Cecil Taylor Biography

15 March 1929, New York City, New York, USA. A towering figure in post-war avant garde jazz, Taylor has been hailed as the greatest piano virtuoso of the twentieth century because of the phenomenal power, speed and intensity of his playing. ‘We in black music think of the piano as a percussive instrument, ’ he told writer John Litweiler, ‘we beat the keyboard, we get inside the instrument... the physical force going into the making of black music - if that is misunderstood, it leads to screaming’. Taylor grew up in Long Island, studying piano from the age of five and percussion (with a classical tutor) soon afterwards. He attended the New York College of Music and the New England Conservatory in Boston, though he later claimed he had learned more by listening to Duke Ellington records. Despite an early interest in European classical composers, especially Stravinsky, Taylor’s major influences come from the jazz tradition, notably big band leaders such as Ellington, drummers Sonny Greer and Chick Webb and a lineage of pianists that runs through Fats Waller, Erroll Garner, Thelonious Monk and Horace Silver.

Although his first gigs were with swing era veterans Oran ‘Hot Lips’ Page, Johnny Hodges and Lawrence Brown, by the mid-50s Taylor was leading his own small groups and laying the basis for a musical revolution that is still in progress. His early associates included Buell Neidlinger, Dennis Charles, Steve Lacy and Archie Shepp (plus a fairly disastrous one-off encounter with John Coltrane) and his first recordings still bore a discernible, if carefully distanced, relationship to the jazz mainstream. By the early 60s, working with Sunny Murray, Alan Silva and his longest-serving colleague, Jimmy Lyons, Taylor’s music had shed all direct reference to tonality and regular time-keeping and sounded almost purely abstract. However, the arrival of Ornette Coleman in New York in 1959, playing his own version of ‘free jazz’, rather overshadowed all other innovators and Taylor’s more radical and complex music was largely ignored by the press and public, although a handful of fellow pioneers - the best-known of whom was Albert Ayler - embraced it enthusiastically. (Another admirer was Gil Evans, whose Into The Hot actually comprised one side of music by Taylor and one side by Johnny Carisi: Evans himself is not on the album!) Taylor lived in poverty for much of the 60s, even working as a dishwasher on occasion; but gradually his influence began to permeate the scene, particularly after Blue Note Records released two outstanding 1966 sessions. Both featured his regular partners Lyons, Silva, Andrew Cyrille and Henry Grimes; in addition, Unit Structures had Ken McIntyre and trumpeter Eddie Gale Stevens and Conquistador! had Bill Dixon (with whom Taylor had worked in the Jazz Composers’ Guild).

In 1968 Taylor made an album with the Jazz Composers Orchestra and a 1969 concert with a new group of Lyons, Cyrille and Sam Rivers was released on the French label Shandar; but recording opportunities remained scarce. In the early 70s he became involved in education, teaching at Wisconsin University and colleges in Ohio and New Jersey; in 1973 he briefly ran his own label, Unit Core, releasing Indents (Mysteries) and Spring Of Two Blue-Js. Finally, the trickle of other releases - on Trio in Japan, on Arista’s Freedom label in the USA, on Enja in Europe - began to gather momentum and by the early 80s Taylor was recording regularly for the European Soul Note and hatHUT labels, while later in the decade Leo Records and FMP also championed his work. During this period his ensembles included Lyons (always), Cyrille (often), Silva (occasionally) plus players such as Sirone, Ronald Shannon Jackson, violinist Ramsey Ameer, trumpeter Raphe Malik, Jerome Cooper, William Parker and percussionist Rashid Bak. Their characteristic sound was a torrential flood of full-tilt, densely textured, swirling, churning, flying improvisation that could and usually did last for two to three hours without pause.

Taylor also recorded a series of stunning solo albums, notably Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly! and the live double-set Garden, which showed he was one of the most dazzling, dynamic pianists in jazz history, and released two memorable duo albums - Embraced, with Mary Lou Williams, and Historic Concerts, with Max Roach - that further enhanced his reputation. In 1985 the first recording of Taylor’s big band music, Winged Serpent (Sliding Quadrants), was released by Soul Note. In 1986 Jimmy Lyons died of lung cancer; Taylor lost both a close friend and his most dedicated musical collaborator. In 1987 he toured with a new Unit (Parker, Carlos Ward, Leroy Jenkins, Thurman Barker - three of their concerts were released by Leo the following year) but since then has worked mostly in a trio format, usually with Parker and Tony Oxley (sometimes calling themselves the Feel Trio).

In 1988, FMP brought 20 European improvisers to Berlin for a month-long festival of concerts and workshops that featured Taylor. Several of these were later released in the lavishly packaged, 11-CD box-set Cecil Taylor In Berlin ’88, which comprised two discs of Taylor’s big band music, one of a big band workshop, one solo concert, one trio set with Tristan Honsinger and Evan Parker, a duo with Derek Bailey and five discs of duos with drummers - Oxley, Günter Sommer, Paul Lovens, Han Bennink and Louis Moholo. The set was released to worldwide acclaim in the music press and sealed Taylor’s standing as one of the four or five leading innovators in post-bebop jazz. Although he has few direct imitators, he has proved an inspiration to free players everywhere and in particular to many jazz pianists, from Alex Von Schlippenbach to Marilyn Crispell.

The tremendous energy and sweep of his music has fooled many listeners into believing it has no structural underpinning, but Ekkehard Jost, both in his book Free Jazz and in one of the several essays in the booklet that accompanies the FMP box-set, has identified certain formal elements that recur in Taylor’s work. (There are also useful chapters on his music in John Litweiler’s The Freedom Principle and Valerie Wilmer’s As Serious As Your Life, plus a detailed account of his early career in A.B. Spellman’s Four Lives In The Bebop Business. Taylor himself has always stressed the spiritual and mystical nature of African American music: ‘It’s about magic and capturing spirits.’) A devotee of dance from Baby Lawrence to contemporary ballet (he once remarked ‘I try to imitate on the piano the leaps in space a dancer makes’), Taylor has worked extensively in this field, for example on projects with choreographers/dancers Dianne McIntyre and Mikhail Baryshnikov. A poet too, whose writings often adorn his album sleeves, Taylor’s Chinampus had him half-reciting, half-chanting a selection of sound-poetry and accompanying himself on various percussion instruments. For many years he has been working on a book about ‘methodological concepts of black music’, to be entitled Mysteries.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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