March 25, 1929-April 5, 2018
Cecil Taylor died April 5th, 2018, at age 89 at his home in Brooklyn. His death was confirmed by his legal guardian, Adam C. Wilner, but no cause of death given. Friends said his health had been failing for some time.
Taylor was born in Long Island City, Queens, New York, and raised in Corona, New York, by his father, Percy Taylor, and his father’s second wife, Almeida, a multilingual former actor and dancer and a jazz-devoted amateur pianist. In lieu of his pursuit of one of his mother’s chosen careers—doctor, lawyer or dentist—his mother accepted his desire to become a musician. Taylor’s mother died when he was 14. In an interview with Stephen Gross in 2001 he said, “Mother took me to see Bill Robinson, the great Nicholas Brothers. Mother prepared me for all of that. Mother took me to see tap dancers, gave me Schopenhauer to read. When I was ten or eleven I spoke French and German. I had the best.” In another interview Mr. Taylor said, “And so I was a progeny, electrified by two different temperaments and it took a while to understand how powerful that was.”
Mr. Taylor studied piano at New York College of Music in Manhattan. He also attended New England Conservatory in Boston, where he studied piano, arranging, composing, and advanced solfege, and earned NEC’s diploma in Arranging in 1951.
Taylor moved to New York City in 1955 and formed a quartet with Steve Lacy, Buell Neidlinger and Dennis Charles, with whom he released his debut 1956 album, Jazz Advance. The group appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1957, a recording of which was released as At Newport.
On Taylor’s 1959 release Looking Ahead, Earl Griffith on vibraphone replaces Steve Lacy. The music is all composed by Cecil, with the exception of one piece co-written by Taylor and Griffith. While still recognizable as rooted in the jazz tradition, the forms are far less obvious. Each musician is featured, but much of the improvisation is also collective, where all members of the band are spontaneously composing concurrently.
In the ‘60s, Taylor began one of his long lasting collaborations with saxophonist Jimmy Lyons. “I met Jimmy Lyons at a coffee shop on Bleecker Street [in Greenwich Village] the week that Hemingway committed suicide... He [Lyons] is irreplaceable in all respects—musical, loyalty, humanity, friendship, love, responsibility to the music that I wrote, the best interpreter of the music, my right arm, my best friend.”
Unit Structures, released in 1966, features the core members of “The Unit”—Taylor, Lyons and Andrew Cyrille—augmented by Henry Grimes and Alan Silva on bass, Ken McIntyre on reeds and Eddy Gale on trumpet. Many pieces are free flowing, feature unique pairings of instruments and seem mostly improvised. There are written passages, cues for improvisations, call and response prompts, seemingly spontaneous duets, trios, full ensembles, dramatic pauses. The music is thrilling in its sense of wonder and exploration.
In 1962, Taylor was listed as DownBeat magazine’s New Star on piano but, ironically, was having difficulty finding work performing in clubs due to the uncompromising nature of his music. “A musical expressionist who pretty much turned his back on the pleasures of steady rhythm, Mr. Taylor pretty much alienated everybody, except people who were after his elegant fury.” In 1964, Taylor co-founded the Jazz Composers Guild to enhance the working possibilities of avante-garde jazz musicians. “My life is to attempt to create beauty, poetry, so I'm having a wonderful time. The problems that those who attempt to interpret [my work may have], that's on them... I'm not interested in the music or the instruments, per se, but what kind of poetic vision are you attempting to attain? Musicians are many, but people who change the urgency, the size of the music as we know it, are few.”
Solo piano was a large part of Cecil Taylor’s work. The first known recording, by Dutch radio, was a performance of “Carmen with Rings” in Rotterdam in 1967. Many solo concert recordings were released on album starting in the ‘70s and lasting well into the late ’90s. His critical acclaim included the award of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1973, a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters award in 1990 and the award of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship in 1991. "Specifically, what has been gratifying has been the recognition of what I started working on when I was 17. I have heard and seen the magic—as opposed to logic—spirituality manifest itself in a concrete edifice of form. If one can hear, one can see that we are concerned with layers of sound as a basic construct extending to those areas of transcendence which goes beyond the strictures of music that has preceded it."
