Born in New York in 1929, Taylor began playing piano at age 6, going on to study at the now-defunct New York College of Music and Boston's New England Conservatory. Upon moving back to New York City in 1955, he formed a quartet with soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, bassist Buell Neidlinger and drummer Dennis Charles, releasing his debut LP Jazz Advance the following year.
Taylor's piano playing has been described as energetic and physical, boasting a percussive quality. Influenced by classical composers Béla Bartók and Karlheinz Stockhausen, Taylor's work is also recognized for its significant use of tone clusters.
Taylor released a collection of his poetry on 1987 LP Chinampas, on which he also accompanied himself on percussion. He also demonstrated an interest in dance, once comparing his playing style to "the leaps in space a dancer makes." Taylor composed and played the music for Mikhail Baryshnikov's 1979 ballet Tetra Stomp: Eatin' Rain in Space.
In 2014, Taylor was defrauded out of nearly $500,000 by Long Island contractor Neil Muir, a sum that had been awarded to Taylor for winning the Kyoto prize from Japan's Inamori Foundation. In response, Taylor simply told Muir, "die."
In 2016, Taylor was celebrated with a retrospective exhibit at the Whitney museum in New York, at which he also performed.
Find reaction to Taylor's passing from listeners and industry counterparts below.
R.I.P. Cecil Taylor (1929-2018), one of the great innovators in modern music. I had a chance to meet him when I was a student, and it was an important formative moment in my vocation. He is one of those rare figures who simply can not replaced, nor forgotten. pic.twitter.com/L5CCnZkSfg— Ted Gioia (@tedgioia) April 6, 2018
Damn. Thank you for everything, Cecil Taylor. The absolute greatest ever— 𝖈𝖑𝖎𝖕𝖕𝖎𝖓𝖌 (@clppng) April 6, 2018
Saw #ceciltaylor at Knitting Factory & before he touched the keys of the piano he spent a good15 minutes dancing, speaking in his own language, & playing the inside of the instrument. It was like getting a whole person, not just a piano performance (which was also amazing).— superchunk (@superchunk) April 6, 2018
I got to study with him and performed his compositions with him, and witnessed him pounding the piano with a 40-min-non-stop solo improv straight through at 70+ of age during my school years at Mills. Changed my life. A true maestro from the outer space! #CecilTaylor 🙏 pic.twitter.com/uXkUkSyqX0— Wu Fei 吴非 (@wufei) April 6, 2018
never forget Cecil Taylor, also never forget Cecil Taylor's succinct suggestion to a contractor who robbed him of $500k, also never forget Cecil Taylor's courthouse look pic.twitter.com/XtukbdB3VH— PAPPADEMAS (@PAPPADEMAS) April 6, 2018
Among the many ways Cecil Taylor was an inspiration to me was as a dancer— Deerhoof (@deerhoof) April 6, 2018
Saw Unit at Yoshi's and then Deerhoof had honor to play same stage with CT solo at ATP Los Angeles
Eternal love to Cecil Taylor. Thank you for decades of inspiration. Rest in power, Maestro. pic.twitter.com/6CxMROfLoR— William DuVall (@WilliamDuvall) April 6, 2018
#RIP #CecilTaylor. The intrepid musical explorer passed away last night in Brooklyn at age 89. His two 1960s Blue Note albums "Unit Structures" & "Conquistador!" still stand among his finest. Read the @NPR obituary: https://t.co/5ngixavkvB pic.twitter.com/V5VeSxS334— Blue Note Records (@bluenoterecords) April 6, 2018