Born Cecil Percival Taylor, March 25, 1929 (some sources say March 15, 1929; March 15, 1930; or March 15, 1933), in New York, NY; son of Percy Clinton (a chef) and Almeida (Maitie) Ragland (an actress) Taylor. Education: Attended New York College of Music; graduated from New England School of Music, 1953 (some sources say 1952 or 1955).

"I was washing dishes in a restaurant at the same time I was being written about in places like Down Beat, " the iconoclastic jazz pianist and composer Cecil Taylor told Down Beat correspondent Gene Santoro, "and it was very good for me, because I had to decide what I really wanted to do. Did I want to pursue my ideals badly enough? It was the only way to learn that I did." Ranked with jazz innovators Louie Armstrong, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane, Taylor, along with Ornette Coleman, pioneered the 1960s free jazz movement with unorthodox play. Pounding out notes with fingers, fists, palms, elbows, and forearms, Cecil Taylor does not tickle the ivories so much as attack them. He forged a new concept of jazz with his improvisational compositions that disseminated conventional meter and melody. A paradigm of the misunderstood artist, Taylor was more influential than popular in his early years.

"In a more embracing cultural climate," Stephanie Stein related in Down Beat, "Taylor, one of our most significant contemporary musicians, would stand a pivotal link in a musical time-line: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Bartok, Tatum, Taylor; or for his absolute command of the piano, would share the esteem regarded his world-class peers." Awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1973 and entry into Down Beat magazine's Critics Poll Hall of Fame in 1975, Taylor has been named Down Beat' s number one pianist in numerous issues since his career began.

Taylor was born on March 25, 1929, in Long Island City, New York, and grew up in a two-family brick home in the borough of Queens. His father, Percy Clinton Taylor, was head chef at the Rivercrest Sanitarium in Astoria. When he came home from his 17-hour work day during the week, Taylor's father sang hymns and listened to popular performers, including Louie Armstrong and Judy Garland. Almeida Ragland Taylor, Cecil's mother, was his father's second wife. A woman of many talents who spoke French and German, played piano, and danced, she was an actress in black silent films.

Taylor began piano lessons at age five under the tutelage of his mother, who preferred a professional career in medicine or law for Taylor. She died of cancer when he reached adolescence. Taylor's Uncle Bill, a pianist, violinist, and drummer, subsequently moved in with Taylor and his father. Hoping Cecil would become a pianist, Uncle Bill took the youngster to hear jazz performances in New York City. In addition, Taylor received classical training in public school and at the New York School of Music.

After reading that jazz great Duke Ellington believed future jazz musicians would need conservatory training, Taylor left for Massachusetts to attend the New England Conservatory of Music. Although he studied four years at the conservatory, he felt his real education began when he listened to Charlie Parker, Sarah Vaughan, and other musicians in the jazz clubs around Boston.

Taylor lived at home with his father after graduating from the conservatory in 1953. Rarely employed more than twice a year, he played an eclectic mix of stints, in Harlem and Greenwich Village, at West Indian dances, and for the Art Students League. He gigged with alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges before making the album that portended his idiosyncratic approach, Jazz Advance, in 1955. Bassist Buell Neidlinger, drummer Dennis Charles, and tenor saxophonist Steve Lacy joined Taylor on some old classics and original numbers when the record debuted in late 1956.

Originally engaged for six weeks at the Five Spot Cafe that same year, Taylor experienced his first success at the neighborhood bar when his contract was extended. With his seminal quartet, he transformed the cafe into the foremost jazz club in New York City. Though he mesmerized the crowd, the club's owners were unhappy when patrons, who were immersed in Taylor's performance, neglected to order drinks. As the 1950s ended, Taylor won accolades for defying established jazz forms with his percussive, irregular rhythmic style in his performances at prestigious jazz festivals, including Newport. Yet, the musician was unable to find steady work.

In 1961 Taylor's father, who had never remarried, died at the time Taylor inaugurated the free jazz movement. Alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons and drummer Sunny Murray joined Taylor to produce his key album entry in improvisational autonomy, 1962's Nefertiti,the Beautiful One Has Come. That same year the musician was unemployed when he was honored with Down Beat magazine's New Star Pianist Award but followed with a fairly successful Scandinavian tour.

In 1964 Taylor, who had already begun to perform original numbers solely on his albums, became one of the founders of the Jazz Composers Guild. Drummer Andrew Cyrille joined Taylor and ally Jimmie Lyons the following year in an association that continued for decades. Although his devotees were not numerous in 1966, Taylor's release of Unit Structures solidified his reputation as the foremost pianist/composer of the era. Critics objected to the strain placed on listeners by his totally unconventional rhythmic and lyric patterns, but Taylor remained uncompromising in his pursuit of a black methodology in jazz composition. His interpretation of the piano as a percussive, rather than string, instrument rather than string, mingled European avant-garde influences with the blues.