An extended residence in Berlin in 1988 resulted in Taylor’s performing and recording with many of Europe’s important free improvising musicians and was extensively documented on the German FMP label which released a box set of many of the performances. Taylor formed the Feel Trio with William Parker and Tony Oxley in the early ‘90s.
In a 1991 New York Times article announcing an upcoming engagement at the Knitting Factory, Mr. Taylor said, “I’m having more fun than ever... I’ve had several opportunities to make a lot of money early on but I turned them down. It gave me 15 years to think about my music and work out certain emotional and artistic problems that come of not being accepted.” Of the same engagement, Mr. Taylor also offered, “If I have to name an esthetic source for what we’re doing, it would be what Ellington did.”
In the 2000s, Taylor continued to perform with Cecil Taylor Ensemble and the Cecil Taylor Big Band as well as with Joe Locke, Max Roach and Amiri Baraka. Recordings released included The Last Dance Vol. 1 & 2, in the spring of 2003, a collaboration with bassist Dominic Duval and Ailanthus/Altissima (Bilateral Dimensions Of 2 Root Songs), in 2008, with drummer Tony Oxley. Additionally, Cecil Taylor and Pauline Oliveros collaborated on the live Solo Duo Poetry in October, 2008.
In a 2001 interview Mr. Taylor said, “I mean, it's such a history of accomplishment, that has gone down in America. The music has its roots in America, in the soil of America... The traditional legacy of the music which went on in Africa, that exists here by Native Americans... And when I talk about soil, grandfather on father's side was Kiowa, coming from the same region as Mingus's wonderful drummer Dannie [Richmond]. And mother's mother, growing up in Long Branch, think about that, that's a Native American name. She was full blooded Cherokee. So having the last name Taylor, yep, there's the European. But there's also West African and Native American, so my roots in this country go very deep.”
In 2013 he was awarded the Kyoto prize, describing him as “an Innovative Jazz Musician Who Has Fully Explored the Possibilities of Piano Improvisation.” The commendation continued, “One of the most original pianists in the history of free jazz, Mr. Cecil Taylor has developed his innovative improvisation departing from conventional idioms through distinctive musical constructions and percussive renditions, thereby opening new possibilities in jazz. His unsurpassed virtuosity and strong will inject an intense, vital force into his music, which has exerted a profound influence on a broad range of musical genres.”
When Jason Gross, in an interview with Mr. Taylor in 2001, said, “Well, certainly you’ve known and played with some remarkable players over the years,” Cecil responded, “I think we've had fun... I think about that a lot. What I mean, actually, is that the fun becomes a celebration of those great practitioners who've preceded us, and the honoring of the attempt we're making. It becomes a celebration of life and becomes a joy to be permitted to attempt to create that kind of sound environment. I also find that there is in my life a certain water rising, or a wave, the ebb and fall of it. The pull is only occasioned by things that producers perhaps don't understand... If you live long enough, you begin to get the residuals of maybe a larger piece of what existed... The reason I play, I'm not even sure why, but once I had been touched, it was my responsibility to try and bring it to the highest level of personal dedication and involvement that was possible for this one human being. Also, with that, it means that you realize that music for all of its strengths and encompassing energy that requires, it is not the only art form and if you make a choice, then I must do it to the highest and fullest extent of my capability. Then, of course, perhaps it becomes the lowest form of entertainment for those moguls who are interested in that which is viable. And as a consequence, if you are fortunate, if you have been educated or led to certain avenues just out of curiosity by perhaps friends or parents or a combination of both, you then know and you come to learn that there is much mystery and magic happening. It could be in painting. It could be in dance. It could be literature. It could be in sculpture. It can be in so many things. And if you start investigating all of these things, you then discover that you are not alone and that each magical creative product has its own sources of enrichment and upon investigation, your own sense of self, in relationship to the world, grows.”
Cecil Percival Taylor, jazz pianist and poet, born 25 March 1929, died 5 April 2018.
Sources: John Fordham, The Guardian; Ben Ratliff, New York Times; Wikipedia; Peter Watrous, New York Times; NECMusic.edu; Jason Gross, PerfectSoundForever; Piero Scaruffi, A History of Jazz Music 1900 - 2000; Fred Jung, jazzweekly.com; Don Snowden, Los Angeles Times.