Cecil Taylor died at his New York home in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, on 5 April 2018. He was 89
Born on 25 March 1929, Cecil Taylor was raised in Corona, in the New York borough of Queens. He began playing the piano at age six. He said that when he expressed an interest in the instrument, his mother informed him that he would be a doctor or a lawyer, and the piano would be his avocation. She imposed a rigorous practice schedule on him, and he became a master of the instrument, studying at the New York College of Music and the New England Conservatory. In 1955, he returned to New York and formed a quartet with soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, bassist Buell Neidlinger (who died in March), and drummer Denis Charles.
The albums Taylor made between 1956–61 featured a mix of his own compositions and pieces by Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk, as well as multiple Cole Porter tunes (“Sweet And Lovely”, “Love For Sale”, and others). Even at the beginning, though, signs of music to come were obvious – his version of “Love For Sale” begins with a solo passage that must have been breathtaking in 1959, and remains astonishing today. During two extended sessions in October 1960 and January 1961, he recorded what would ultimately become five albums’ worth of material with a pool of players that included Lacy, Neidlinger, Charles, drummer Sunny Murray, trombonist Roswell Rudd, and saxophonist Archie Shepp. Shortly thereafter, he began the single most important creative relationship of his life with alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons.
Taylor, Lyons and Murray went to Europe in 1962 for a concert tour. At Copenhagen’s Café Montmartre, they recorded Nefertiti, The Beautiful One Has Come, arguably the first document of Taylor’s music in full flower. With Murray abandoning conventional time, and only Lyons’s bebop-rooted lines to anchor them to the past, the trio took off into previously uncharted realms, combining lyricism and explosiveness for up to 20 minutes at a time. But this was to be Taylor’s last recording for four years.
He signed to Blue Note in 1966, and made two albums – Unit Structures and Conquistador! – with a core group consisting of Lyons, bassists Henry Grimes and Alan Silva, and drummer Andrew Cyrille. On Unit Structures, they were joined by trumpeter Eddie Gale and reeds player Ken McIntyre; on Conquistador!, Bill Dixon played trumpet.
Taylor began to perform unaccompanied in the late 1960s, and in the 1970s made some of his most important and revelatory recordings as a solo artist, including Indent, Silent Tongues, and Air Above Mountains. From 1969–73, he taught at Antioch College in Ohio, leading a student orchestra called The Black Music Ensemble. He also taught for one year at the University of Wisconsin, where he infamously failed most of his students after they ignored his admonition to go see Miles Davis perform locally. (Taylor disliked Davis as a person, but had tremendous respect for his music.) In 1978, he was one of a group of jazz musicians invited by US President Jimmy Carter to perform at the White House.
That same year, Taylor formed arguably his greatest band – a sextet featuring trumpeter Raphé Malik, Lyons, violinist Ramsey Ameen, bassist Sirone and drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson. Together, they blended blues and swing with modern classical and free jazz, even nodding to African-American string bands at times – Ameen’s violin was central to the group sound. But after two studio albums, The Cecil Taylor Unit and 3 Phasis, and the live albums Live In The Black Forest and One Too Many Salty Swift And Not Goodbye, they were gone, a brilliant flash that dissipated as quickly as it had appeared.
Taylor always had a fascination with dance – he famously told writer AB Spellman, “I try to imitate on the piano the leaps in space a dancer makes.” During the late 1970s and early 1980s, he collaborated with dancer and choreographer Dianne McIntyre’s group Sound In Motion, and composed and played the music for a ballet featuring Mikhail Baryshnikov and Heather Watts. His European concerts of the 1980s, featuring an ensemble that included Lyons, bassist William Parker, drummers André Martinez and Charles Downs, and Downs’s wife Brenda Bakr on vocals, and also incorporated dancers at times, as in this performance filmed for German television:
In 1988, he traveled to Berlin for an extended residency documented in the massive In Berlin 88 boxset. There, he recorded duos with a variety of drummers, including Han Bennink, Louis Moholo, Tony Oxley and Günter ‘Baby’ Sommer, and with guitarist Derek Bailey; led a massive ensemble of European players; conducted a workshop; and played solo. The project also inaugurated his longest running and most fruitful relationship with a label – in the 30 years since that residency, FMP has issued more than a dozen Taylor titles.
Jimmy Lyons died in 1986, and Taylor’s work was fundamentally changed. He never established that kind of deep, extended partnership with another artist; indeed, other than some large ensembles, he seemed to prefer to play in trio or solo contexts, frequently switching bassists and drummers. Recordings in his final two decades were infrequent, though each one was a major statement in its own way, whether it was the 1999 summit conference Momentum Space, with saxophonist Dewey Redman and drummer Elvin Jones, the 1998 duo with violinist Mat Maneri at the Library of Congress released in 2004 as Algonquin, the 2000 performance leading the Italian Instabile Orchestra documented on 2003’s The Owner Of The River Bank, or the controversial performance at the 2002 Victoriaville Festival with Bill Dixon and Tony Oxley, at which Taylor seemed to allow the trumpeter to dictate the terms, abandoning his usual torrential style in favour of gentle ripples of notes.
Taylor’s piano style could be both highly percussive and volcanically melodic, but he was capable of great tenderness as well. He commanded the entire keyboard, and conventional pianos were sometimes not enough for him – whenever possible, he played a Bösendorfer Imperial, which offers nine additional keys at the lower end of the instrument’s range. In her landmark book As Serious As Your Life, Valerie Wilmer famously described his style as treating the keyboard “like 88 tuned drums”, and quoted him as saying, “We in Black music think of the piano as a percussive instrument: we beat the keyboard, we get inside the instrument.” His florid, romantic approach was entirely dependent on impeccable finger technique and astonishing speed; he mostly stayed off the pedals, preferring to punch out every note as cleanly and articulately as possible.
Taylor received numerous awards throughout his life: a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1973, a MacArthur Fellowship (the so-called ‘genius grant’) in 1991, and a Kyoto Prize in 2014. In the latter case, the prize money was stolen by an acquaintance but eventually recovered. Between 1997–2016 I saw him perform five times, in various contexts from solo to leading a large ensemble, and I interviewed him in 2016 for the cover story of The Wire 386, when he was the subject of an exhibition at New York’s Whitney Museum. In person, he was witty and charming, relishing the role of raconteur and happy to spend hours regaling a writer with stories about musicians he’d known in his decades-long career, periodically (and unsuccessfully) attempting to convince the museum’s curator to let him smoke indoors. He was a man who decided early on in life who and what he was going to be, and never deviated from that path, no matter where it led him. In that sense, his considerable influence extends far beyond just the sound of his music; like Sun Ra or Ornette Coleman, he was an artist who insisted on his own importance and the value of his work.