Cecil Taylor is a musician and poet famed for his distinctive "“percussive" style of piano playing — making the piano keys sound as if they were 88 finely tuned drums. He is considered one of the leading formative figures in what is now known as avant-garde jazz.
His pioneering work — along with that of Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane — helped establish the musical genre called "free jazz." Some contend that Taylor, Coleman and Coltrane were the embodiment of modern jazz, while others have recognized that their music marked a major turning point in the history of the genre.
Taylor was born in 1929 in Long Island City and grew up in a musical household. He began playing piano at age five. Taylor received classical training at the New York College of Music. He attended the New England Conservancy of Music in Boston from 1947 to 1951 and earned a degree in pop arranging. His breakthrough sound, though thoroughly unique, was inspired by other artists, including Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and several pianists, especially Bud Powell.
Taylor formed his small group in 1956, the year of his recording debut. He appeared with that ensemble the following year at the Newport Jazz Festival. Taylor revamped the band with subtle changes that were reflected in the annual albums he recorded over the next five years. By 1961, he had settled on a new name for the ensemble — the Cecil Taylor Unit — and new musicians built around his chief collaborator, alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons.
In 1967, Taylor added concert-length solo piano recitals to his arsenal of performing triumphs, and in subsequent years he also adapted his concept for a jazz student orchestra. He has continued to perform with his small group, as a soloist and in various ensembles.
In recognition of his contributions to American music and his innovative artistic vision, Brooklyn College awards Cecil Taylor the honorary degree of Doctor of Fine Arts.