Cecil Percival Taylor (March 25, 1929 – April 5, 2018) was an American pianist and poet.
Taylor was classically trained and was one of the pioneers of free jazz. His music is characterized by an energetic, physical approach, resulting in complex improvisation often involving tone clusters and intricate polyrhythms. His technique has been compared to percussion. Referring to the number of keys on a standard piano, Val Wilmer used the phrase “eighty-eight tuned drums” to describe Taylor’s style. He has been referred to as being “like Art Tatum with contemporary-classical leanings”.
Taylor was raised in the Corona, Queens neighborhood of New York City. As an only child to a middle-class family, Taylor’s mother encouraged him to play music at an early age. He began playing piano at age six and went on to study at the New York College of Music and New England Conservatory in Boston. At the New England Conservatory, Taylor majored in composition and arranging. During his time there, he also became familiar with contemporary European art music. Bela Bartók and Karlheinz Stockhausen notably influenced his music.
In 1955, Taylor moved back to New York City from Boston. He formed a quartet with soprano saxophonist, Steve Lacy, bassist Buell Neidlinger, and drummer Dennis Charles. Taylor’s first recording, Jazz Advance, featured Lacy and was released in 1956. The recording is described by Richard Cook and Brian 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 in which the pianist would later immerse himself.