Cecil Taylor, an avant-garde jazz pianist whose long, sweat-drenched performances aspired to a state of ecstasy and whose uncompromising approach to music elicited both harsh criticism and awestruck adulation, died April 5 at his home in Brooklyn. He was 89.
The death was confirmed by his legal guardian and representative, Adam C. Wilner. The cause of death was not immediately determined.
For years, Mr. Taylor pursued his singular artistic vision, combining jazz influences, modern classical music and African traditions to create a distinctive and defiantly individual style.
He was often linked to some modern-jazz innovators as John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, but in many ways Mr. Taylor stood alone as the daring personification of free jazz — “the eternal outer curve of the avant-garde,” in the words of critic Gary Giddins.
He was a conservatory-trained pianist who began his career in conventional swing bands, but it wasn’t long before he moved toward an individual style built largely around his own compositions and improvisational verve. Whether working with groups or as a soloist, Mr. Taylor was considered a master of pianistic virtuosity and stamina, performing demanding, dissonant solos that sometimes lasted two hours or more.
It was not a style calculated to win popularity. In Ken Burns’s 2000 documentary series “Jazz,” saxophonist Branford Marsalis memorably dismissed Mr. Taylor’s music with a barnyard epithet.
But to his admirers — whose numbers grew steadily over time — Mr. Taylor was a visionary force who expanded the boundaries of musical expression to include elements of poetry, dance and spiritualism. His recordings won album-of-the-year awards from jazz critics, he was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master and, in 1991, he received a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.”
“The American aesthetic landscape is littered with idiosyncratic marvels — Walt Whitman, Charles Ives, D.W. Griffith, Duke Ellington, Jackson Pollock — and Taylor belongs with them,” wrote New Yorker jazz critic Whitney Balliett. “Listening to Taylor takes patience and courage. He wants you to feel what he feels, to move at his speed, to look where he looks (always inward). His music asks more than other music, but it gives more than it asks.”
The idea of beauty was not paramount to Mr. Taylor, and he ignored traditional concepts of melody, harmony and rhythm. No one left one of his concerts humming the tunes. He often wore colorful robes and hats and introduced his performances with readings of poetry, sometimes while lying on his back.
Mr. Taylor weighed only 140 pounds, but he seemed capable of breaking a piano in two with the ferocity of his attack. He struck the keys with his fists or elbows, producing enormous thunderclaps of sound, and occasionally interrupted his marathon solos with screams, chanting or dancing.
His performances projected an intense visceral energy, a constantly evolving sense of momentum and sonic turbulence that left concertgoers with a sense of exhilaration, of having borne witness to a phenomenon.
“His keyboard strength and endurance are astonishing,” Balliett wrote. “That improvised piano can be played for a solid hour or more with such clarity and precision and passion is nearly unbelievable. Taylor is an ecstatic, almost demonic performer.”
Many baffled listeners, including traditional jazz purists, walked out of Mr. Taylor’s concerts. As time went on, however, dozens of younger performers, ranging across the boundaries of jazz, classical music, rock and theater, claimed Mr. Taylor as a major influence. He performed at the White House for President Jimmy Carter in 1978.
His albums never topped the charts, but such recordings as “Unit Structures” and “Conquistador!” (both 1966), “Cecil Taylor Unit” (1978), “For Olim” (1986) and the 13-disc “Cecil Taylor in Berlin ’88” (1988) have been hailed as idiosyncratic masterpieces.
His music contains “tunes that rear and fade, motifs flicking at odd moments,” Giddins wrote in the Village Voice in 1979, reviewing “Cecil Taylor Unit.” “It’s music, with all the attendant glory and defiance and untranslatable emotion music ought to have, and that’s magic of the highest sort.”
Cecil Percival Taylor was born March 25, 1929, in Queens, N.Y. His father was a chef at a psychiatric hospital; his mother, a onetime actress and dancer, encouraged his interest in music and the arts.
He began studying piano at 5 and often attended jazz and classical concerts during his youth. He was also immensely well read and began studying the works of 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer by age 12.
Mr. Taylor studied classical music and arranging at the New England Conservatory of Music in the early 1950s, while absorbing the varied influences of Ellington, Fats Waller, Erroll Garner, Thelonious Monk, Béla Bartók, Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky.
After briefly performing in conventional jazz bands, Mr. Taylor began charting his own renegade course by 1956, when he released his first album, “Jazz Advance,” and had a six-week engagement at New York’s Five Spot nightclub.
Mr. Taylor appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1957, but as he began to focus more on his original compositions — and after breaking the keys and strings of too many pianos — it grew increasingly hard for him to find work.
He took jobs in stores and restaurants while practicing for hours a day.
“I was washing dishes in a restaurant at the same time I was being written about in places like Down Beat,” he said in a 1990 interview with Down Beat.
During a European tour in the early 1960s, Mr. Taylor began to develop his mature style, which largely abandoned standard chords and rhythm. To the untrained ear, his music could sound discordant and unmoored, but Mr. Taylor was meticulous in his preparation. He once rehearsed his band a full year before a concert.
“That man is capable of playing 10 different notes with 10 different fingers, 10 different dynamics, 10 different attacks and at 10 different tempi,” his former bassist Buell Neidlinger, who died in March, told Down Beat magazine in 1975. “He is phenomenal. There is no musician I’ve ever met, including Igor Stravinsky and Pierre Boulez, who comes anywhere near having the abilities that Cecil Taylor has. He is a product of his own genius.’’
Perhaps best known for his solo pieces, Mr. Taylor often appeared in small ensembles, working most effectively with saxophonist Jimmy Lyons and drummer Sunny Murray. He performed in duo concerts with drummer Max Roach and collaborated on dance performances with Alvin Ailey, Dianne McIntyre and Mikhail Baryshnikov.
Mr. Taylor occasionally taught in colleges, but his pedagogic style could be as difficult as his music: He once flunked two-thirds of the students enrolled in his course at the University of Wisconsin.
In the 1980s, Mr. Taylor was unwillingly outed as gay by critic Stanley Crouch.
“Do you think a three-letter word defines the complexity of my humanity?” Mr. Taylor later said.
He had no immediate survivors.
In 2013, he received the Kyoto Prize, a $500,000 award from Japan for cultural achievement. He continued to perform as recently as 2016.
When asked to explain the nature of his thorny music, Mr. Taylor often turned silent, saying only that the music spoke for itself.
“I’m in a state of trance when I play,” he told the New Yorker. “Playing is not a question of energy. It’s spiritual transfiguration. If playing were merely physicality, I’d be a basketball player or a miler.”