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CECIL TAYLOR,
1929-2018

Jazz pianist Cecil Taylor, a pioneer in the field of improvisation known for an energetic, physical and percussive approach to the piano, died Thursday at his home in Brooklyn, N.Y. He was 89.

After absorbing the music of Art Tatum and Duke Ellington and the writing styles of 20th century classical composers, he started to develop a complex approach to jazz in the late 1950s that had no antecedents; his run at the Five Spot Café in the mid-1950s is considered one of free jazz’s starting points.

Taylor started recording as a leader in the late 1950s but it wasn’t until the middle of the 1960s that he began to show the full range of his ambitious music. Conquistador and Unit Structures, the only recordings he did for Blue Note, set a gold standard for modern jazz at a time when the saxophonists John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler were having a similar impact. Taylor’s music was dense and uncompromising—his fans, peers and critics praised it for its purity, an element that never wavered during his prolific 60-year career.

“Cecil Taylor was a Revolutionary artist who pushed jazz piano to it’s outer reaches,” the guitarist Vernon Reid tweeted. “He was fearless. He was bare knuckled intellect and raw heart. He built an international audience completely outside of the constraints & vagaries of fashion. Cecil Taylor was a true American.”

Classically trained at the New England Conservatory in Boston and influenced by Bela Bartok and Stockhausen, Taylor started working in jazz in 1955 in a quartet with the saxophonist Steve Lacy and the bassist Buell Neidlinger.

He formed his primary band, The Unit, in 1961 with alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons and drummer Sunny Murray, who would later be replaced by Andrew Cyrille. While he recorded extensively for Candid in the early ‘60s, club and concert work was hard to come by, largely owing to Taylor performing lengthy, original compositions that upended concert traditions.

In the 1970s, Taylor taught at several colleges, the University of Wisconsin was the first to hire him, and The Unit began to secure an increasing number of bookings in Europe.

He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1973, performed at the White House during the Carter Administration, and in the late ’70s/early’80s, worked with choreographer Diane McIntyre and her company Sound in Motion, blending jazz and spoken-word performance into dance productions. For much of the last 45 years, Taylor has specialized in solo piano performances.

In 1990, he was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts, in 1991, he received a MacArthur Fellowship and in 2013, the Kyoto Prize.

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