18 Extraordinary Jazz Pianists

Only a few jazz pianists are truly original and qualify as both innovators and major influences on their instrument and on the development of jazz.

The Individual Voices of Jazz Piano

Unlike wind or plucked string instruments, the piano can’t “vocalize”, but real jazz pianists have devised ways to simulate vocal sounds, particularly when playing blues. The key factor in all this is style. Notice how jazz piano styles gradually changed from stride piano, and gradually evolved to where there are jazz pianists who play in a free style that many question whether it is jazz at all. – Dick Katz, liner note excerpt The Jazz Piano Mood Sessions (Mosaic Records).

James P. Johnson

James P. Johnson was one of the most important, if not THE most important stride pianists

James P. Johnson (1894-1955) may not have invented stride piano but he was the first important stride pianist and was considered its greatest exponent during the 1920s. At a time when many jazz pianists were either playing ragtime or primitive blues, Johnson’s sophisticated and virtuosic displays impressed and amazed his fellow jazz pianists, many of whom took mental notes when he performed.

Ragtime piano was earlier. It was primarily a repertoire of songs composed, learned, and performed. Ragtime’s broken, ragged rhythm pointed to future musical innovations that would be called jazz because syncopation was at the heart of it, but ragtime was neat and tidy, and the piano needed to be freed before jazz could develop.

Stride piano was that next important step. It was louder and faster, more aggressive. Still largely a piano music, stride piano used the whole keyboard, not just the middle four octaves, as performers “walked” up and down the keys with the left hand. There was still that “oom-pah” bass line, derived from black march music and layered with counter rhythms, typical of music from African roots.

But stride piano was less controlled and less structured than ragtime – more jazz-like – in all ways. If ragtime was a repertoire, stride was a way of playing. You could play popular music of the day in stride. You could play songs from musicals in stride.

And you could improvise. That was the big one. Stride piano allowed more danger and personality. And while many stride pianists played their own signature figures over and over, improvisation was something that defined their art. – Alan Goodman

Willie “The Lion” Smith

William Henry Joseph Bonaparte Bertholoff Smith, dubbed “The Lion” for his bravery in action during World War I, was one of a kind. Usually, he’s grouped with the Harlem stride pianists, and no doubt he mastered that particular style, but he was far too personal a stylist to be classified in any “school.

Duke Ellington adored Lion, and Art Tatum loved him. Duke even copied him, but Lion was really uncopiable, not least because he specialized in his own compositions which, like his style, are sui generis. In terms of melody, form and harmony, he was a child of the late 19th century—not so much of ragtime as of the descriptive salon pieces that were the meat and potatoes of both the virtuoso and amateur pianists of that era.

He was a romantic at heart, but he had a jazz beat, and a sense of humor. Like all the early ragtime and jazz solo pianists, he had an orchestral conception of the keyboard and was intensely competitive. But he never seemed at his best when recording — except on this particular occasion.

The marathon Commodore session, producing 14 marvelous solos (he’d previously recorded only two issued ones, with drum accompaniment, exactly a year earlier for Decca), was the finest of his long career. Never again would he be in such magnificent form in a studio.

Earl Hines

Most jazz pianists in a solo or trio context use worked-out arrangements of the material they play.  Reharmonizations, rhythmic schemes, and overall structure usually have been thought out ahead of time.  Pianists as diverse as Art Tatum, Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans did a lot of the type of arranging which is sometimes called re-composition.

There are exceptions, of course, and the most outstanding one is Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines.  Unlike his disciples, Teddy Wilson and Nat King Cole, to name only two, Hines never played a piece the same way twice.  He always started from scratch, and let his fertile imagination lead him.  He was a pure improviser if there is such a thing.

By now it is a cliché to say that Hines was the revolutionary pianist who broke away from that formidable jazz piano school known as Harlem stride.  Most piano styles up until, say, Bill Evans derive their uniqueness from his innovations.  He liberated both hands from the ingrained pianistic conventions of the 1920’s and ’30’s.  He was the first to play horn-like lines in his right hand while his left hand often responded like a drummer playing broken rhythms.

