Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Celebrating The 81st Birthday Of Cecil Taylor: Pianist, Composer, Poet, and Cultural Icon

CECIL TAYLOR, pianist-composer and poet (b. March 15, 1929) performing his music in the documentary "Imagine The Sound" in 1981. Directed by Ron Mann

Cecil Taylor in solo concert Munich Germany 1984

Cecil Taylor from the 2004 documentary on his music and life "All The Notes". Directed by Christopher Felver


The legendary Cecil Taylor is hands down one of the greatest and most innovative musicians and composers of the past century in the United States and one of my all time favorite artists. On March 15, 2010 Taylor celebrated his 81st birthday. Still going strong and performing, writing, and teaching throughout the world it is only fitting that we continue to give Mr. Taylor the praise, support, and deep appreciation that he and his galvanizing incantatory art is due. Thus in the spirit of this protean and prolific artist I would like to offer a reprint of an essay that I wrote about Taylor in 1986 for a magazine I edited then called SOLID GROUND: A NEW WORLD JOURNAL as well as an extensive sampling of his outstanding work from various footage of live performances throughout the globe and filmed excerpts from two seminal music documentaries that featured him and his music--"All The Notes" (2004) directed by Chris Felver and "Imagine The Sound" (1981) directed by Ron Mann. Enjoy...



P.S. In 1991 Cecil Taylor won the prestigious, lucrative, and highly coveted MacArthur Foundation Fellowship Prize--popularly referred to as the "Genius" grant--a most appropriate designation indeed in his case

Cecil Taylor: The Piano As Orchestra
by Kofi Natambu

Solid Ground: A New World Journal
Spring, 1986

“The whole question of freedom (in music) has been misunderstood, by
those on the outside and even by some of the musicians in ‘the movement.’
If a man plays for a certain amount of time...eventually a kind of order
asserts itself...There is no music without order--if that music comes from a
man’s innards. But that order is not necessarily related to any single criterion
of what order should be as imposed from the outside. This is not a question
then of ‘freedom’ as opposed to ‘nonfreedom’ but rather it is a question of
recognizing different ideas and expressions of order.”
--Cecil Taylor

Imagine a short, powerfully built black man with heavy lidded eyes masked with blacker sunglasses and a long distinguished looking mustache that conjures up visions of Emiliano Zapata spread majestically beneath an eagle’s nose and arching eyebrows. Jutting out from under a cap or woolen head wrap are wide sideburns that come to an abrupt stop just below strong Indian cheekbones, and cut to a sharp forty five degree angle above a granite-like jawline. The head held erect sits like a perfectly sculpted rock upon a track star’s neck and shoulders. To complete the picture imagine this same haughty figure perched solidly upon a piano bench directly behind a massive, gleaming black piano with large white letters spelling out BOSENDORFER etched in calligraphic script along the right side of this imposing instrument. Descend deeper into your subconscious and visualize, as if transfixed in a dreamlike haze, this same wiry black man with sprinter’s legs and thighs poised in an aggressive ready-to-fly stance beneath this piano, feet in perpindicular surprise inches from the pedal stops parallel to the floor.

Don’t look away or even blink. See the sweating boxer’s arms connected to elegant steel fingers raised in cat’s paw claw action now racing in a whiteheat blur across the tonal spectrum of 96 keys glittering? See his painter’s hands grip, jab, caress, stroke and maul the digital slabs of shining white and black ivory? As he dives into the thunder range of the now liquid instrument you glimpse his leaping fingers dancing in quick rhythmic steps across the linear tracks of the piano. The crystalline shower of notes are ringing in spiralling waves of overtones that seem to swallow up the air. Lost in a tornado of lyricism and a pulsating hurricane of instrumental virtuosity, you detect within the maelstrom a beautiful haunting song long since forgotten. It is then you discover that you have not been asleep after all. It is a waking dream and its name is Cecil Taylor.

