Cecil Taylor Biography

American jazz pianist and composer
Taylor was a primary leader of the late 1950’s avant-garde who pioneered new approaches to improvisation that expanded the boundaries of jazz.

March 25, 1929; New York, New York
Also known as:
Cecil Percival Taylor (full name) Principal recordings
albums: In Transition, 1955; Jazz Advance, 1956; Coltrane Time, 1958; Hard Driving Jazz, 1958; Looking Ahead!, 1958; Cecil Taylor Plays Cole Porter, 1959; Love for Sale, 1959; Stereo Drive, 1959; Air, 1960; The World of Cecil Taylor, 1960; Cell Walk for Celeste, 1961; Jumpin’ Punkins, 1961; New York City R and B, 1961; Nefertiti the Beautiful One Has Come, 1962; Conquistador, 1966; Student Studies, 1966; Unit Structures, 1966; Akisakila, 1973; Indent, 1973; Solo, 1973; Spring of Two Blue-J’s, 1973; Silent Tongues, 1974; Dark unto Themselves, 1976; Embraced, 1977 (with Mary Lou Williams); Cecil Taylor Unit, 1978; One Too Many, Salty Swift, and Not Goodbye, 1978; Three Phasis, 1978; Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly!, 1980; It Is in the Brewing Luminous, 1980; The Eighth, 1981; Garden, 1981; Winged Serpent (Sliding Quadrants), 1984; For Olim, 1986; Olu Iwa, 1986; Chinampas, 1987; Tzotzil, Mummers, Tzotzil, 1987; Erzulie Maketh Scent, 1988; The Hearth, 1988; Leaf Palm Hand, 1988 (with Tony Oxley); Pleistozaen mit Wasser, 1988 (with Derek Bailey); Regalia, 1988 (with Paul Lovens); Remembrance, 1988; Riobec, 1988 (with Gunter Sommer); Spots, Circles, and Fantasy, 1988 (with Han Bennink); Alms/Tiergarten (Spree), 1989; In Florescence, 1989; Looking (Berlin Version) Corona, 1989; Looking (Berlin Version) Solo, 1989; Celebrated Blazons, 1990; Thelonious Sphere Monk: Dreaming of the Masters, Vol. 2, 1992; Always a Pleasure, 1993; Buildings Within, 1993; Akisakila, Vol. 2, 1995; Mixed, 1998; Cecil Taylor/Bill Dixon/Tony Oxley, 2002; Piano Solo, 2002; Port of Call, 2002; Piano Cecil, 2003; Algonquin, 2004; All the Notes, 2004; The Owner of the River Bank, 2004 (with the Italian Instabile Orchestra).

The Life
Cecil Percival Taylor grew up in Corona, Queens, a metropolitan New York neighborhood that harbored numerous musicians. As amember of a small but growing African American middle class, he was encouraged by his mother to study classical piano from an early age and was exposed to the great breadth and wealth of the arts found in cosmopolitan New York. In 1949 Taylor began a two-year diploma program at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. After graduating in 1951, Taylor moved back to New York and began sporadic gigs as both a sideman and a leader. His recording career began in 1956, when he became the leader of both a trio and a quartet. He recorded about one album per year until 1962, when he made his first European tour.

Taylor slowly began to receive recognition and acclaim throughout the 1960’s. In the early 1970’s he held several short-term posts at universities (University of Wisconsin, Antioch College, Glassboro State College), and he received a Guggenheim grant in 1973. In the 1980’s he was consistently winning Down Beat magazine’s poll for best pianist and had an extraordinary monthlong stint as an artistin- residence in Berlin, performing with Europe’s top improvisers. In 1991 Taylor received the prestigious MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. His collaborators have included John Coltrane, dancers Mikhail Baryshnikov and Dianne McIntyre, pianist Mary Lou Williams, drummers Max Roach and Elvin Jones, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and saxophonist Anthony Braxton.

The Music Jazz Advance.
Taylor’s first commercial recording, Jazz Advance, with his first ensemble (bassist Buell Neidlinger,drummer Dennis Charles, and soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy) already revealed an original approach to the piano and improvisation.

In his rendition of Thelonious Monk’s “Bemsha Swing,” for example, he used texture as an organizing principle within the repeating chorus structure.