The piano is defined as a percussion instrument, and that’s the way Hines played it.  He was a terrifically exciting performer with a powerful beat.

In addition to Art Tatum, Wilson and Cole, he directly influenced Jess Stacy, Joe Sullivan, Mel Powell, Billy Kyle and many others.  By translating the trumpet concept of Armstrong and others to the keyboard via soaring octave passages, fresh rhythms and other innovative devices, he inadvertently set the stage for Bud Powell to do the same by transferring the bebop melodic and rhythmic language to the piano.  It happened again more recently when McCoy Tyner “piano-ized” John Coltrane.  No wonder he was called  Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines–he started it all. – Dick Katz

Fats Waller

It is the compositions that Thomas “Fats” Waller wrote during his brief lifetime (1904-1943) that are mostly remembered today: Ain’t Misbehavin’, Honeysuckle Rose, The Joint Is Jumpin’, to name just a few.

Fats Waller brought to the Harlem stride piano innovations of his mentors James P. Johnson and Willie “The Lion” Smith a refined touch and a technique with jazz piano that was the equal of any and all masters of European classical music. In fact, Waller himself was known to his friends for his performances of Bach and Brahms, as well as for his mastery of the pipe organ.

All of these abilities played second fiddle to his brilliant and sometimes bordering-on-the-ribald sense of humor. Waller could mold his large face into any number of humorous contortions that amplified whatever was coming out of his mouth. He managed to merge brilliance as a jazz pianist with brilliant showmanship, and for this quality he was a much-adored mentor to trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie – Loren Schoenberg

Duke Ellington

Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington (1899-1974) was a masterful pianist of great technical ability, creativity and taste. He was both a great solo pianist–who unfortunately seldom recorded without his orchestra–and a great big band pianist whose playing often inspired the others in their solo efforts. As a boy in Washington D.C., he took his first piano lessons from a Mrs. Clinkscales. In his teens he received some additional lessons and pointers from, among others, “Doc” Perry and Harvey Brooks.

He learned James P. Johnson’s famous stride piece Carolina Shout by slowing down a piano roll and observing which of the piano’s keys were depressed. When he came to New York in 1923, he was befriended and mentored by Willie “the Lion” Smith, among others. At the Club Kentucky in the fall of 1925, the club hired a second pianist for a brief spell: Thomas “Fats” Waller. A veteran of countless Harlem rent parties and piano cutting contests, Duke Ellington was steeped in the stride piano tradition. He could also be a strikingly original modernist whether playing solo or backing the solos of others.

André Hodeir and Gunther Schuller, in The New Grove Encyclopedia, summed up Ellington’s piano skills thusly: “Duke Ellington’s talents as a pianist are generally neglected or underrated. While he rarely featured himself as a soloist with his orchestra, he was nevertheless a remarkably individual contributor to the overall ‘Ellington effect.’

He saw himself primarily as a catalyst and accompanist, a feeder of ideas and rhythmic energy to the band as a whole or to its soloists. In this unobtrusive role, playing only when necessary, he was known for remaining silent during entire choruses or indeed pieces. His piano tone, produced deep in the keys, was the richest imaginable; it had the ability to energize and inspire the entire orchestra.” – Steven Lasker, liner note excerpt Mosaic Records: The Complete 1932-1940 Brunswick/Columbia/Master Recordings of Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra

Teddy Wilson

Teddy was the most popular jazz pianist of the swing era and right into the bebop years.  Almost every jazz pianist was touched by him, and his influence can be heard in such later jazz pianists as Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan and Al Haig. Even Monk – listen to his early Minton’s recordings.