CECIL TAYLOR. The very name has come to represent all that is truly creative, vital and innovative in contemporary 20th century American music. In an amazing career that spans some thirty years he has earned the right to be called that which is reserved for only those rarest of individuals: GENIUS. Another member of this esteemed pantheon, Edward Kennedy ‘Duke’ Ellington, called these same men and women “beyond category.” Their greatness is not dependent upon the ever changing blandishments of stylistic trends. All forms are subordinate to their compelling vision and spiritual force. It is to this magnificent realm that Cecil Taylor belongs.

Possessing tremendous energy and range, and an astounding technical facility on piano, Taylor is widely considered one of the greatest virtuosos in the world on his instrument. However, this is only a small part of what he does. A former drummer in his youth and a serious student of percussion, Cecil’s concept of the piano (derived from the African folk tradition) reminds everyone that it is technically considered a percussive instrument. In fact his explosive, riveting touch on piano led the Jazz writer Valerie Wilmer to refer to his keyboard as “eighty-eight tuned drums.” Cecil is a world-class composer whose improvisational skills are unlimited. There is no one who plays as fast, with as much power or as intensely as Cecil Taylor, yet there is a precision and structural control that is also unequalled. Cecil has the kind of stamina that allows him to play for hours(!) at a time. Many times the tempos are set at a demonic speed, yet he will just as often overwhelm the listener with a soft, aching tenderness and translucent ballad style. In order to enter the singular world of Cecil Taylor one must simply be prepared to open up completely and put aside all conventional notions and expectations about music. Since Taylor is always involved in a vigorous redefinition of what is called melody, harmony, and rhythm, there are rarely any stylistic cliches in his playing.

Taylor’s music is characterized by the creative use of sound as color and texture expressed in overlapping and pyramidal layers of melodic lines, riffs, motifs, tonal clusters, and polyrhythms. Timbral dynamics and constrast, as well as a highly sophisticated use of blues-based call-and-response voicings are also integral aspects of Taylor’s orchestral approach to the piano. In ensemble settings Taylor is deeply indebted to the master Duke Ellington for basic organizational principles. Of this influence, Taylor states” “One thing I learned from Ellington is that you can make the group you play with sing if you realize each of the instruments has a distinctive personality; and you can bring out the singing aspect of that personality if you use the right timbre for the instrument.” This lesson is applied in a particularly striking manner by Taylor and his saxophonist of twenty-three years, the outstanding altoist Jimmy Lyons.

Born in Long Island City, New York on March 15, 1929, Taylor began playing at age five encouraged by his music loving parents who early on exposed young Cecil to pople like Duke Ellington. His mother was a dancer who could play the piano and violin. His father, a butler and chef by trade, sang blues, field hollers, and shouts in the home, and was also somewhat of an oral scholar in black folklore. Aside from being exposed to a very wide range of black music, Taylor was also learning about the European classical tradition.

It was because of the example of Ellington that Taylor, after high school studies at the New York College of Music, decided to go to Boston and attend the New England Conservatory of Music in 1951. Because of Ellington’s obvious mastery of large scale orchestral forms, and a casual, ironic remark by Duke that “You need everything you can get--you need the conservatory with an ear to what’s happening in the street”, Taylor decided that no music should be beyond his understanding, or more importantly, absorbed in a creative, dynamic way in the development of his own unique vision of the African American improvisational tradition. as Cecil so eloquently points out: “Musical categories don’t mean anything unless we talk about the actual specific acts that people go through to make music, how one speaks, dances, dresses, moves, thinks, makes love...all these things. We begin with a sound and then say, what is the function of that sound, what is determining the procedures of that sound? Then we can talk about how it motivates or regenerates itself, and that’s where we have tradition.”

