Rebellious jazz pianist Cecil Taylor, 89

Font Size

NEW YORK — Cecil Taylor, the rebellious pianist whose dissonant, nearly percussion-like approach to the keys helped set the stage for the free jazz movement, has died, his representative said Friday. He was 89.

The New York native, who lived more than three decades in a brownstone in Brooklyn, died late Thursday, his legal guardian Adam Wilner said without specifying a cause.

Taylor startled the music world in 1956 with his first album Jazz Advance, with the pianist wildly sweeping through ostensibly jarring chords and merging clashing rhythms.

With saxophonist Ornette Coleman, who would become his collaborator, Taylor opened the way of free jazz, which removed itself from the structures and toe-tapping rhythms that had underpinned the genre. “Part of what this music is about is not to be delineated exactly. It’s about magic and capturing spirits,” Taylor once told the jazz writer Nat Hentoff.

Taylor followed up with a well-regarded live album in 1957 recorded at the Newport Jazz Festival.


Unlike the legendary Coleman, who died in 2015, Taylor was a more divisive character to audiences, some of whom found his hard-hitting, often atonal playing to be off-putting.

But Taylor found an unexpected fan in 1978 when he was invited to play at the White House as part of a jazz festival. After performing for his designated time of a mere five minutes, Taylor was unexpectedly approached by president Jimmy Carter, who clasped the artist’s hands and said: “I’ve never seen anyone play the piano that way.”

Taylor was trained classically in piano, encouraged by his mother who was a musician and dancer, but first found his calling as he made his way into jazz clubs in Harlem.

He later obtained financial stability by taking visiting teaching positions, including at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and his recordings enjoyed popularity in Europe and Japan.

Taylor set his music to choreography, including of Min Tanaka, who experiments with Japan’s intricate butoh dance. He also worked closely with Amiri Baraka, one of the leading African American poets of the late 20th century, with Taylor also penning his own verse for their work together. — AFP