Like many others, Teddy Wilson was originally inspired by both Fats Waller and Earl Hines; his early recordings do resemble Hines.  But he soon developed his own style that also made history. Teddy revised the conventional stride left hand by outlining a well-placed series of both consecutive and “walking” tenths. Against this smooth flowing left hand, his right hand spun out stunning, metrically immaculate lyrical melodies in single notes or feather-light octaves, with a pearly touch.

Whereas Earl Hines was a daring musical tightrope walker, Wilson purred along like a finely-tuned pianistic Rolls Royce, imparting a sense of balance and security. His patterns overall had a Mozartean symmetry unheard of when he appeared on the national scene. – Dick Katz

Count Basie

“He wanted everybody in his band to play – anything”, recalled Marshall Royal. “He would much rather sit up and play plink, plink, plink and smile and enjoy every minute of it. He liked to hear his men play”.

It led to a massive underappreciation of Basie’s importance as a jazz pianist, and on two levels. As a soloist, he spent almost his entire lifetime happily being regarded either as a “traditionalist struggling to  achieve a ‘stride’ style, or as some form of eccentric, freely distributing those ‘splinky splanky’ figures that occasioned one of his nicknames. In fact, he had distilled ‘stride’ piano to its fundamentals, rebuilding the essence as a kind of fretwork, through which rhythm, ensemble and any other soloist might weave. His solos were therefore as important for what they left unstated, like a series of dots waiting to become a picture.

By the same token, his refashioning of the elements of the then jazz piano tradition abandoned the established practices of chording on every beat or playing counter-melodies. Instead, he played commentaries, irregular splashes and punctuations that were sometimes antiphonal, sometimes polyphonal, giving fresh rhythmic and harmonic momentum to solo and ensemble alike. In this, he foreshadowed modern comping techniques that developed more extensively with the advent of bebop.

On both levels, his mastery of tempo and timing was paramount and, although other jazz pianists affected to reproduce his approach, these twin gifts remained inimitable.

Art Tatum

Nobody could follow Art Tatum, the greatest jazz pianist.  Anyone who challenged him risked death by piano.  In Billy Taylor’s Taylor-Made Piano, there is a wonderful description of the legendary after-hours jazz piano jam sessions at The Hollywood Bar in Harlem during the 1930s and ’40s.  Tatum always played last at these events because there wasn’t a jazz pianist anywhere who would dare to play after he did.

I am sure that every jazz pianist would agree that Tatum was in a class by himself.  The cliché used to be “First there is Tatum, and then there are all the others.”  Among jazz pianists, it was unanimous, at least until the arrival of Bill Evans and his followers.  That’s because the jazz vocabulary underwent such a drastic change.

I submit that I Know That You Know is one of the greatest piano performances ever recorded by any pianist–jazz or classical.  A highly subjective view, yes, but not a minority one.  This is a track I used to play for some classical piano skeptics, who often thought that jazz pianists were deficient technically.  Tatum’s musical modus operandi also always included having well thought out arrangements on every song.  He took many liberties, but always stuck to the format. – Dick Katz

Albert Ammons

The very special piano style known as boogie woogie piano probably originated in Texas and was known among blues and jazz musicians as “Fast Western” in its early incarnations. However, it was in Chicago in the 1920’s that this powerful, percussive approach to blues piano first proliferated and was given the name under which it became a national music craze in 1939.

The man who coined the term boogie woogie was Clarence “Pine-top” Smith (1904-29), who recorded his famous Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie less than three months before his untimely death as an innocent bystander to a dance-hall gun battle. But the greatest exponents of the style were undoubtedly Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson and Meade Lux Lewis.

This awesome threesome, brought together by John Hammond for his epochal “Spirituals to Swing” concert at Carnegie Hall in 1938 firmly established the rolling, rhythmically driving eight-to-the-bar pattern in the mainstream of the swing era.

Ammons’ bass was rock-solid, urgently propulsive, yet, although the relentless drive suggests a highly efficient machine, his playing always retains its essentially human pulse. This is in part because of the complicating and variable effect of the cross-rhythms between his two hands, though sometimes, reminding us of the contemporaneous Basie rhythm section, he plays isolated right-hand chords which allow the left hand’s deeply swinging ground beat to dominate.

