New England Conservatory alumnus pianist/composer Cecil Taylor ’51 DP, has won the 2013 Kyoto Prize in the category of arts and philosophy awarded by the Inamori Foundation in Japan. The prize is an international award presented in three categories to those who have contributed significantly to the progress of science, the advancement of civilization, and the enrichment and elevation of the human spirit. The Kyoto Prize Presentation Ceremony will be held in Kyoto, Japan on November 10, 2013. Each laureate will be presented with a diploma, a Kyoto Prize Medal (20K gold), and prize money of 50 million yen (approximately $500,000).

As the Kyoto Foundation notes on their website, Taylor is “an innovative jazz musician who has fully explored the possibilities of piano improvisation. One of the most original pianists in the history of free jazz, Mr. Cecil Taylor has developed his innovative improvisation departing from conventional idioms through distinctive musical constructions and percussive renditions, thereby opening new possibilities in jazz. His unsurpassed virtuosity and strong will inject an intense, vital force into his music, which has exerted a profound influence on a broad range of musical genres.”

Ken Schaphorst, Chair of the Jazz Studies Program at New England Conservatory notes: “NEC has had many notable alums. But Cecil Taylor is in a class by himself. Very few musicians have influenced the course of jazz history more than Cecil. And no one has been more uncompromising in the pursuit of artistic honesty and truth.”

A key figure in the birth of free jazz in the late 1950s and a revered improviser and composer who helped redefine the stylistic language of the piano, Cecil Taylor remains at the forefront of contemporary avant-garde jazz.

Born in New York City in 1929, Taylor visited relatives in Boston following World War II, which led to his enrolling at NEC. Taylor completed NEC’s diploma in Arranging in 1951, attributing his education not only to his NEC studies in piano, arranging, harmony, and advanced solfege but to experiences “outside of the school or from the nonacademic aspect of school,” including a friendship with saxophonist Andy McGhee that opened many doors in Boston’s jazz community. After short sideman stints with Johnny Hodges and Hot Lips Page, Taylor formed the first of his own ensembles, which, over the course of the next decade, included such significant improvisers as saxophonists Steve Lacy, Archie Shepp, Jimmy Lyons and Sam Rivers, and the drummers Sonny Murray and Andrew Cyrille. By the time of his earliest recordings in the late 1950s, Taylor’s revolutionary style was already in place: his virtuosic technique coupled with his startling use of tonal clusters, polyrhythms, applied dissonance, and open collective ensemble improvisation was as vitally important to the growth of free jazz as the work of his contemporaries, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler and John Coltrane. His seminal albums of the 50s and 60s including Looking Ahead; Unit Structures; and Conquistador! were signposts for a new musical era.

Over the succeeding decades, Taylor’s astonishing work as a solo pianist – as heard on such landmark recordings as Spring of Two Js – as well as his collaborations with ensembles ranging from duos to large jazz orchestras, brought him international acclaim. Acknowledged as a master musician by jazz, new music, and classical circles, Taylor has influenced countless artists from Anthony Braxton to Sonic Youth. At 84 years old, he remains as daring as ever, an inspiration for adventurous players of all musical stripes.

NEC’s Jazz Studies Department was the first fully accredited jazz studies program at a music conservatory. The brainchild of Gunther Schuller, who moved quickly to incorporate jazz into the curriculum when he became President of the Conservatory in 1967, the Jazz Studies faculty has included six MacArthur “genius” grant recipients (three currently teaching) and four NEA Jazz Masters, and alumni that reads like a who’s who of jazz. Now in its 44th year, the program has spawned numerous Grammy winning composers and performers. As Mike West writes in JazzTimes: “NEC’s jazz studies department is among the most acclaimed and successful in the world; so says the roster of visionary artists that have comprised both its faculty and alumni.” The program currently has 114 students; 67 undergraduate and 47 graduate students from 12 countries.

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