Payne was born in New York City on Dec. 14, 1922. He started his musical life singing and playing guitar. After hearing Young on a recording with Count Basie, Payne asked his father, who played tenor, for a horn and received an alto. His father thought the light, airy playing of Young was done on the alto. Payne mastered that as well as the clarinet, which he played in army bands from '43 to '46. In '46 Payne made his debut on baritone sax with a band led by Clarence Briggs, and his last recording on alto on a session led by J.J. Johnson. After a stint with Roy Eldridge, Payne established himself as a bop saxophonist in Dizzy Gillespie's big band. Settled in New York City, he played in bands led by James Moody and Tadd Dameron; freelanced from '49 to '52; toured with Illinois Jacquet from '52 to '54; and made notable recordings with Duke Jordan and Randy Weston. Payne retired from the jazz scene during the late '50s but acted and wrote songs for Jack Gelber's play The Connection in the early '60s.
Payne returned to music as a soloist in Machito's Afro-Cubans and with Lucky Thompson's octet. After touring Europe with Lionel Hampton in '64, he again left the scene, only to return a couple years later to play with Weston, Woody Herman, and Gillespie. After a two-year stint with Basie, Payne formed a quartet which was active well into the '80s. Payne also recorded with Nick Brignola in '79 and formed a trio with Bill Harman and Richard Wyand in '86.
Recently, Payne began playing gigs in New York after six years in seclusion due to blindness. He reunited with friends, Quincy Jones, Ron Carter, Frank Foster, Freddie Hubbard, when he played the annual "Great Night In Harlem" Benefit Concert for the Jazz Foundation at the Apollo. After this, Cecil found time to perform in the local nursing homes in the Somerdale area, entertaining elderly patients for free.
Baritone saxophonist Cecil Payne, who asserted the baritone's role in bop, died Nov 27, 2007 of cancer in New York.