However, there is no tinkling here, for Ammons’ punctuations are heavy four-note middle-register clusters, sometimes on the beat and sometimes off, which heighten the impact of the bass’ patterns. There is a steady climb to the magnificent peroration with the right-hand octaves, frenzy being contained by adherence to the recurring blues chord sequence.

Nat King Cole

In Stanley Dance’s book, The World of Earl Hines, the songwriter and manager Charlie Carpenter quotes Nat Cole as saying, “Everything I am I owe to that man, because I copied him. Of course, through the years I’ve gotten away from him, but I’ll never forget him, because he was my idol. He was always kind to me, and never too busy to say hello or to show me something.”

Cole’s distinctive piano style developed fairly rapidly. His first recording date was in 1936 with a band led by his older brother, Eddie Cole, for Decca. Nat was only 19 years old, but had already mastered the essentials of Hines’ style. The lightning-fast octave passages and the syncopated left-hand punctuations were fully assimilated. But in the manner of most youngsters, he tried to show all of his “stuff” at once.

In the years that followed, he absorbed gradually some of the harmonic savvy of Tatum, the rhythmic bite of Billy Kyle (also a Hines disciple) and the cool precision and assurance of Teddy Wilson, often expressed by the walking tenths in the left hand. But by 1943, when the Nat King Cole Trio began recording for Capitol Records, the pianist had added many innovative features to his playing, some of which pre-dated or coincided with the advent of bebop. Harmonically, Cole far outdistanced both Hines and Wilson. Only Tatum surpassed him (and, for that matter, every other pianist) in that department.

Thelonious Monk

More than 100 years after his birth, and over a quarter century since his passing, evidence that the once supremely iconoclastic Thelonious Monk may have been as central as anyone to the immortal music of both his country and his time continues to mount.

Despite showing excellence as a math and science student, Monk dropped out of high school to accompany a touring evangelist.  He took a few classes at Julliard after returning home, but left that academic setting as well in 1940 to begin a longtime association with Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, where the house jazz pianist his encounters with Charlie Christian, Kenny Clarke, Dizzy Gillespie and others are viewed as seminal moments in the creation of what would come to be known as modern jazz.

For much of the next two decades, despite being heralded as the new music’s high priest, Monk sounded like the most atypical of modernists.  Eschewing the rapid tempos and arpeggiated melodies of his fellow innovators, Monk’s music presented a distinct yet integral world view in which simplicity plus angularity yielded a different manner of virtuosity, where silence and dissonance added new dimensions to each cogent melodic notion, and where surprise in instrumental and ensemble sound as well as accent made the ensuing music swing more fiercely.

The Thelonious Monk quartet, as much if not more so than even the quartet of John Coltrane, provided the template for what remains a definitive jazz configuration.  Tenor sax, piano, bass and drums is arguably the most balanced, and has unquestionably become the most iconic, of modern jazz ensembles, the music’s version of the European classical realm’s string quartet if you will. – Bob Blumenthal

Oscar Peterson

In the world of the mid-20th century, jazz was still a relatively young music and its fans and critics still found it possible to become excited, even swept away, by the sheer wonder of an elegant, commanding, and previously unattained plateau of virtuosity. Today, more than a half-century later, those plateaus have long been occupied and settled. But in those days, there were still frontiers where the envelope could be pushed.

To appreciate the impact Oscar Peterson had on American audiences when he was fresh and new, it’s necessary to set aside our ennui with the levels of jazz piano technique we take for granted today and imagine a time when the first generation of musicians ever to play jazz were still among us and taken seriously and virtuosity, notwithstanding the wizardry of Art Tatum, Charlie Parker and others in play then, was still and active battlefield of one-upmanship. 

