murray (and later Andrew Cyrille) formed the core personnel of The Unit, Taylor's primary group effort until Lyons's premature death in 1986. Lyons's playing, strongly influenced by jazz icon Charlie Parker, retained a strong blues sensibility and helped keep Taylor's increasingly avant garde music tethered to the jazz tradition.[20]

Solo concerts[edit]

Taylor began to perform solo concerts in the second half of the sixties. The first known recorded solo performance (by Dutch radio) was 'Carmen With Rings' (59 min.) in De Doelen concert hall in Rotterdam on July 1, 1967. Two days before Taylor had played the same composition in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. Many of the later concerts were released on album and include Indent (1973), side one of Spring of Two Blue-J's (1973),[21] Silent Tongues (1974), Garden (1982), For Olim (1987), Erzulie Maketh Scent (1989) and The Tree of Life (1998). He began to garner critical, if not popular, acclaim, playing for Jimmy Carter on the White House Lawn, lecturing as an in-residence artist at universities, and eventually being awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1973 and then a MacArthur Fellowship in 1991.[22][23][24][25]

1990s and the Feel Trio[edit]

Following Lyons's death in 1986 Taylor formed the Feel Trio in the early 1990s with William Parker (bass) and Tony Oxley (drums); the group can be heard on Celebrated Blazons, Looking (Berlin Version) The Feel Trio and the 10-CD set 2 T's for a Lovely T.[26][27][28] Compared to his prior small groups with Jimmy Lyons, the Feel Trio had a more abstract approach, tethered less to jazz tradition and more aligned with the ethos of European free improvisation. He also performed with larger ensembles and big-band projects. His extended residence in Berlin in 1988 was extensively documented by the German label FMP, resulting in a boxed set of performances in duet and trio with a large number of European free improvisors, including Oxley, Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, Han Bennink, Tristan Honsinger, Louis Moholo and Paul Lovens. Most of his latter day recordings have been put out on European labels, with the exception of Momentum Space (a meeting with Dewey Redman and Elvin Jones) on Verve/Gitanes. The classical label Bridge released his 1998 Library of Congress performance Algonquin, a duet with violinist Mat Maneri.[29] Taylor continued to perform for capacity audiences around the world with live concerts, usually played on his favored instrument, a Bösendorfer piano that features nine extra lower-register keys. A documentary entitled All the Notes, was released on DVD in 2006 by director Chris Felver. Taylor was also featured in an earlier documentary film Imagine the Sound (1981), in which he discusses and performs his music, poetry and dance.[30]


At the Moers Festival, 2008

Taylor recorded sparingly in the 2000s, but continued to perform with his own ensembles (the Cecil Taylor Ensemble and the Cecil Taylor Big Band) as well as with other musicians such as Joe Locke, Max Roach, and the poet Amiri Baraka.[31] In 2004, the Cecil Taylor Big Band at the Iridium 2005 was nominated a best performance of 2004 by All About Jazz,[32] and the same in 2009 for the Cecil Taylor Trio at the Highline Ballroom in 2009.[33] The trio consisted of Taylor, Albey Balgochian, and Jackson Krall. At time of Taylor's death in 2018, an autobiography, further concerts, and other projects were in the works.[34] In 2010, Triple Point Records released a deluxe limited edition double LP titled Ailanthus/Altissima: Bilateral Dimensions of Two Root Songs, a set of duos with long-time collaborator Tony Oxley that was recorded live at the Village Vanguard in New York City.[35]

In 2013, he was awarded the Kyoto Prize for Music;[36] the citation described him as "An Innovative Jazz Musician Who Has Fully Explored the Possibilities of Piano Improvisation".[37] In 2014, his career and 85th birthday were honored at the Painted Bride Art Center in Philadelphia with the tribute concert event "Celebrating Cecil".[38] In 2016 he received a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art entitled Open Plan: Cecil Taylor.[39]

Taylor, along with dancer Min Tanaka, was the subject of Amiel Courtin-Wilson's 2016 documentary film The Silent Eye.[40]

Ballet and dance[edit]

In addition to piano, Taylor was always interested in ballet and dance. His mother, who died while he was still young, was a dancer and also played the piano and violin. Taylor once said: "I try to imitate on the piano the leaps in space a dancer makes."[41] He collaborated with dancer Dianne McIntyre in the late 70s and early 80s.[42][43] In 1979 he also composed and played the music for a twelve-minute ballet "Tetra Stomp: Eatin' Rain in Space", featuring Mikhail Baryshnikov and Heather Watts.[44]


Taylor was a poet, citing Robert Duncan, Charles Olson and Amiri Baraka as major influences.[45] He often integrated his poems into his musical performances, and they frequently appear in the liner notes of his albums. The CD Chinampas, released by Leo Records in 1987, is a recording of Taylor reciting several of his poems, accompanying himself on percussion.[46]

