Cecil Taylor Dies at 89

Piano titan pioneered the jazz avant-garde with an utterly unique sound, technique and approach to improvisation

Cecil Taylor: Words & Music, performance at Whitney Museum of American Art, April 23, 2016 image 3
Paula Court

Cecil Taylor gives his final public performance, at the Whitney Museum of American Art on April 23, 2016

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Cecil Taylor, an iconoclastic, highly original pianist who was among the architects of free and avant-garde jazz, died Thursday evening at his home in Brooklyn, N.Y. He had turned 89 on March 25.

His death has been confirmed by the New York Times, NPR and other outlets. A cause of death has not been disclosed.

Even within the idiosyncratic tradition of avant-garde jazz, Taylor’s music was unique and often confounding, comprising relentless percussive onslaughts of atonal clusters and complex, shifting rhythms on the piano. British jazz writer Val Wilmer famously compared his piano attack to “88 tuned drums.”

For three decades Taylor was regarded as primarily an underground figure, an eccentric genius known only to cognoscenti of jazz and contemporary art music. He finally cemented his status as an internationally lauded musical giant in the 1980s. His influence is vast, from pianists and improvisers to composers and arrangers throughout the jazz world and beyond.

Cecil Percival Taylor was born in New York City in 1929, and grew up in a middle-class home in Corona, Queens. He began studying piano at the age of 6. His mother required him to practice six days a week, nurturing in the young Taylor a work ethic that would endure throughout his life. (As a young man, he reputedly rehearsed every day, for over a year, for a one-night gig.)

His efforts eventually won him admission to the now-defunct New York College of Music, then to Boston’s New England Conservatory, where he studied composition and immersed himself in the work of 20th-century classical composers. Alongside that music was the influence of Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell, whom he perpetually cited as his most important inspirations.

Returning to New York in the early 1950s, he formed a trio in 1955 with the bassist Buell Neidlinger and the drummer Denis Charles (with soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy as an occasional fourth member). With this band, Taylor began in earnest fusing jazz with contemporary classical, melding their two harmonic landscapes and formulating an orchestral approach to the piano. He recorded his first album, Jazz Advance, with this unit in the fall of 1956. Shortly thereafter the band was the first booking at a new Bowery jazz club, the Five Spot Café, where they were in residence from November 1956 to January 1957.

Even in its early stages, however, Taylor’s music was too arcane and demanding to attract more than occasional gigs in New York. He found a warmer reception, and steadier work, in Europe. It was while working at Copenhagen’s famous Cafe Montmartre, in November 1962, that Taylor had a revelation: Rather than apply his torrential soloing style to a rhythmic and harmonic framework, the torrents themselves could create their own framework. (Remarkably, this creative breakthrough is documented in high fidelity on Nefertiti, the Beautiful One Has Come, a recording from Taylor’s stint at the Montmartre.)

Stateside, he worked as a dishwasher to make ends meet, and he practiced obsessively—his music only becoming more dense and abstruse in the process. By the early 1960s he had developed his ferocious freeform piano style, captured on the 1966 Blue Note sessions Unit Structures and Conquistador!, now regarded as landmarks of free jazz but at the time bewildering to audiences and critics alike.

Bewilderment began turning to acclaim in the 1970s, when Taylor predominantly worked as a soloist. He received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1973, and won over then-president Jimmy Carter at a White House jazz concert in 1978. (“Does Horowitz know about you?” the president asked Taylor.) It wasn’t until the release of his massive live recording package Cecil Taylor in Berlin ’88, however, that the greater music world finally marveled. Taylor was featured on magazine covers, made his first recording for a major American record label in more than two decades and, in 1991, received a MacArthur “genius” grant.

After the mid-1990s, Taylor performed and recorded only sporadically. He garnered mainstream attention in 2014 not for his music, but for a news story in which a friend defrauded him of the $500,000 he’d won as part of that year’s Kyoto Prize for Arts and Philosophy. Over the last five years, he performed in public only a few times: In 2013, upon acceptance of the Kyoto Prize; in 2015, at the New York memorial service for fellow free-jazz titan Ornette Coleman; and twice in 2016, at a Taylor retrospective at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art.

He has no known survivors.

For more on Taylor’s life and music: 

Nate Chinen reviews Taylor’s triumphant Whitney Museum collaboration with dancer Min Tanaka, from 2016.

Nat Hentoff writes about Taylor in 2002.

Evan Haga reviews Taylor’s 2010 performance at the French Embassy in Washington, D.C.

A book excerpt, by Linda Dahl, on the historic Carnegie Hall concert featuring Taylor and Mary Lou Williams.

Bill Shoemaker reviews Cecil Taylor/Bill Dixon/Tony Oxley, Melancholy and Nefertiti, The Beautiful One Has Come.