Oscar Peterson started at the top in a faux-surprise debut in Carnegie Hall on September 18, 1949. The occasion was the opening of the 29-city Jazz At The Philharmonic fall tour. Reporting for Down Beat, Mike Levin wrote: “A Montreal citizen, Oscar Peterson, stopped the Jazz at the Philharmonic concert dead cold in its tracks here last month. In addition, he scared some of the local modern minions by playing bebop ideas single finger with his left hand.”        

The virtuosity that so dazzled Levin and “scared” the musicians in the house that night would both sustain and haunt Peterson’s reputation for the next six decades as critics and fans squared off into two camps: One that honored one of the greatest jazz pianists; and the other that saw in the power of his playing only empty acrobatics. The argument still flickers now and then.

But one fact looms large and unchallenged. Jazz has seen many piano technocrats come and go in the last half-century. But Peterson endured and grew to the point where he was playing to his largest audiences in the last 15 years of his career. It would be reasonable to argue, in fact, that by the end of the century, he was perhaps the only living jazz musician who could, on the strength of his name alone, fill a major American concert venue.

In adopting the piano-guitar-bass line-up, Peterson picked up more or less where Nat Cole and Art Tatum had left it and went on to build a brand in jazz that reached well beyond the hard-core jazz audience to a huge swath of the general public that took its jazz more sparingly. The particular trio for which most people remember Peterson – the one with Ray Brown on bass and Herb Ellis on guitar – was in place for five years.    John McDonough

Ahmad Jamal

Pianist Eric Reed has said, “Ahmad Jamal is to the piano trio what Thomas Edison was to electricity”. Whether it’s with his 1951 Three Strings ensemble or his reformed 1956 group with drums, nobody has done more to illuminate the advancement of harmonic and rhythmic possibilities in the jazz piano trio format.

Mr. Jamal has been dazzling musicians and audiences alike with his musical mastery for over 60 years. He is a true original and a musical risk taker. He always manages to take us to the land of the unheard, reshaping and stretching the boundaries of pop, jazz and the American Popular Songbook, both harmonically and compositionally.

The best way to describe an Ahmad Jamal performance is to expect the unexpected. Listening to him can deceive you into thinking that what he does is easy. He is so musically deep, it’s frightening. He has influenced scores of pianists – Herbie Hancock, Red Garland, Monty Alexander, Chick Corea, Harold Mabern and McCoy Tyner just to name a few. The musicians in general (non-jazz pianists) that he has touched harmonically and conceptually is equally vast. – Kenny Washington

Bill Evans

After leaving Davis and spending much of 1959 in search of the right partners, Evans formed his classic first trio with bassist LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian. The group stayed together until LaFaro’s death, recording two studio albums for Riverside as well as two others at the Vanguard. This was an astoundingly innovative period for jazz, with Ornette Coleman inspiring both raves and outrage, Mingus discovering a natural ally with the arrival in his band of Eric Dolphy, and Coltrane formulating his own incantatory alternatives. The Evans trio belongs in this select company for its continuing exploration of modal structure, the intensity of its lyricism and its unprecedented emphasis on group interplay.

This last dimension was the most startling, a preview of the rhythmic freedom and give-and-take that became familiar trademarks of the less-tempered ’60s avant-garde. Rather than adopt the typical trio approach (perfected at the time by Oscar Peterson) in which the piano preempted the musical foreground while bass and drums performed subsidiary time-keeping functions, Evans and company upset the balance. LaFaro became a second lead voice, and Motian was free to play rhythmic patterns around the often implicit beat.

LaFaro, with his startling virtuosity and equally bold melodic imagination, was the key to the trio’s effectiveness. His oblique, quicksilver forays across the bass’s entire range drove the group’s uptempo pieces and helped sustain Evan’s uncommonly slow ballads. The pianist responded by developing an even more sensitive touch and a deeper feeling for locked-hand harmonies and mobile interior voicings. The need to accommodate LaFaro also forced Evans to rethink his melodic style. In order to leave room for the bassist’s inventions, he began to play less; his lines grew more fragmented, with a greater emphasis on silence. The mix of LaFaro’s authority, Motian’s quietly bustling brushes and an increasingly introverted Evans produced vital, complex, collective improvisations.

