Cecil Taylor: A lifetime of the Relentless Pursuit of Beauty

Dawoud Kringle reviewing Cecil Taylor’s life and career

Cecil TaylorOn Thursday, April 5th, 2018, one of the most original and innovative pianists of our time, Cecil Taylor, died of natural causes at his home in Fort Greene, Brooklyn at the age of 89.

Taylor was classically trained, and valued European music for what he called its qualities of “construction” — form, timbre, tone color. He brilliantly incorporated them into his own jazz and blues based aesthetic. He once told jazz critic Nat Hentoff “I am not afraid of European influences. The point is to use them, as Ellington did, as part of my life as an American Negro.”

Taylor was born in Long Island City, Queens, on March 25, 1929, and grew up in Corona. His father, Percy, originally from North Carolina, was a chef. His mother, Almeida Ragland, was a woman of learning and high standards. In his childhood, she took him to see Bill Bojangles Robinson and Ella Fitzgerald, and suggested that he read Schopenhauer. She was supportive of his choice to be a musician, and instilled in him a drive to perfect his craft. She died of cancer when he was 14.

Taylor studied piano at the New York College of Music in Manhattan. In the early 1950s, he moved to Boston, where he attend the New England Conservatory. While studying piano, arranging, harmony and solfège notation there, he started going to jazz clubs, which he later said helped him develop ideas about his music more than anything he learned in school. He was influenced by Duke Ellington’s orchestral approach to the piano, and was influenced by Horace Silver, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Sarah Vaughan Dick Twardzik, Bela Bartok, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Igor Stravinsky (later in life, he’d cited Marvin Gaye, Gyorgi Ligeti, Betty Carter, Judy Garland, Thelonious Monk, Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava and flamenco dancer Carmen Amaya as inspirtaion).

In 1955, Taylor moved to New York City and formed a quartet with soprano saxophonist, Steve Lacy, the bassist Buell Neidlinger, and drummer Dennis Charles. His first recording, Jazz Advance, was released in 1956. Taylor’s Quartet featuring Lacy also appeared at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival which went on to be made into the album At Newport. He also collaborated with John Coltrane in 1958.

Throughout the 1950s – 60s, Taylor began to abandon existing styles of jazz for more complex forms. His 1959 album Looking Ahead!, showcased his innovation as a creator in comparison to the jazz mainstream. His technique, stylistic shifts, and other qualities earned him respect as a virtuoso and musical innovator. It also made it difficult to secure performances; many audiences were not ready for what he had to offer.

In the early 1960s, Albert Ayler performed for a time with Taylor, and appeared on the recording Four (which was unreleased until 2004). By 1961, Taylor worked with alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, drummer Sunny Murray, and Andrew Cyrille.

By the end of the 60s Taylor began to perform solo concerts. Recordings of these concerts were released throughout the 1970s. He collaborated with dancer Dianne McIntyre in the late 70s and early 80s. In 1979 he also composed and played the music for a twelve-minute ballet “Tetra Stomp: Eatin’ Rain in Space”, featuring Mikhail Baryshnikov and Heather Watts.

In 1978, he performed for US President Jimmy Carter at the White House Jazz Festival on the White House Lawn. Carter was so taken with what Taylor played, he approached him afterward. Taylor later recalled that the first thing Carter asked him “was whether [classical virtuoso Vladimir] Horowitz had heard me. I said, ‘No, I don’t suppose he has.’ He said, ‘You know he was here. He should hear you. How did you learn to do that?’ I said, ‘Hell, I’ve been doing it for 35 years.'”

In 1986 Taylor formed the Feel Trio with William Parker (bass) and Tony Oxley (drums). The Feel Trio had a more abstract approach, and more aligned with the ethos of European free improvisation. He also performed and recorded with larger ensembles and big-band projects.

By the 2000s, Taylor’s recorded output slowed down, but he continued to perform with the Cecil Taylor Ensemble and the Cecil Taylor Big Band as well as with Joe Locke, Max Roach, and the poet Amiri Baraka.  In 2004, the Cecil Taylor Big Band at the Iridium 2005 was nominated a best performance of 2004 by All About Jazz, and the same in 2009 for the Cecil Taylor Trio at the Highline Ballroom in 2009. The trio consisted of Taylor, Albey Balgochian, and Jackson Krall.

He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1973, and a MacArthur Fellowship  in 1991. In 2013, he was awarded the Kyoto Prize for Music. In 2014, his career and 85th birthday were honored at the Painted Bride Art Center in Philadelphia with the tribute concert event “Celebrating Cecil”. In 2016 he received a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art entitled “Open Plan: Cecil Taylor.”

Taylor was also a brilliant a poet. He had cited poets such as Robert Duncan, Charles Olson and Amiri Baraka as major influences. He often integrated his poems into his musical performances. In 1987, Leo Records released his CD Chinampas; a recording of Taylor reciting his poetry, and accompanying himself on percussion.

At time of Taylor’s death, an autobiography, further concerts, and other projects were in the works.

Taylor was often lumped in with the free / avant garde jazz movement. But in many ways he stood alone and unique. He successfully incorporated all that he took from classical and modern Western composition into his own distinctly individual form of blues without in the least compromising the true essence of the blues. From this, Taylor single-handedly invented a courageous and unorthodox musical language for the piano. He built on some of the most ingenious concepts of any genre. His displays of virtuosity as an improviser were extravagant and unpredictable. His performances took on a ritualistic demeanor which blended a concertized formality with a frantic restlessness, under the umbrella of a zen-like philosophical calm. His music was turbulent and atavistic, and at the same time astonishingly beautiful.

The overall impression of his work is that of a restless intellect; an irreducibly creative mind constantly and fearlessly searching for new musical possibilities outside the accepted paradigms of orthodox preconceptions. His body of work will continue to produce new mysteries and new facets of beauty for the ages to come.

I must add a personal note. The first time I heard Taylor I was stunned. As with many, nothing could have prepared me for what he did. As time went on, I started to hear something inside his music. It was a language that spoke rare and subtle truths, and challenged me to look beyond my own limitations. I heard Taylor perform live twice. Both performances were, to put it mildly, astonishing. I was overwhelmed at being in the presence of such musical greatness. And I will never forget as long as I live the piece he played at Ornette Coleman’s funeral. He distilled into five minutes of music a lifetime of building a musical legacy in the face of constant opposition, and the friendship and deep respect between two self-created masters. Of all the music I heard in (as of this writing) the last 57 years of my life, this performance was among the most moving.

I urge young people to look into the work and legacy of Cecil Taylor; we shall not see his like again.