He took up piano at 13, and was encouraged by Earl Hines. He was referred by jazz composer Bill Russo to Paul Hindemith, with whom he studied till 1952. While a teenager he performed in rhythm and blues bands and with touring jazz musicians, including Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. He first recorded in 1955, but his reputation was made by his Blue Note recordings of 1963 to 1969, which featured several important post-bop musicians including Eric Dolphy, Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw, and Tony Williams.
He obtained a doctorate in music from Colgate University and served as the university's composer in residence from 1970 to 1972. He later taught in California and at Portland State University. He returned to New York City in 1990.
He has continued to perform and record since obtaining his doctorate, performing avant garde and modal jazz. He has always been known for the rhythmic and harmonic complexity of his performances and compositions. His album Dusk was selected as the best album of 2001 by both Downbeat and Jazztimes.