Herbie Nichols

Herbie Nichols was 34 years old before he was able to record his innovative music. Blue Note’s Alfred Lion, who asked Herbie to play all his compositions at a rehearsal, wanted to record everything that Herbie had finished. Within a year, Lion recorded him on five sessions. Lion compared the experience of discovering Herbie’s music to similar introductions to the distinctive work of Thelonious Monk eight years earlier and Andrew Hill eight years later.

Herbie was an accomplished and versatile jazz pianist who played everything from New Orleans jazz to polkas; In fact those gigs paid the rent while Herbie used his free time to develop his own music. His methods of jazz composition were very unorthodox. Melody, a chord progression and rhythm are fundamental foundations of any jazz composition. What sets Herbie Nichols (and Monk and Hill for that matter) apart is his ability to blend these elements into a single well-integrated entity. 

The subjects of Herbie’s compositions are revealed in their titles as well as the music. Despite the unique and dense nature of Herbie’s work, it is laced with much whimsy and playful melodies. As scant as Nichol’s recorded output is, his legacy is captured is well represented in his Blue Note sessions and the 1957 Bethlehem album “Love, Gloom, Cash, Love”

McCoy Tyner

McCoy Tyner is an imaginative, exciting virtuoso who has contributed much to the evolution and development of jazz piano.  An innovator in the current abstract/modal style, McCoy can play with dazzling speed and power and then temper his fiery brilliance with his own brand of lyricism.

In the well-established tradition of jazz pianists who lead their own ensembles, he is a prolific composer and because he has his own ideas of the best way to present his musical offerings, he has become an experienced arranger.

His formative years showed him sorting out those aspects of the jazz vocabulary which he could technically handle, harmonic and melodic devices drawn from be-bop but put into a rhythmic framework which was more flexible and a light but firm touch which enabled him to swing forcefully without losing the lyrical sound which pleased him.

As he began to work more consistently with louder, more aggressive drummers, his use of chromatically altered chords and tonal clusters became more apparent.  It was necessary at several different periods during his long association with John Coltrane to reassess his musical priorities and to develop techniques of accompaniment which would not only be audible, but which would not in any way restrict the fertile imagination of the soloist. 

There was plenty of room for creative, free improvisation and each member of the quartet was an equal partner in the development of the ensemble sound.  It was not a saxophone with rhythm accompaniment, it was collective improvisation that required virtuosity, strength and imagination.

When Trane explored new melodic resources such as modes and other types of scales, McCoy began to explore new harmonic resources such as chords built in fourths and chords with altered intervals which were not considered as restrictive to the soloist as traditionally voiced chords.  The drone-like pedal pint patterns which he favored at this time gave rise to a new sense of sonority and McCoy Tyner began to seriously define him as a master jazz pianist.

Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison were players who insisted on maintaining high energy for long periods during a performance, so McCoy developed a personal approach to rhythmic playing which was much more robust than his earlier, more subtle efforts.

When at last he formed his own groups, his musical concepts were well defined.  He could return to some of his early influences like Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk and re-examine those aspects of his playing and put them into the proper perspective and though he wished to retain the spontaneity which characterized so much of his work he could now concentrate on other aspects as well; beauty, African roots, form, structure in a more traditional sense and above all, his music as a reflection of life around him as well as a medium of personal expression.

