Born (according to some authors May 15 or 25, and in 1930 or 1933) Cecil Percival Taylor at Long Island, his mother played violin and was a friend of drummer Sonny Greer. And his uncle performed on piano, drums, and violin. His father, a chef by trade, would sing the blues. At his mother's urging he began piano studies at age five. Awhile later he studied percussion, which undoubtedly informed his highly percussive keyboard style.
From 1951-1955 he studied at New York College of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music, concentrating on piano and music theory. He immersed himself in 20th century classical composers, including Stravinsky, and found sustenance for his jazz proclivities in the work of Lennie Tristano and Dave Brubeck. Later Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, and Horace Silver began to influence and inform his studies.
By 1956 he was working as a professional, taking a prolonged engagement at New York's Five Spot Cafe, and making his first recording, appropriately titled Jazz Advance. In the Summer of '56 he made his Newport Jazz Festival debut.
Playing in the manner he did presented challenges in terms of finding steady work and Taylor struggled to find gigs for the rest of the '50s and the beginning of the 1960s. He eventually found work overseas, touring Scandinavian countries during the winter of 1962-63. Finding regular work for his uncompromising style of music remained a struggle, despite widespread critical accolades.
He is one of the premier improvisational pianists of our time. His approach had evolved to incorporate clusters and a dense rhythmic sensibility, coupled with the sheer physicality of a form that often found him addressing the keyboard with open palms, elbows and forearms. This made him a wholly singular figure on the jazz scene. It also clearly separated him from his peers.
His work as a pianist and composer gained some much-needed forward momentum in the 1970s and beyond as touring and recording opportunities increased, though these were largely overseas.
In 1973 he ran his own record label, Unit Core. Taylor received a Guggheim Fellowship in 1973, and recently received a MacArthur Felloship (a so-called "genius award"). He has taught at Antioch College and has toured and recorded extensively. He was elected by the Critics to the Down Beat Hall of Fame in 1975. Taylor was finally starting to get the recognition he deserved.
In 1982 jazz critic Stanley Crouch wrote that Taylor was gay, prompting an angry response. Taylor gave an interview in 1985 to a San Francisco newspaper that stressed the importance to his music of his race and his homosexuality. In 1991 Taylor told a New York Times reporter "[s]omeone once asked me if I was gay. I said, 'Do you think a three-letter word defines the complexity of my humanity?' I avoid the trap of easy definition."
He died at his Brooklyn residence, at the age of 89.