Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b Cecil Percival Taylor, 25 March 1929, NYC; d 5 April 2018, Brooklyn NY) Pianist, composer, leader. One of the most important musicians to emerge from jazz roots since WWII, he has been described as a 'Bartok in reverse', taking what he wants from European music without ever compromising his blues roots; treating the piano as percussion instrument: 88 tuned drums. He opened new doors every couple of years. With his complete command of the instrument he was the successor to Art Tatum, but he admired Fats Waller 'for the depth of his single notes'; he was also influenced by the thick chord clusters of Dave Brubeck. Whitney Balliet wrote in the New Yorker:

Taylor and Ornette Coleman are the nominal heads of the jazz avant-garde, but they are very different. Coleman refuses to record or play in public unless he is paid handsomely. Taylor until recent years often played for pennies -- when he was asked to play at all. Coleman's music is accessible, but he is loath to share it; Taylor's music is difficult, and he is delighted to share it ... The American aesthetic landscape is littered with idiosyncratic marvels -- Walt Whitman, Charles Ives, D. W. Griffith, Duke Ellington, Jackson Pollock -- and Taylor belongs with them.

Taylor formed a group with Steve Lacy, bassist Buell Neidlinger, and drummer Dennis Charles (b 4 December 1933, St Croix, Virgin Islands, d 24 March 1998; records with Gil Evans '59, calypsos with Sonny Rollins '62; LP with Jazz Doctors including Frank Lowe was Intensive Care '83 on Cadillac; with the Luther Thomas Trio on CIMP '96). The group's quartet LP Jazz Advance late '55 on Transition, made in Boston, was poorly recorded by producer Tom Wilson (then a beginner) is not as startling now as it was then, but already showed Taylor's unique approach to standards. The group found its style playing six weeks at the Five Spot '56, transforming it from a neighbourhood bar into a premier jazz spot, but Taylor was never popular with club owners because he insisted on a properly tuned piano and was then very hard on it; also, his music is meant to be listened to: as Neidlinger put it, you would not say to Igor Stravinsky, 'Stop it, Igor! Like, we want to sell a few drinks!'

By the time of Cecil Taylor Quartet At Newport '57 on Verve it was apparent that the music was on the move again; Looking Ahead! '58 on Contemporary was all Taylor tunes, with Earl Griffith on vibes (b 1 May 1926, Brooklyn), Charles and Neidlinger. He jumped out of his own milieu to make Stereo Drive '58 on UA with Kenny Dorham, John Coltrane, Chuck Israels on bass, Louis Hayes on drums: two standards and one tune each by Israels and Dorham were recorded; allegedly, Taylor had wanted Ted Curson for the date, and Dorham didn't like what he knew of Taylor's reputation; usually described as unsuccessful, the album sounds tentative but is still fascinating listening, long since called Coltrane Time, later on Blue Note. His own LP Love For Sale '59 on UA had Curson, Bill Barron on tenor, Rudy Collins on drums (b 24 July 1934, NYC); Neidlinger says he played on the released album though discographies say Chris White (b 6 July 1936 in Harlem; d 2 November 2014), the first sessions allegedly scrapped. The short-lived Candid label (revived in the 1980s by Alan Bates) made The World Of Cecil Taylor '60 with Charles, Neidlinger, Archie Shepp (on two tracks) (this lineup appeared in Jack Gebler's play The Connection), a Neidlinger session New York City R&B (not released for eleven years), and Jumpin' Punkins, with two Ellington tunes including the title track, one original each by Cecil and Buell with Shepp, Lacy, Charles, Roswell Rudd, Clark Terry (it was supposed to be Don Cherry), Billy Higgins on the Ellingtons: unreleased outside Japan until '87. (The complete Candid sessions on six LPs or four CDs were issued by Mosaic '89 with 13 previously unreleased takes, a wonderful limited edition soon out of print.) He was heard with Gil Evans on Into The Hot on Impulse (a showcase for Taylor and Johnny Carisi), also The New Breed '61; Jimmy Lyons and Sunny Murray played Taylor's music on Into The Hot, the trio became the Cecil Taylor Unit, went to Europe and made At The Cafe Montmartre '62; Albert Ayler played with the trio in Europe.