Ironically, it was while Cecil studied at the conservatory that he discovered in just what specific ways he could find a functional use for his experience as an African American artist in a hostile and overtly racist environment. While attending this academy Cecil realized that he could learn much more about the creative aspects of music from working musicians in the black music tradition than he ever could from the elitist teachers in the conservatory. As Taylor pointed out: “I learned more music from Ellington than I ever learned from the New England Conservatory. Like learning an orchestral approach to the piano from Ellington, like, I could never have gotten that from the conservatory.”

It was during his stay in Boston in the early 1950s that Cecil heard many of his idols in live performance for the first time. It was in Boston in 1952 that Taylor first heard the legendary Charles ‘Bird’ Parker at the local Hi-Hat club. Cecil also heard the great pianist-composer Bud Powell at this time, as well as the outstanding pianist/composer/arranger Mary Lou Williams. By this time Taylor had already plunged into an extended and intensive study of many of his major influences, such giants of 20th century piano music as Fats Waller, Art Tatum, Erroll Garner, Count Basie, Horace Silver, Thelonious Monk, and of course, Duke Ellington. However, Cecil’s deep and on-going appreciation of these artists did not keep him from also checking out people like Miles Davis, Lennie Tristano, James Brown, Igor Stranvisky, Aretha Franklin, Anton Webern, Marvin Gaye, and Bela Bartok (who Taylor said, “Showed me what you can do with folk material”). It’s important to note that Taylor not only considers these individuals to be seminal sources of inspiration in his music, but that his attitude toward this myriad of influences is not that of the blind, indiscriminate eclectic. Taylor has a very sharp and critical understanding of the relative value of the artists (and art forms) that he chooses to draw from.

Upon graduation from the conservatory in 1955, Taylor immediately made his considerable presence known with an outstanding group that recorded in December of that year when Cecil was twenty-six. It was Cecil’s first recording (Jazz Advance for the Boston-based Transition label). Many people consider this to be the first so-called” Jazz “avant-garde” recording of the modern era. This recording is now a cherished collector’s item.

As a fiercely independent and iconoclastic black artist, Taylor has had to pay the severe price of uncomprehending and often ignorant music critics judging his music using alien criteria. This kind of reception to his music by agents, promoters, clubowners, and recording executives who cannot neatly package Taylor’s sound for mass commodity sale has caused Cecil’s public career to be interrupted for long periods of time. For example, the general hostility of the music industry in the U.S. kept Taylor from being recorded in America from 1963-1966 and again from 1969-1973. There were also infrequent opportunities to work in clubs or on concert stages during the sixties and early 1970s. Consequently, Taylor has only appeared on 23 records as a leader, and just two other recordings as a featured artist, in thirty years.

However it a great testament to Taylor’s integrity and inspiring dedication and perseverance that he has not only survived this criminal neglect but has partly compensated for it by performing and recording widely in Europe and Japan (since 1967, ten of his last fifteen recordings released in this country have been for his own, or foreign-owned labels). He has also taught at the University of Wisconsin, (where he taught the largest class in the history of the school--over 1,000 students--and then proceeded to flunk over 70% of them in 1970!), Antioch College and Glassboro State College.

Cecil’s career, like that of so many great artists, is full of strange ironies and paradoxes. Despite leading recording sessions with many of the finest musicians in the world over the past twenty-five years (e.g. John Coltrane, Sam Rivers, Bill Dixon, Steve Lacy, Albert Ayler, Andrew Cyrille, Jimmy Lyons, Tony Williams, and just recently Max Roach); despite winning a Guggenheim Fellowship in Music (1973); despite playing a masterful performance at the White House in June, 1978 (that literally made then President Jimmy Carter leap up and embrace Taylor), and despite winning countless awards and kudos from all over the globe (and being written about by more poets than any artist in “Jazz” today), Cecil Taylor is still virtually unknown in the United States, even among the artistic cognoscenti.

