When he emerged during the mid-to-late 1950s, pianist Cecil Taylor was considered perhaps the most radical improviser in jazz. More than a half-century later, that is still true. His atonal improvisations, which are full of remarkable energy and endurance, tone clusters and completely original ideas, have been a major influence on the jazz avant-garde and free jazz movements for decades. Born in New York City in 1929, he began piano lessons when he was 6. Taylor attended the New York College of Music and the New England Conservatory. Influenced early on by Duke Ellington’s percussiveness and Dave Brubeck, Taylor worked with Johnny Hodges and Hot Lips Page in the early 1950s. In the mid-1950s he formed a quartet with soprano-saxophonist Steve Lacy, bassist Buell Neidlinger and drummer Dennis Charles with which he made his recording debut, performed at the Five Spot Café in 1956 for six weeks, and appeared at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival.
However, work was otherwise very scarce, and even though some of the band’s repertoire was standards, their interpretations were considered too modern and abrasive for the time period. Taylor recorded one album with John Coltrane and in 1960 (under Neidlinger’s name) recorded extensively for Candid; by then the group had Archie Shepp in Lacy’s place on tenor. In 1962 the Cecil Taylor Unit featured altoist Jimmy Lyons (who was with Taylor until his death in 1986) and drummer Sunny Murray. Six months in Europe were successful but work in the U.S. remained rare. Taylor recorded two notable albums for Blue Note but it was not until the 1970s that he began to receive recognition for his innovative ideas. Since then he has taught at several colleges, been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship (in 1973) and a MacArthur Fellowship (1991), recorded prolifically as a leader in settings ranging from solos and duets to big bands, and performed before amazed audiences all over the world.