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Cecil Taylor, Pioneering Free Jazz Pianist, Dies at 89

Pianist Cecil Taylor, a legend of free jazz whose career spanned six decades, died Thursday evening at his home in Brooklyn, New York, NPR confirmed early Friday. He was 89.

“Cecil is of jazz, and also beyond it,” Ben Ratliff, author and longtime jazz critic for The New York Times, told NPR. “The thing that Cecil was doing in 1959 or whatever, the stuff that had basically a steady beat, but was pushing out on all sides with strange harmonies and strange dynamics — you know, we’re doing stuff now that’s more like that. And to think that at that point in the late ’50s, Cecil Taylor was just saying, ‘Yeah, this is the right way to play, this is the way to do it,’ is truly amazing.”

He was a pivotal figure of free jazz and released one of the essential albums of the genre, “Jazz Advance,” in 1956. Along with other leaders, including Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, he encountered opposition if not derision from the jazz establishment and many fans, but persevered and was eventually recognized for his visionary work. He performed for President Jimmy Carter in the 1970s and received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1973 and a MacArthur Fellowship in 1991. He released dozens of albums as a leader over the years, the most recent being 2009’s “The Last Dance.” His death followed closely that of his early collaborator Buell Neidlinger, who died at 82 on March 16.

He collaborated with many musicians over the years but also dancers, composing music for a 1979 Mikhail Baryshnikov ballet called “Tetra Stomp: Eatin’ Rain in Space.”

Famously outspoken, according to The Guardian he said at a panel discussion in 1964: “I’m saying that there is one advantage that one has in being a so-called negro: that if one gets out of the gutter, one can see everything from different points of view; one can assimilate everything because one knows what one is – which, up until recently, has not been interesting. I’m saying that people who are enmeshed in situations of subjugation and have to live, have to find ways to project their dignity as human beings – in spite of all the efforts of those around them to degrade them – I’m saying that this music is the manifestation of the dignity in the life that has always been present. And it has always been present in any art: the joy, the sorrow.”

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