“We in Black music think of the piano as a percussive instrument, 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.”

—Cecil Taylor

To say Cecil Taylor marched to his own drum was an under statement. The British writer-photographer Valerie Wilmer, who made a career of criticizing and documenting Black music, once likened the pianist’s performances to “88 tuned drums.”

Others were no so flattering. Trumpet colossus Miles Davis once spit at the upstart pianist’s feet in contempt, and derided him in a 1964 listening session for “Downbeat Magazine.”

He snared, “It must be Cecil Taylor, right?”

“I don’t care who he’s inspired by. That sh*t ain’t nothing. In the first place he don’t have the – you know, the way you touch a piano.” 

On Thursday, April 5, Taylor, the celebrated purveyor of the avant-garde died at his home in Brooklyn, New York City of indeterminate causes, although he had been in ill health for some time.

Cecil Percival Taylor was born in the borough of Queens in 1929. The rigid regime of six day a week keyboard practice mandated by his mother, and a dotting uncle who played stride piano in the Fats Waller tradition shaped his life path. His formal studies continued at the New York College of Music and the New England Conservatory. In spite of this classical background, his stated inspirations remained the blues and jazz roots of his youth.

Starting off in traditional “swing” bands, his initial forays towards his own, unique sound were met with hostility since, as jazz critic Nat Hentoff remembers, his peers “…didn’t hear any melody or sense.”

Taylor’s approach rejected established conventions of rhythm, tonality, or formal structure, embarking on abstract explorations lasting two or three hours without pause, alienating most of his audiences. Another hindrance was his presence as a gay man in the severely homophobic jazz establishment.

The stigma of being a trailblazer meant surviving on the wages of short-order cook, dishwashing, and salesman. Occasionally he was able to expand on his odd dynamics and strange harmonies with kindred spirits like saxophonists Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, along with others in the so-called “free jazz” movement.

Critic Scott Yanow once warily complemented Taylor’s “forbidding music” with a caveat:

“Suffice it to say that Cecil Taylor’s music is not for everyone,” he suggested.

Validation finally came with a 1978 performance at the White House before President Jimmy Carter.

Eventually, his unconventional approach gained favor with a larger, more appreciative audience as he gained teaching positions at leading institutions, and financial accolades such as a 1991 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” and the $500,000 Kyoto Prize (for global achievement) in 2013. Still, his bizarre behavior and eccentricity made his presence difficult (he once flunked everyone who signed up for a class at the University of Wisconsin).

Uncompromising towards the very end, Cecil Taylor would have turned 90 this coming March 15.