His principal method was to exploit registral contrasts of the left and right hands with static or moving clusters, parallel versus conjunct lines, and a number of other relationships, rather than the standard practice of assigning chords to the left hand and melody to the right hand.

Looking Ahead!
Over the next several years this new approach would be developed and documented in jazz-based trios or quartets. Looking Ahead!, recorded in 1958 and featuring vibraphonist.

Earl Griffith, contains some of Taylor’s most intimate and enduring statements. Throughout this period Taylor had a difficult time finding steady work, in part because of the incompatibility of his music with nightclub socializing and in part because his very dynamic and forceful piano technique intimidated club owners, fearful for their pianos.

The World of Cecil Taylor.
Recorded in late 1960, The World of Cecil Taylor shows Taylor on the verge of breaking through the confines of the twelve- and thirty-two-bar formal structures that were standard in jazz at the time. Into the Hot, recorded a year later, debuted Taylor’s new ensemble, with long-term associate alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, drummer SunnyMurray, and bassist Henry Grimes. During the improvisation section of “Pots,” the drummer and the rest of the ensemble are in two different rhythmic strata, with no overriding beat governing the music, despite the piece’s loose choral structure.

Live at Montmartre.
In late 1962 Taylor,Murray, and Lyons toured Scandinavia, recording Live at Montmartre, which shows the final disintegration of a steady beat and regular choral structure, two hitherto sacrosanct characteristics of jazz. This album provided a first glimpse of the ultimate demise of any steady beat in Taylor’s music, a feature that Taylor and Murray would develop over the next few years.

Touring Europe.
Taylor did not record from 1963 to 1965 and continued to be plagued by difficulties finding work. He eventually recorded two albums on the mainstream Blue Note label in 1966 (Unit Structures and Conquistador), which showed a new maturity in writing for a medium-sized ensemble (sextet and septet). Throughout the 1960’s Taylor found a growing audience in Europe.

In 1973-1974 Taylor recorded a series of live concerts that featured his solo piano playing (Indent, Akisakila, Spring of Two Blue-J’s, and Silent Tongues) and established him as an unparalleled master of the genre. These concert performances reveal an unprecedented style of solo piano improvisation and a flawless command of the instrument. While some melodic motives appear to float from performance to performance, each piece (often consisting of several movements) has its own shape, defined initially by extended opening statements that eventually transform into nonstop barrages all over the instrument, taxing the construction of the piano.

The textural improvisation hinted at in his earliest recordings is here in full bloom as a large-scale organizational device.

After 1974.
From the mid-1970’s Taylor performed and recorded with various formations of his groups, entering into a number of unusual collaborations.

Ahighly touted duo concert with elder piano stateswoman Mary Lou Williams in New York’s Carnegie Hall proved disappointing for both, although a 1979 concert with elder drum statesman Max Roach showed more communication and sympathy. Taylor’s 1986 solo piano recording For Olim continued to develop his longform works of a decade earlier, providing further evidence of his massive yet subtle command of the piano and now fully consolidated personal musical language.

In the summer of 1988 Taylor enjoyed a monthlong residency in Berlin, which yielded an extraordinary eleven-compact-disc boxed set featuring him in concert in duets and trios with some of Europe’s most renowned improvisers as well as leading an all-star European orchestra. Taylor continued to give high-profile solo concerts in the 1990’s, enjoying critical acclaim and achieving iconic status as the master of solo improvisation.

In the 2000’s Taylor remained in demand in Europe and the United States. He reunited with bassist Grimes for the first time in forty years and gave a series of acclaimed European performances with saxophonist Braxton in 2007, their first musical meeting. Taylor continues to perform with great command and energy for a relatively small but highly devoted global fan base that recognizes him as the wellspring for what came to be known after 1960 as “free improvisation.” Musical Legacy
Besides leaving more than fifty years’ worth of deeply personal, virtuosic, and innovative music documented on scores of recordings, Taylor has opened the doors for generations of musicians to new possibilities for playing their instruments and improvising. Starting from a base within jazz in the 1950’s, by the mid-1960’s Taylor had successfully broken down the boundaries that had previously defined the genre. This freed jazz musicians to devise new conceptions and strategies for improvisation within a solo or an ensemble context. Taylor’s steadfast adherence to his initial style, exploring the potential of a music not based in the steady beat so germane to jazz before 1960, has proven to be an enduring inspiration. ¶