One of the great innovators of jazz music, pianist Cecil Taylor has redefined modernist jazz improvisation and composition. With uncompromising vision and sheer force of expression, his demanding music has both alienated and thrilled audiences, and has largely found a more receptive audience across the Atlantic. Taylor is also an accomplished poet, often incorporating his works into musical performances.
Born in Long Island in 1929, Taylor began playing piano at the age of six at the behest of his mother, and he later formally studied music at the New York College of Music and the New England Conservatory. In the early 1950s Taylor worked in R&B and swing ensembles, including a brief stint in Johnny Hodge’s quintet. In the mid-1950s Taylor formed his first ensemble featuring Steve Lacy, Dennis Charles, and Buell Neidlinger, all of whom participated in the recording of Taylor’s 1956 debut, Jazz Advance. Half a century after its release Jazz Advance remains one of the most extraordinary debuts in jazz, and it is an early indication of the directions Taylor’s music, and indeed the whole of what would be understood as the jazz avant-garde movement, would pursue.
Although a residency at the Five Spot club in New York gained him moderate critical attention and a bold reputation, Taylor lived in poverty, supporting himself as a dishwasher when he was unable to find venues willing to host his music. With altoist Jimmy Lyons and drummer Sonny Murray, however, Taylor toured Scandinavia in the winter of 1962-3, and recorded dramatic live sets which later became Nefertiti, The Beautiful One Has Come. Working both within and outside of jazz tradition, Taylor’s new trio seemed to leave tonality and traditional jazz rhythmic forms behind, while also displaying Taylor’s astonishing musical technique. Critics have pointed out the purely percussive elements of Taylor’s playing, some likening his keyboard to “88 tuned drums.”
In the mid-1960s Taylor released the Blue Note albums Unit Structures and Conquistador! which suggest both commonality with and divergence from the avant-garde movements of the 1960s. In 1973 Taylor was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship which coincided with his teaching residencies at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and Antioch College. In 1988 the city of Berlin, Germany, honored Taylor with a celebratory music festival, pairing him with many of the most adventurous improvisers of European free music. The festival led to an unprecedented series of records, including the festival’s climactic Alms/Tiergarten which highlights Taylor’s unique approach to large-ensemble composition. Awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 1991, Taylor is now approaching his 80th birthday and shows no signs of slowing his pace.