Avant-garde jazz pianist and composer Cecil Taylor died at his Brooklyn home Thursday evening. He was 89. A polarizing figure during the jazz heyday of the 50s and 60s due to his frenzied and untraditional playing style, Taylor helped to pioneer the free jazz genre along with Ornette Coleman. His avant-garde style has influenced countless musicians and left an indelible mark on the jazz as a whole.
Taylor was born in New York in 1929 and raised in Queens; his mother was both a dancer and a pianist. He attended the New York College of Music and later the New England Conservatory, studying classical composers like Stravinsky whose influence he’d later incorporate into his own music. A 1999 profile in The Independent revealed that Taylor was heavily influenced by Dave Brubeck’s piano playing, and often observed the jazz giant when he played in New York clubs. Taylor once said of Brubeck: “I learned a lot from him. When he’s most interesting, he sounds like me.”
His first album, Jazz Advance, was released in 1956, followed by a slew of others and eventually an appearance at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival. Taylor’s jazz quartet from this time was also the first group to play at the legendary Five Spot Café, the East Village club where the likes of Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and Charles Mingus would gather to hang out and jam.
Taylor gained a considerable reputation in those years until the abstract nature of his music consigned him to the outer fringes of the scene; the Independent once wrote that “his relationships with other musicians on the New York ‘scene’ were strained, not only because of his uncompromising music, but also because he was a gay man in a largely homophobic jazz community.” Taylor often had to take jobs outside of music to earn a living, yet still played regularly at jazz venues like Slugs’. Located in what was considered the “Far East” of the city (East 3rd Street, between Avenues B and C), the venue is where jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan was murdered by his common-law wife Helen Moore.
Taylor often collaborated with artists in other mediums. In 1976 he staged a version of Adrienne Kennedy’s “A Rat’s Mass” at La MaMa in the East Village; in 1982, he and dance choreographer Dianne McIntyre performed “Eye of the Crocodile” at Judson Church in Greenwich Village.
As a staple of the New York jazz scene, Taylor was a regular at clubs like The 55 Bar, on Christopher Street, and Arthur’s Tavern, on Grove Street, where he’d go to “de-jazz” after a night of music. He continued playing shows with other musicians right up until the end. In 2016, at the opening of The Whitney’s retrospective on Taylor, he performed with dancer Min Tanaka, a collaborator since the 1980s. At the time, the Times wrote that Taylor was “best known as a pianist of profound energy, articulation, abstraction and risk, not quite categorizable but possibly relatable to Duke Ellington and, say, Olivier Messiaen.” Today, another frequent collaborator, Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, recalled a series of shows at bygone Meatpacking District venue The Cooler:
We began to play, Tom Surgal on drums, and myself guitar. Cecil was to join us onstage. He bided his time as we went through improvised ministrations. After 20 minutes we rested in a drone meditation, humming, buzzing. And we hear then Cecil sounding through his mouth, yowling, glossallalia, ululation walking in from behind the bandstand — he tosses a small cymbal into the belly of the piano, reaches in and, as music shaman he was, plucks the resounding root note of our noise. From there we went forward. Cecil, backstage after, champagne glass in hand, whispers to me,”that was the real thing”.
Other artists and fans also took to social media to express their condolences:
— Eric Andre (@ericandre) April 6, 2018
Thanks to Cecil Taylor for his creative courage and his uncompromising vision of what music can be. We mourn his passing but celebrate his life.
— Dave Holland (@TheDaveHolland) April 6, 2018
R.I.P. Cecil Taylor (1929-2018), one of the great innovators in modern music. I had a chance to meet him when I was a student, and it was an important formative moment in my vocation. He is one of those rare figures who simply can not replaced, nor forgotten. pic.twitter.com/L5CCnZkSfg
— Ted Gioia (@tedgioia) April 6, 2018
I remember listening to Cecil Taylor in my office once and my boss at the time asked me why I was listening to noise. Noise can be beautiful and heartbreaking. RIP.
— Lauretta Charlton (@laurettaland) April 6, 2018
“Music is supposed to make people change,” Taylor said in a 1982 interview with the Times. “The musicians I have most admired just kept developing, evolving, expanding, and it seems to me that this is what makes the difference between musicians who are simply professional, musicians who are very good and musicians who are great.”