Obviously, this shouldn’t be. For there is nothing self-consciously precious or ‘academic’ about Cecil’s playing. Steeped in the rich blues tradition (expressed in an abstract expressionist style) the music is very physical: passionate, sensuous, rigorous, and athletic. The pervasive influence of Dance is forever present in Cecil’s work. In fact, Taylor, who has often collaborated in live performances with dancers, playwrights and poets like Mikhail Baryshnikov, Diane McIntyre, Adrian Kennedy, and Thulani Davis, has often said that he likes to “try to imitate on piano the leaps in space a dancer makes.” His music has a dancer’s grace and fluidity.

Taylor, who repudiates the traditional Western idea that form is more important than, or separate from, content in art has said that he is a constructivist (which he explains as “one who is involved in the conscious working out of given materials”). In Taylor’s music the emphasis is on building a whole, totally integrated structure through the application of the principle of kinetic improvisation.

Cecil is always quick to point out that the real basis of the music is emotional and spiritual. He has stated that “to feel is the most terrifying thing one can do in this society” and that “The thing that makes Jazz so interesting is that each man is his own academy...If he’s going to be persuasive he learns about other academies, but the idea is that he must have that special thing. And sometimes you don’t even know what it is.” Finally he states: “Most people have no idea what improvisation is...It means the most heightened perception of one’s self, but one’s self in relation to other forms of life. It means experiencing oneself as another kind of living organism much in the same way as a plant, a tree--the growth, you see, that’s what it is...I’m hopefully accurate in saying that’s what happens when we play. It’s not to do with ‘energy.’ It has to do with religious is the ability to talk coherently through the symbols.”

Today Cecil is at the pinnacle of his artistic powers. Justly lionized in Europe and Japan, and a “living legend” among musicians in the U.S., Cecil commands SRO audiences wherever he performs. For the first time in his career he can afford to pay his rent and live decently on the income he earns from playing. We are the fortunate ones, for despite the on-going attempts of ‘official culture’ to deny the very existence of the contemporary black creative artist (especially as innovator and ‘cultural leader’), people like Taylor continue to provide leadership. At 57 Cecil is one of the major artists in this country. He has changed the very form and content of American music in his lifetime. For this, we owe him and his peers in African American creative music an enormous debt.

Interview by Jason Gross
January 2001

How do you casually describe a conversation with one of the most revolutionary musicians of the last century? Few musicians in any genre explored the full tonal range of a keyboard the way that Cecil Taylor has. In fact, his ferocious playing was so trail-blazing that it made more of an effect on the whole concept of rhythm than all but a few drummers. His blending of jazz and modern classical sensibilities set both traditions on their ear and were never the same since then. Along with Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, Taylor helped to usher in a turning point the history of the music. Avant and free jazz would be unthinkable without his innovations and it's a testament to his work that it is still part of the mainstream with many performers today.

Like other towering giants such as Miles Davis, the alumni from his groups read like a Who's Who of musical greats. Jimmy Lyons, Archie Shepp, Sunny Murray, Steve Lacy, Roswell Rudd, Ronald Shannon Jackson, Max Roach, William Parker, Derek Bailey, Leroy Jenkins, John Tchicai and Alan Silva are only a handful of this elite group. That's not even mentioning his collaborations and sessions with Trane himself, the Art Ensemble and Tony Williams.

Now celebrating 45 years as a recording artist, Taylor also celebrated his 70th birthday with a whirlwind, worldwide tour. Not content to rest on his much deserved laurels, Taylor practices piano constantly and always regales crowds with new pieces. He is a one-man multi-media presentation as he sings, chants, reads poetry, dances and plays at his concerts.

It took me over a year to finally pin him down for an interview but who wouldn't have patience for a legend of his stature? Meeting him with one hour's notice at his favorite East Village restaurant (where the staff greeted him as royalty), I was ready to be dazzled and he did not disappoint. Covering everything from his childhood heroes to his favorite singers (which are a huge influence on him) to his favorite collaborators, usually in the span of one answer, Taylor's conversation was a perfect reflection of his music- not at all linear but instead free-flowing and dynamic. How could anyone expect any less of him?