Influence and musical style[edit]

According to Steven Block, free jazz originated with the performances of Cecil Taylor at the Five Spot Cafe in 1957 and Ornette Coleman in 1959.[47] In 1964, Taylor co-founded the Jazz Composers Guild to enhance the working possibilities of avant-garde jazz musicians.[48]

Taylor's style and methods have been described as "constructivist".[49] Despite Scott Yanow's warning regarding Taylor's "forbidding music" ("Suffice it to say that Cecil Taylor's music is not for everyone"), he goes on to praise Taylor's "remarkable technique and endurance", and his "advanced", "radical", "original", and uncompromising "musical vision".[8]

This vision is one of Taylor's greatest influences upon others:

Playing with Taylor I began to be liberated from thinking about chords. I'd been imitating John Coltrane unsuccessfully and because of that I was really chord conscious.

— Archie Shepp, quoted in LeRoi Jones, album liner notes for Four for Trane (Impulse A-71, 1964).

Personal life and death[edit]

In 1982 jazz critic Stanley Crouch wrote that Taylor was gay, prompting an angry response.[50] In 1991 Taylor told a New York Times reporter "[s]omeone once asked me if I was gay. I said, 'Do you think a three-letter word defines the complexity of my humanity?' I avoid the trap of easy definition."[51]

Taylor moved to Fort Greene, Brooklyn, in 1983.[11] He died at his Brooklyn residence on April 5, 2018, at the age of 89.[52][53]



