Today’s the birthday of the American pianist and poet CECIL TAYLOR. (d: 2018); Classically trained, Taylor was generally acknowledged as one of the inventors of free jazz. His music is characterized by an extremely energetic, physical approach, producing complex improvised sounds, frequently involving tone clusters and intricate polyrhythms. His piano technique has been likened to percussion, for example described as “eighty-eight tuned drums” (referring to the number of keys on a piano).
Taylor began playing piano at age six and studied at the New York College of Music and New England Conservatory. After first steps in R&B and swing-styled small groups in the early 1950s, he formed his own band with soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy in 1956.
Taylor’s first recording, Jazz Advance, featured Lacy and was released in 1956. It is described by Cook and Morton in the Penguin Guide to Jazz: “While there are still many nods to conventional post-bop form in this set, it already points to the freedoms which the pianist would later immerse himself in.” Taylor’s Quartet featuring Lacy also appeared at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival. He collaborated with saxophonist John Coltrane (Stereo Drive, 1958), a session which was not a happy experience.
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 Taylor’s approach to performance (long pieces) unhelpful in conducting business. Landmark recordings, like Unit Structures (1966), continued to appear, although sporadically. Many albums, like Nefertiti the Beautiful One Has Come, remained unreleased for years, even decades.
By 1961, Taylor was working regularly with alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, one of his most important and consistent collaborators. Taylor, Lyons and drummer Sunny Murray (and later Andrew Cyrille) formed the core personnel of ‘The Unit’, Taylor’s primary group effort until Lyons’s premature death in 1986. With ‘the Unit’, musicians developed often volcanic new forms of conversational interplay.
Taylor began to perform solo concerts in the early 1970s. Many of these were released on album and include Indent (1973), Silent Tongues (1974), Garden (1982), For Olim (1987), Erzulie Maketh Scent (1989) and The Tree of Life (1998). He began to garner critical, if not popular, acclaim, playing for Jimmy Carter on the White House Lawn, lecturing as an in-residence artist at universities, and eventually being awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1973 and then a MacArthur Fellowship in 1991.
Taylor was also an accomplished poet, citing Robert Duncan, Charles Olson and Amiri Baraka as major influences. He often integrated his poems into his musical performances, and they frequently appeared in the liner notes of his albums. Taylor was featured in the 1981 documentary film Imagine the Sound, in which he discussed and performed his music, poetry and dance.
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.”
Taylor moved to Fort Greene, Brooklyn, in 1983. He died at his Brooklyn residence on April 5, 2018, at the age of 89.