Enormous thanks to Jimmy McDonald and John Grady for helping to set this up.

Q: This has been sort of an interesting year for you in that you've had the chance to reconnect with several of the key drummers you've worked with over the years: you performed duets with Max Roach at Columbia University, with Elvin Jones for an album last year and a couple of performances subsequently, then with Andrew Cyrille, and just now with Tony Oxley over in Den Haag.

Well, when I think about it in retrospect, that's never happened to me before in that there were four different drummers in that period of time... All of them quite different, too, all of them a part of history. Andrew's magnificent. He's a wonderful person and a good part of my musical life. Andrew, who is really part of my skin you might say, is a great accompanist, a superlative percussionist, and one of the most amenable personalities. Playing with Mr. Jones for the fourth time was a great musical experience As you know, in September he played mostly with mallets and brushes. When I played with him the most unifying musical characteristic was that we played as if we were one person. He understands the music that I construct, all the dynamics, the aspects of form. And then the last time, even more so. Then Mr. Roach, well it was quite a phenomenal situation playing with him at Columbia in front of ten thousand people, and then Tony Oxley, he is a joy just to be with. He is immense in what he does, his conception of sound. Then again, I'm leaving out the guitarist, Derek Bailey, who was sort of astounding [during his springtime collaboration with Taylor] at Tonic. He was, well, hysteric. I don't think there's anyone else quite like Derek. So I've been very fortunate.

Q: Do you have plans to do any large-group work?

What I need right now, I have to find out how to set up a situation in which I can organize a corporation or an institute, so that I could get the money from these corporations to present the music. For instance, Derek [Bailey, British guitarist and an occasional collaborator] organized a series of concerts over at the Tonic. I'd like to do that, but I'd like it funded. Because I do have ideas for a large ensemble, you know. Well, I had a forty-two piece band at the Knitting Factory, had a forty-two piece in Frisco! The Italians wanted me to do that for this Instabile band. I had a wonderful call last year from a person who's connected with the Sun Ra Arkestra, said it was Sunny's wish that I take over the band. Well, that's not me, that's his band, the wonderful Marshall Allen. But I've been writing... I spent three weeks at my first gig in Florida [with] eight musicians. I wrote a lot of music, and boy did they deal with it!

Q: What do you do to prepare your music for performance?

Well, I love to practice, simply because that's preparation, part of the process of planning... There's nothing "free" about any of this; it's the construction of cantilevers and inclined pylons. I'm a great fan of Santiago Calatrava, the Spanish structural engineer. If you look at the plans for many of his constructions, they look like animals, or plants.

Q: These are buildings that he's designed?

Bridges. He's done other things, railroad stations... Because you see, we're dealing with space. And if you look at a bridge, you cannot ignore the spacial, rhythmic connotations, particularly when you look at cable-stay box girder bridges, and to me the most outstanding proponent of the cable-stay box girder bridge is Calatrava. I don't believe we have one of his cable-stay box girder bridges in this country. He's been in competition in Boston, which he did not get; in Frisco they got a poor imitation. They were first done I believe in Germany, after the second World War.

Q: I know you're also interested in choreography and literature.

I think, from the idea of choreography, the Kabuki theatre, and from watching tap dancers... mother took me to see Bill Robinson, the great Nicholas Brothers. Mother prepared me for all of that. Mother took me to see tap dancers, gave me Schopenhauer to read. When I was ten or eleven I spoke French and German. I had the best.

Q: At this point, do you see the piano almost as an extention of yourself?

Yes, it had better be! It's all part of the muse, the dance. To use the muscles of the body doing exercises, the body becomes a construction. In order to dance, one must be cognizant of the relationship between the fingers and the arms, in space, in duration... This idea of rhythm, rhythm exists in everyone. In the way one speaks, in the way the heart beats, in the way we walk... Sometimes when it goes really well, you wonder, "who's that at the piano?" Sometimes you just get lost, but you always try to reach that level of transcendence.