McCoy Tyner is a deeply religious man and in his music one finds peacefulness, love of God, concern for unity and discipline, clarity of ideas and a sincere, natural approach to sharing, rarely found in music today.  In his view, his music accurately reflects who he is and what he stands for, so in addition to the aforementioned qualities, one also finds power, anger, frustration and all of the other emotional qualities that a sensitive, passionate man must express to maintain his emotional balance as he tells his story musically. – Billy Taylor, Cosmos original liner notes; reissued on Mosaic Select: McCoy Tyner

Andrew Hill

In August, 1986, I produced the first Mt. Fuji/Blue Note Jazz Festival outside of Tokyo. The affair was mostly all-star bands playing music from Blue Note recordings of the fifties and sixties. I invited Andrew and put together an ensemble of Joe Henderson, Woody Shaw, Bobby Hutcherson, Ron Carter and Billy Higgins. Don Sickler transcribed a set’s worth of Andrew’s tunes that Andrew and I had agreed upon.

Of course, he arrived in Tokyo with a suitcase of new music, all of it gorgeous, and all of it intricate. We managed a couple of rehearsals before the outdoor festival began. The winds were high that first day because a typhoon was heading straight for us. So all of Bobby Hutcherson’s parts blew away three minutes into the set. He winged it as best he could. Andrew kept getting up during tunes, running around to everyone’s music stands. Finally, Joe and Woody came over to me in the wings and said, “This music is hard enough to play. Can you get him to stop rewriting it while we’re playing it?”

Ah, the fertile mind. – Michael Cuscuna

Cecil Taylor

A Taylor session, like a Mingus session, involves entering quite another world from whatever is going on in the world outside. What happens is that Cecil himself is so wholly immersed in the preparations — let alone once the music begins – that the concentrated energy he creates takes over the room and everyone in it. He is like a vortex. When you’re in a room with Cecil — and there doesn’t have to be a piano there – he draws you into his state of mind and of feeling. And when it’s a recording session, nobody ever has to ask for quiet. It is given, almost without thinking about it, to that geyser about to erupt at the piano.

A revealing report on how Cecil communicates his music to other musicians as a manifestation of life, is in the June/July 1988 Coda. Mark Miller watched and listened as Cecil worked with a group of Canadian musicians for a concert of his music at Banff in Canada. “He played his several roles – musician, poet, dancer – and he played them in many moods.” As a musician, he dictated his music to the players, and “the musicians wrote the scores in their own hand” Cecil would add such instructions as: “I want you to create a mountain of thought in just one sound.”

Because no musician is an abstraction to Cecil, “ultimately, he would ask for xeroxes of each part as the musician had written it – this, together with a personal statement of what the musician felt to be his or her own ‘most outstanding personality trait.’” More and more, the musicians became responsible for being actual collaborators in the music, and so it was necessary – as Cecil had intended — for the musicians to trust themselves. As Cecil told the players at one rehearsal, “First, you have to lose your inhibitions, and one way you do that is by starting to move.” The same can be said, of course, to listeners of Cecil’s music.

Back at the rehearsal, what Cecil was building toward did indeed come together. He sat down at the piano, and the figures that he had taught the musicians and that had blossomed, and continued to blossom in their hands, were now the springboard for his improvisation. Cecil Taylor to the second power.”

After a rehearsal, Mark Miller asked Cecil what he considered his own most outstanding personality trait. “The belief, Cecil said softly, “that you must aspire to greatness, and that you must love the people whom you recognize are great, because they touched you. And there are a lot of people who are very good. You respect them. But the mountains, the highest mountains – Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday — they’re the highest mountains, you know, the highest mountains…”

“Obviously, music saved my life. Also, music has also made it possible for me to think that if I should live to be 90, then that will be the time when I will be the most human and also the most worthy – to look at those mountains.”

As Gil Evans noted: “All I can say about Cecil as a pianist and composer is that when I hear him, I burst out laughing in pleasure because his work is so full of things. There’s so much going on and he is such a wizard that whatever he does bristles with all kinds of possibilities. Since feeling and possibility are what life is all about, they are what Cecil Taylor is all about. – Nat Hentoff, liner notes The Complete Candid Recordings of Cecil Taylor and Buell Neidlinger (Mosaic Records)