Cecil Taylor is an American free jazz
pianist, who is commonly recognized as one of the pioneers of the genre. He was
known for helping in the creation of a new concept of jazz with the use of
improvisational compositions, which saw a departure from the use of meter and
melody. Cecil Taylor was born on March
25, 1929, in Long Island City, New York, and grew up as an only child in a middle-class
family. Around the age of five, Taylors mother would began teaching him how to
play the piano, however she would later die from cancer during his adolescence.
This prompted Taylor’s Uncle Bill to move in with Taylor and his father.
Taylor’s Uncle was a pianist, drummer, and violinist, and he would frequently
have Taylor listen to various jazz bands in hopes that he would become a
musician. This would later motivate Taylor to become a pianist when he grew up.
attended the New England Conservatory of music in 1951,
where he would later graduate in 1953. During this time, he studied
contemporary classical music, and developed an improvisational piano style that
used; tone clusters, percussive rhythms, and polyrhythmic patterns. This was a
very “physical” form of playing, as it required a great deal of energy during
drawn out performances. The music produced from this style was somewhat harsh
and discordant, as it relied upon both atonal and tonal passages. This style
allowed for a virtually endless way to improvise, with the goal being to
venture from set chord patterns.
graduating from the New England Conservatory in 1953, Taylor began living at
home with his father. Due to his unique music style, he was rarely employed,
and would play at small gigs in Harlem and Greenwich Village, at West Indian
dances, and for the Art Students League. He played with saxophonist Johnny
Hodges before the release of his first album titled Jazz Advance, in 1955. The album debuted in late 1956 and featured
artist such as bass player Buell Neidlinger, tenor saxophonist Steve Lacy, and
drummer Dennis Charles who collaborated with Taylor on some original and old classic
songs. Taylor got his first break sometime in 1956, while he was playing at the
neighborhood bar known as Five Spot Café. Originally set to only perform for
six weeks his contract was extended. With the help of his seminal quartet,
Taylor turned the café into one of the most popular jazz clubs in New York.
Despite successfully drawing in crowds, the owners of the club were not happy
that many of the customers that showed up to watch Taylor play, did not order
anything. This led to tension between the club owners and Taylor, and
ultimately Taylor’s contract was terminated. It is widely speculated that, his
performances in the Five Spot Café, were the origin of free jazz.
Around the time the 1950’s had ended, Taylor
had won numerous accolades for his performances at jazz festivals, such as
Newport, as well as going against the established jazz forms with his
irregular, improvisational rhythmic style. Despite his success Taylor could not
find a steady line of work.
1961, Taylors father passed away. This was around the time that Taylor became a
leader of the free jazz movement. Taylor would then go on to collaborate with
Jimmy Lyons and Sunny Murray to produce the Nefertiti,
the Beautiful One Has Come album in 1962. This was one of his most
important albums as it helped bring his rhythmic improvisational style to the
forefront of the jazz community. During that same year Taylor also received Down Beat Magazine’s New Star Pianist
Award. Taylor began performing strictly original content on his albums in 1964,
while also becoming a founding member of the Jazz Composers Guild. Taylor did
not have many fans at the time, despite this his release of the album Unit Structures, which would later cement his status as one of the
greatest pianists/composers of his era. At the time, of
its release, it was heavily criticized for putting a heavy strain on the
listeners, due to his unique but unorthodox lyric and rhythmic patterns. During
the second half of the sixties, Taylor started doing solo concerts. His first
recorded solo performance was called Carmen
With Rings, and was performed in Rotterdam inside the De Doelen concert
hall on July 1, 1967. The concerts he would later perform were published on
album, such as; Indent (1973), Silent Tongues (1974), For Olim (1987), The Tree of Life (1998), as well as various others.
Cecil Taylor began to in
the 1970’s Cecil Taylor became a professor at the University of Wisconsin, where
he would teach music. As an educator he was very annoyed at the lack of effort
the students put into the class, as he wound up failing over two thirds of his
class. The university would later overturn these grades, prompting Taylor to
take a teaching position in Ohio at Antioch College. Afterwards he went to New
Jersey where he taught at Glassboro State College, staying there until 1974.
During this year he started recording various solo albums that would garner
quite a large fanbase.
1986, Taylor would be named number one pianist for the ninth consecutive year, by
Down Beat magazine. Later that year,
Taylors friend and alto sax player, Jimmie Lyons, died. Following his death
Taylor formed the Feel Trio sometime in the early 1990s, with the group consisting
of bass player William Parker, and drummer Tony Oxley. Unlike the other small groups,
he created with Jimmy Lyons, the newly formed Feel Trio took a more abstract
approach to how they composed music. They deviated even more from standard jazz
traditions in favor of European free improvisation. In addition, the Feel Trio would
also perform with other larger ensembles. In the 2000s, Taylor began recording
less and less, but continued to perform with his own established groups; the
Cecil Taylor Ensemble and the Cecil Taylor Big Band, along with other musicians.