Q: Let's talk about some of your early influences. Who comes to mind first?

Well, mother took me to see the great Ella Fitzgerald... I can remember sitting in the Paramount Theatre in 1944 and I was stunned by her improvisation on "Lady Be Good". And then getting to know Babs Gonzales, who really revolutionized the concept of words at that time. The relationship between Babs and the best rap people, it's very interesting that people don't think about that. But when you listen to Babs and you hear the lilt, his presence in terms of where he placed his words in terms of the rhythm section, it was really amazing.

Of course, when one heard Billy Eckstine singing "Stormy Monday Blues", you knew that it was another point of view, but still within the framework of the music, always growing. And then to hear him sing "Goodbye", which I believe was Benny Goodman's theme song, or to hear the Mary Lou Williams' arrangement for the Benny Goodman Orchestra of "Roll 'Em", when everybody else was talking about "Sing, Sing, Sing", to hear "Roll 'Em", you knew Mary Lou Williams had great genius.

The magnificent thing about Billie Holiday was that no matter what happened... Seeing her when I was 12 and understanding that not only was that sensuous, and that the sensuality was not separate from the way she moved and sang. Billie was in the middle of whatever the rhythm was, and her body showed that. And then the last performance that I saw, her majesty [had switched] from a stride pianist to Mal Waldron, and he voice had changed, her physicality had changed, but the passion! Another person very similar, Chet Baker. In Berlin I finally saw that last film, when he was young and beautiful and sang "You Don't Know What Love Is." Billie sang "You Don't Know What Love Is" on that album with strings, which certain erudite critics, one in particular, gave it a "C minus", ha ha! I've only worn out four copies of it.

Q: It's interesting to hear that singers had such a powerful effect on your work. What about some of the instrumentalists that have been important to your musical conception?

CT: [Ellington band altoist Johnny] Hodges was immaculate. And Ben Webster what a sound! The Ellington Orchestra, I suppose we do have favorites. Ellington was the maestro, and if you listen to "Ring Them Bells" in 1929, and you listen to "Diminuendo" and "Crescendo" in the mid Œ30s, and then you listen to how it was played by Paul Gonsalves and that incredible solo with the Cosmic Band [an Ellington band small-combo which recorded Cosmic Scene for Columbia in 1958], featuring Paul and Clark Terry, with the maestro playing piano. Or that very seminal record for me, "Subtle Slough" which was first done by Rex Stewart, the rhythmic implications of what [bassist Jimmy] Blanton was playing. Then when Ellington played "Cross The Track Blues" with that wonderful opening statement by Barney Bigard, who's still my favorite clarinetist, and Ellington's growth from stride piano to the gentle logistic way he played chords with space in between. [laughs] What a man! What a man!

You know, I played in Johnny Hodges' band for about a week in 1955, in Chester, PA. That experience was so wonderful, such a pleasure I didn't even touch the piano for the first four days, until the wonderful [Ellington band trombonist] Lawrence Brown said, "er, Cecil, the piano has 88 keys, it'd be nice if you'd play one note occasionally." (laughs) Then of course, Basie's band was lighter, and their conception of that single stem or motif, which the word "riff" doesn't describe the organic nature of how that band created it's magic.

And Miles, he was the mean devil incarnate! But such a mind, such a mind. And such creative growth, from those days of genuflection to Diz and Bird. And that remarkable record that the master Bird made, it was merely the ground theme of "Embracable You", and Bird took this extraordinary solo, and then you heard Miles come and pause and make sound then, we knew that was the beginning of another voice. And soon after that, Birth of the Cool with the great master Gil Evans, and we heard the fluidity and love of Mr. Davis... Davis was one of the greatest organizers of musical sound this country has ever known.

