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*Cecil Taylor was born on this date in 1929. He was a Black pianist and poet.
Cecil Percival Taylor was raised in the Corona, Queens neighborhood of New York City. As an only child in a middle-class family, Taylor's mother encouraged him to play music at an early age. He began playing piano at age six and went on to study at the New York College of Music and New England Conservatory in Boston. At the New England Conservatory, Taylor majored in composition and arranging. He also became familiar with contemporary European art music during his time there. Bela Bartók and Karlheinz Stockhausen notably influenced his music.
In 1955, Taylor moved back to New York City from Boston. He formed a quartet with soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, bassist Buell Neidlinger, and drummer Dennis Charles. His first recording, Jazz Advance, featured Lacy and was released in 1956. Taylor's quartet featuring Lacy also appeared at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival, which was made into the album At Newport. Taylor collaborated with saxophonist John Coltrane in 1958 on Stereo Drive. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Taylor's music grew more complex and moved away from existing jazz styles. Gigs were often hard to come by, and club owners found that Taylor's approach of playing long pieces tended to block business.
Taylor was a poet and cited Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, and Amiri Baraka as major influences. He often integrated his poems into his musical performances, frequently appearing in the liner notes of his albums.
Free jazz originated with Taylor's performances at the Five Spot Cafe in 1957 and Ornette Coleman in 1959. In 1964, Taylor co-founded the Jazz Composers Guild to enhance opportunities for avant-garde jazz musicians. Taylor's style and methods have been described as "constructivist." His 1959 LP record 'Looking Ahead!' showcased his innovation as a creator as compared to jazz mainstream. Unlike others at the time, Taylor utilized virtuosic techniques and made swift stylistic shifts from phrase to phrase.
These qualities, among others, remained notable distinctions of Taylor's music for the rest of his life. Landmark recordings, like Unit Structures (1966), also appeared. Within the Unit, musicians developed new forms of conversational interplay. In the early 1960s, an uncredited Albert Ayler worked with Taylor, jamming and appearing on at least one recording, Four.
By 1961, Taylor regularly worked with alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, who would become one of his most important and consistent collaborators. Taylor, Lyons, and drummer Sunny Murray formed the core personnel of the Cecil Taylor Unit, Taylor's primary ensemble until Lyons died in 1986. Lyons’ playing retained a strong blues sensibility and helped keep Taylor's increasingly Avant Garde music tethered to the jazz tradition. He began to perform solo concerts in the latter half of the 1960s. The first recorded solo performance was "Carmen with Rings" (59 minutes) in the De Doelen concert hall in Rotterdam on July 1, 1967.
He began to garner critical and popular acclaim, playing for Jimmy Carter on the White House Lawn, lecturing as an artist-in-residence at universities, and eventually being awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1973 and a MacArthur Fellowship in 1991. In 1976, Taylor directed a production of Adrienne Kennedy's A Rat's Mass at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club. In addition to piano, Taylor was always interested in ballet and dance. Taylor's mother, who died while he was young, was a dancer and played the piano and violin. Taylor once said: "I try to imitate on the piano the leaps in space a dancer makes." He collaborated with dancer Dianne McIntyre in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In 1979, Taylor composed and played the music for a twelve-minute ballet, "Tetra Stomp: Eatin' Rain in Space."
In 1982, jazz critic Stanley Crouch wrote that Taylor was gay, prompting an angry response. In 1991, Taylor told a New York Times reporter, "[s]omeone once asked me if I was gay. I said, 'Do you think a three-letter word defines the complexity of my humanity?' I avoid the trap of easy definition." Following Jimmie Lyons' death in 1986, Taylor formed the Feel Trio in the early 1990s with William Parker on bass and Tony Oxley on drums. He also performed with larger ensembles and big band projects. Taylor continued to perform for capacity audiences worldwide with live concerts, usually playing his favored instrument, a Bösendorfer piano featuring nine extra lower-register keys.
A documentary on Taylor, entitled All the Notes, was released on DVD in 2006. Taylor was also featured in a 1981 film, Imagine the Sound, in which he discusses and performs his music, poetry, and dance. Taylor recorded sparingly in the 2000s but continued to perform with his ensembles (the Cecil Taylor Ensemble and the Cecil Taylor Big Band) and with other musicians such as Joe Locke, Max Roach, and Amiri Baraka. In 2004, the Cecil Taylor Big Band at the Iridium Jazz Club was nominated for the best performance of 2004 by All About Jazz. In 2010, Triple Point Records released a deluxe double LP titled Ailanthus/Altissima: Bilateral Dimensions of Two Root Songs, a set of duos recorded live at the Village Vanguard.
In 2013, he was awarded the Kyoto Prize for Music. He was described as "An Innovative Jazz Musician Who Has Fully Explored the Possibilities of Piano Improvisation." In 2014, his career and 85th birthday were honored at the Painted Bride Art Center in Philadelphia with the tribute concert event "Celebrating Cecil." In 2016, Taylor received a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art entitled "Open Plan: Cecil Taylor." Taylor and dancer Min Tanaka were the subjects of Amiel Courtin-Wilson's 2016 documentary film The Silent Eye.
Taylor was classically trained and was one of the pioneers of free jazz. His music is characterized by an energetic, physical approach, often involving tone clusters and intricate polyrhythms, resulting in complex improvisation. His technique has been compared to percussion. Referring to the number of keys on a standard piano, Val Wilmer used the phrase"eighty-eight tuned drums" to describe Taylor's style. He has been referred to as being "like Art Tatum with contemporary-classical leanings."
He moved to Fort Greene, Brooklyn, in 1983. Cecil Taylor died at his Brooklyn residence on April 5, 2018, at 89. At the time of Taylor's death, he worked on an autobiography and future concerts, among other projects.
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