As the decade of the 1970s began, Taylor was a frustrated educator, teaching music at the University of Wisconsin. He felt his students lacked seriousness and gave failing grades to two-thirds of his class. After Wisconsin University officials overturned the grades, Taylor accepted a position at Antioch College in Ohio. He then moved to Glassboro State College in New Jersey, where he stayed until 1974, the same year he began recording without accompaniment. Audiences found his solo albums accessible, heightening a new era of acceptance for Taylor; his public performances, however, were controversial.

Down Beat' s Lee Jeske was baffled by Taylor's April 17, 1997, Carnegie Hall appearance with Mary Lou Williams, commenting that the two-piano exhibition struck him "like two heavyweight prizefighters ferociously maintaining their individual styles for 15 rounds." When ballet superstar Mikhail Baryshnikov teamed with Taylor, who claimed dance as an impetus for his work, their jazz-dance acts opened to mixed reactions in Philadelphia, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

The effect of lackluster press on Taylor was minimal, however. He maintained a dogged hold on his inimitable style. "At the start of the Sixties," noted Bob Blumenthal in Rolling Stone, "Taylor's music broke the binds imposed by straight-ahead swing and, along with the more rhythmically regular work of Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, ushered in an era of bold jazz discovery. Two decades later, it is still called 'new music.'" An inspired Taylor concluded the decade by composing the ballet Tetra Stomp: Eatin' Rain in Space and holding a concert at the White House upon the invitation of President Jimmy Carter.

Taylor was named number one pianist for the ninth consecutive year in Down Beat magazine's Critics Poll in 1986, the same year Jimmie Lyons, his master alto sax player of more than 25 years, died. Recovering from his grief, Taylor led Leroy Jenkins, Thurman Barker, and Freddie Waits in a quintet in 1987. The following year, the release of two of Taylor's albums on compact disc (CD), Conquistador! of 1966 and Cecil Taylor of 1978, received a rave review from Down Beat' s Art Lange, "If Taylor's career can be seen as an ocean which approaches and recedes, this music is the first indications of an oncoming tidal wave."

Responding to the barrage of Taylor re-releases that had appeared by 1990, Lange commented, "A recent avalanche of Cecil Taylor recordings serves to remind us of certain things that shouldn't require prompting: of the longevity of his rich, variegated recording career ... of the depth and breadth of his creative abilities and attitudes; of the appreciation for his art outside of the United States." The momentary lapses of "insecure or uninspired playing" by a few of Taylor's accompanists, surmised Lange, exposed Taylor's demands on jazz musicians who "had to invent their roles" when accompanying a musical nonconformist like Taylor. The effort accompanists had to exert to follow Taylor was fulfilling to sidemen like the late Jimmie Lyons. Lyons once noted, reported Kevin Lynch in Down Beat, "Playing with Cecil made me think differently about what the music's about. It's not about any cycle of fifths--it's about sound."

An influential presence on the jazz music scene for more than three decades, Cecil Taylor confided to Down Beat' s Santoro the ideals by which he fulminated music's formal limits, "You have to try to understand that pursuing music is a choice that you make.... So you then begin the process of really getting down to it: the distance between whatever excellence it is you're striving for in whatever it is you're trying to convey and the person you would like to be.... After all, it's a life's work."

by Marjorie Burgess

Cecil Taylor's Career

Pianist, composer, and educator. Leader of jazz group, 1953--; released debut LP, Jazz Advance, 1956; performed at Five Spot Cafe, New York City, 1956; led onstage band in play The Connection, 1960; toured Europe, 1962; organized Jazz Composers Guild, 1964; recorded with Jazz Composers orchestra, 1968; played for Maeght Foundation, France, 1969, and Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, 1972; performed in ensembles and as a solo artist at various jazz festivals, including Newport, 1957 and 1972, Great South Bay, 1958, Montreux, 1974, and Kool Jazz, 1984; two-piano performance with Mary Lou Williams, Carnegie Hall, 1977; performed with ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov; composed short ballet Tetra Stomp: Eatin' Rain in Space, 1979; performed for President Jimmy Carter at the White House, 1979 (one source says 1978). Instructor in music, University of Wisconsin, 1970-71; Antioch College, Yellow Springs, OH, 1972-74; and Glassboro State College, NJ.

Cecil Taylor's Awards

Guggenheim fellow, 1973.

Famous Works

Further Reading


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