Taylor's impact on the new music was overshadowed by Coleman's; like Thelonious Monk earlier, Taylor was neglected and worked outside music, practising for hours every day. Often in the early years he gently, humorously pointed up the distance between himself and sidemen while recomposing standards; by now he played only his own music. As it became apparent that contemporary black music was no longer willing to help sell booze he became an international concert artist, his phenomenal energy and technique allowing two- and three-hour sets. He was involved in the abortive Jazz Composers' Guild with Bill Dixon and others; his music reached its abstract maturity on Conquistador! '66 (with Andrew Cyrille, Dixon, Lyons, Henry Grimes and Alan Sylva on basses), and Unit Structures '66 (Eddie Gale replacing Dixon, adding Ken McIntyre on reeds), both on Blue Note, among the most beautiful and coherent albums of the new era. He returned to Europe; two-disc Student Studies '66 with Lyons, Sylva, and Cyrille was preserved by French radio (on Byg, then Affinity, then as The Great Paris Concert on a Black Lion CD), as well as three-disc The Great Concert Of Cecil Taylor on Prestige. Back in the USA he recorded with the Jazz Composers' Orchestra '68 in a huge orchestral setting by Mike Mantler, and joined academia, teaching black music and leading a Black Music Ensemble at U of Wisconsin/Madison '70-1; a story which made the rounds had a member of Madison's piano faculty overheard after a Taylor recital: 'What do I think of it? I wish I could play it.' He failed most of the students and quit when the university passed them over his head. He also taught at Antioch (Ohio), where Lyons and Cyrille joined him (he wrote for student big bands, but the music was not documented); also at Glassboro State (NJ). Sam Rivers often played with his group '69-73; a Tokyo visit '73 yielded a two-disc Akisakila concert; Spring Of 2 BlueJs on Unit Core '73 included bassist Sirone (b Norris Jones, 28 September 1940, Atlanta), making the Unit a quartet; Silent Tongues (live at Montreux '74) on Freedom was over 50 minutes of solo piano, the querulous, amusing sort of figures heard in his comping on the Coltrane LP grown into compositions alternately delicate and bursting with power, always full of energy, still never far from the blues, the keyboard become an 88-piece orchestra.

More albums: Innovations, Indent and two-disc Nefertiti -- Beautiful One c.1974-6 also on Freedom; Dark To Themselves, Air Above Mountains (Buildings Within) '76 on Enja; two-piano Embraced on Pablo live at Carnegie Hall '77 with Mary Lou Williams (her brave idea); three-disc Nuits De La Foundations c.1977 on Shandar, Live In The Black Forest '78 on MPS; three-disc One Too Many Salty Swift And Not Goodbye '78 on hat Art (live in Stuttgart) had a sextet including Lyons, Sirone, Raphe Malik (on trumpet, a Taylor student from Antioch), Ramsey Ameen on violin, drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson; later a 2-CD set on hat Hut with extra tracks. Unit '78 and 3 Phasis '79 were on New World, Historic Concerts late '79 on Soul Note (duo at Columbia U. with Max Roach), solo Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly! '80 on Pausa, two-disc solo Garden '81 on hat Art (digitally made in Basle on a Bosendorfer piano); two-disc solo Praxis '84 on Praxis, Winged Serpent (Sliding Quadrants) '84 on Soul Note with 'Segments II (Orchestra Of Two Continents)' and What's New? '85 on Black Lion; solo For Olim '86 on Soul Note, his sixth official solo LP and according to Cadence one of the best. Always A Pleasure '93 on FMP was a suite played by a septet featuring Tristan Honsinger on cello, a completely satisfying live date, the open-ended approach never falling into confusion; like Anthony Braxton, Taylor inspired loyalty and co-operation from everybody he worked with.

His list of prolific recordings is in and out of print in various countries; he was a subject of A. B. Spellman's Black Music: Four Lives (originally Four Lives In The BeBop Business '68), still a valuable book; he received a Guggenheim fellowship '73, played at Carter's White House '79 and has worked with dramatists and ballet companies, and finally had the world fame he deserved. Cecil Taylor In Berlin '88 was a set of eleven CDs on FMP; the last copy of the limited edition was being auctioned on eBay in April 2009 and had reached $350. John Litweiler's chapter on the music in The Freedom Principle '84 is first-rate.

The New York Times published an unusually long obit on Taylor's death, by Ben Ratliff; Peter Pullman (author of Wail: The Life of Bud Powell) commented:

I sometimes lament not having been born a generation earlier. In those moments, I would give anything to have seen Navarro, Parker, and Powell at Birdland. Then I recall the dozens of times that I saw Cecil Percival Taylor (almost always with Jimmy Lyons), at Sweet Basil, Fat Tuesday's, and the other places that he played in (the Columbia university sets with Max Roach!), in the seventies and eighties. In those moments, I realize that I saw and heard the only true heir to the legends of bebop. No one in that era of jazz played, in every moment, as if his life was at stake. To find another creator in that era who so spent his or her soul in the making of art, one had to look to another medium. To find such greatness today, one has to look to other fields - technology or the pure sciences, maybe, or some other endeavor that inspires the individual to explore, experiment, and expound with every fiber of his or her being.