  1. ^ Such, David Glen (1993). Avant-garde Jazz Musicians: Performing "Out There". University of Iowa Press. p. 61. ISBN 9781587292316. 
  2. ^ Feather, Leonard; Gitler, Ira (2007). The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz. Oxford University Press. p. 638. ISBN 9780195320008. 
  3. ^ Schray, Martin. "Cecil Taylor (1929 - 2018)". The Free Jazz Collective. Retrieved April 6, 2018. 
  4. ^ "Le pianiste de free jazz Cecil Taylor est mort". Liberation. April 6, 2018. Retrieved April 6, 2018. 
  5. ^ Ribi, Thomas (April 6, 2018). "Ein Gruendervater des Free Jazz -Cecil Taylor ist gestorben". Neue Zuercher Zeitung. NZZ Mediengruppe. Retrieved April 6, 2018. 
  6. ^ Seisdedos, Iker (April 6, 2018). "Muere el pianista Cecil Taylor, indomable leyenda del jazz". El Pais. Ediciones El Pais S.L. Retrieved April 6, 2018. 
  7. ^ Such 1993, p. 61.
  8. ^ a b Yanow, Scott. "Cecil Taylor". AllMusic. Retrieved 22 June 2018. 
  9. ^ Wilmer, Val (1977). As Serious As Your Life: The Story of the New Jazz. Quartet. p. 45. ISBN 0-7043-3164-0. 
  10. ^ Fordham, John (January 21, 2005). "Cecil Taylor, One Too Many Salty Swift and Not Goodbye". London: The Guardian. Retrieved March 26, 2011. Taylor plays the piano [...] like Art Tatum with contemporary-classical leanings... 
  11. ^ a b Ratliff, Ben. "Lessons From the Dean of the School of Improv", The New York Times, May 3, 2012. Accessed December 9, 2017. "I recently spoke with the 83-year-old improvising pianist Cecil Taylor for about five hours over two days. One day was at his three-story home in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, where he has lived since 1983.... Raised in Corona, Queens, he started out as a Harlem jam-session musician in the early 1950s and talks with intense loyalty about a line of particularly New York-identified piano players: Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson, Thelonious Monk, Mary Lou Williams, Mal Waldron, John Hicks."
  12. ^ a b Meeder, Christopher. Jazz: the Basics. p. 150. 
  13. ^ Fordham, John (July 10, 2008). "CD: Cecil Taylor, Jazz Advance". the Guardian. Retrieved April 6, 2018. 
  14. ^ Morton, Brian (2011). The Penguin jazz guide : the history of the music in the 1,001 best albums. Cook, Richard. London: Penguin. ISBN 0141959002. OCLC 759581884. 
  15. ^ Fordham, John (September 20, 2002). "CD: Gigi Gryce/Donald Byrd/Cecil Taylor, At Newport". the Guardian. Retrieved April 6, 2018. 
  16. ^ "Coltrane Time - John Coltrane". AllMusic. Retrieved April 6, 2018. 
  17. ^ Spellman, A. B. (1985) [1966]. Four Lives in the Bebop Business. Limelight. ISBN 0-87910-042-7. 
  18. ^ Meeder, Christopher. Jazz: the Basics. p. 151. 
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  20. ^ Kelsey, Chris. "Jimmy Lyons – Biography". AllMusic. Retrieved March 27, 2012. 
  21. ^ Cecil Taylor Unit Spring of Two Blue-J’s @ kathleen.frederator Tumblr Archived June 4, 2016, at the Wayback Machine.
  22. ^ "George Wein: A Great Day in Washington - JazzTimes". JazzTimes. Retrieved April 6, 2018. 
  23. ^ West, Hollie I. (May 26, 1981). "The Jazz Man". Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved April 6, 2018. 
  24. ^ "Cecil P. Taylor". Gf.org. Retrieved April 6, 2018. 
  25. ^ "Class of 1991 - MacArthur Foundation". Macfound.org. Retrieved April 6, 2018. 
  26. ^ "Celebrated Blazons". AllMusic. Retrieved April 6, 2018. 
  27. ^ "Looking (Berlin Version) The Feel Trio - The Feel Trio | Songs, Reviews, Credits | AllMusic". AllMusic. Retrieved April 6, 2018. 
  28. ^ Fordham, John (September 20, 2002). "CD: Cecil Taylor Feel Trio, 2 Ts For A Lovely T". the Guardian. Retrieved April 6, 2018. 
  29. ^ "Cecil Taylor: Algonquin - Cecil Taylor | Songs, Reviews, Credits | AllMusic". AllMusic. Retrieved April 6, 2018. 
  30. ^ "Documentary Screening:Imagine the Sound". Gardiner Museum. Retrieved April 6, 2018. 
  31. ^ Taylor Baraka Duo Archived November 4, 2016, at the Wayback Machine.
  32. ^ Band, Big (2004). "Best Performances 2004". All About Jazz Press: 10. 
  33. ^ Trio, Cecil Taylor (2009). "Best Performances 2009". All About Jazz Press: 10. 
  34. ^ "Biography". Cecil Taylor - Official Website. 2011. Archived from the original on September 12, 2011. 
  35. ^ "Cecil Taylor & Tony Oxley - Ailanthus / Altissima: Bilateral Dimensions Of 2 Root Songs". Discogs. Retrieved April 6, 2018. 
  36. ^ Laura Snapes (April 6, 2018). "Cecil Taylor, free jazz pioneer, dies age 89". The Guardian. Retrieved April 7, 2018. 
  37. ^ "Cecil Taylor". Kyoto Prize. Retrieved April 7, 2018. 
  38. ^ Ray Simon, "Out jazz great celebrated at local festival" Archived August 28, 2016, at the Wayback Machine., Philadelphia Gay News, March 6, 2014; retrieved October 19, 2014.
  39. ^ "Open Plan: Cecil Taylor". Whitney Museum of American Art. Retrieved January 9, 2017.
  40. ^ Gary Maddox, "Bold new projects for Amiel Courtin-Wilson and more Australian film news", Sydney Morning Herald, April 12, 2016; retrieved August 2, 2017.
  41. ^ Spellman, A. B. (1966). Four lives in the bebop business (1st Limelight ed.). New York: Limelight Editions. p. 42. ISBN 0879100427. OCLC 11469891. 
  42. ^ "Dianne McIntyre". Diannemcintyre.com. Retrieved April 6, 2018. 
  43. ^ Thompkins, Judy. "Dianne McIntyre, Choreographer". Diannemcintyre.com. Retrieved April 6, 2018. 
  44. ^ Mandel, Howard (2008). Miles, Ornette, Cecil : jazz beyond jazz. New York: Routledge. p. 204. ISBN 0415967147. OCLC 173749173. 
  45. ^ "being matter ignited..." Archived April 1, 2016, at the Wayback Machine., Interview with Cecil Taylor by Chris Funkhouser published in Hambone, No. 12 (Nathaniel Mackey, editor).
  46. ^ "Chinampas". AllMusic. Retrieved April 6, 2018. 
  47. ^ Steven Block, "Pitch-Class Transformation in Free Jazz", Music Theory Spectrum, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Autumn 1990), pp. 181–202. Published by: University of California Press on behalf of the Society for Music Theory.
  48. ^ Daniel Walden, "Black Music and Cultural Nationalism: The Maturation of Archie Shepp", Negro American Literature Forum, Vol. 5, No. 4 (Winter 1971), pp. 150–154. Published by St. Louis University.
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  50. ^ Gennari, John (2006). Blowin' Hot and Cool: Jazz and its Critics. University of Chicago Press. p. 355. ISBN 0-226-28922-2. 
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  53. ^ "Cecil Taylor Dead at 89 | Pitchfork". pitchfork.com. Retrieved April 6, 2018. 

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