When you think of virtuosity, how can one not talk about the extraordinary Albert Ayler and what he laid down? Technically, I don't think I've heard a saxophonist with that kind of articulation. And Eric Dolphy, he was a very considerate man, a very warm man... You know, the last two performances he did in America, I was fortunate enough to be there and I said to him, "Eric, you're the first level of greatness." Some die too soon. Albert died too soon. When you think about the implications of that band, with Albert's brother who compressed that trumpet sound, and the brilliance of that sound. There's one trumpet player alive today who comes closest to that sound, and that's [former Taylor Unit trumpeter] Raphe Malik.

What I'm saying is that we have such a rich tradition, until we get to a man like Bill Dixon, who is undoubtedly one of the great voices in American music today. I had the great pleasure of hearing he and Tony Oxley and two bassists playing in Berlin last November, absolutely extraordinary. Beyond the ken of what's thought to be important here. But, one has to allow for the decadence of merchandising...

I mean, it's such a history of accomplishment, that has gone down in America. The music has it's roots in America, in the soil of America... The traditional legacy of the music which went on in Africa, that exists here by Native Americans... And when I talk about soil, grandfather on father's side was Kiowa, coming from the same region as Mingus' wonderful drummer Dannie (Richmond). And mother's mother, growing up in Long Branch think about that, that's a Native American name she was full blooded Cherokee. So having the last name Taylor, yep, there's the European. But there's also West African and Native American, so my roots in this country go very deep.

Q: Well, certainly you've known and played with some remarkable players over the years.

I think we've had fun. There's a book called The Most Beautiful House in the World [Wharton professor and urban planner Witold Rybczynski's personal account of designing and building a new house, in which] there was one chapter that had a three letter word: F-U-N. I think about that a lot. What I mean, actually, is that the fun becomes a celebration of those great practitioners who've preceded us, and the honoring of the attempt we're making. It becomes a celebration of life and becomes a joy to be permitted to attempt to create that kind of sound environment. I also find that there is in my life, a certain water rising, or a wave, the ebb and fall of it. The pull is only occasioned by things that producers perhaps don't understand.

Q: Are there some younger players whose music you enjoy?

This idea about technique, people don't understand what that is. They talk about a certain wonderful trumpet player from New Orleans. That man has no technique! The reason he has no technique is because he hasn't developed a language. And the nondescript Roy Hargrove? Clever guy, but I heard him recently, ain't nothin' happenin'. He better practice!

I'll tell you an interesting guy that I heard, was a man named James Carter. The night before, I spent with [members of Carter's current electric band, drummer] Calvin [Weston] and Jamaladeen [Tacuma, electric bassist]. And the next night I go into practice, and in walks James Carter. So I ask him, he talked about his control over his instrument and he went into [talking about] Eric Dolphy. And I asked him what he thought about Anthony Braxton's music, and he dropped his head and said, "What can you say?"

So I said to him, "One courtesy deserves another. I'll be there tonight when you play," and lemme tell you! I'm backstage, and that band starts, and Jamaladeen and Calvin... you know there's a difference between the blues and rhythm and blues, and man, when that band started, the intensity of the new rhythm and blues that they played! Carter is off stage, and when he walked in he stunned me with what he do! Know what he did? He made one harmonic sound, [imitating] eeerrrrrrrrgh, and then he walked off the fucking stage! And he comes back and makes another sound. Now, when he starts playing, when he was confronted, when he had to deal with that rhythm and blues shit, it wasn't about notes. And when James did this obbligato, man, it wasn't just technical, it was passionate! So James, at the end of that first number came and gave us his theme that demonstrated all of his control, and it was something.

This is where I almost cried. He starts a piece, alone, and he's got a sense of humor, and he knew he had the audience, and he started playing "Good Morning Heartache". Gross, I was almost reduced to tears by what he did. I thought of Charlie Gayle, and he gave us that, but he also gave us Don Byas, and then he played softly, and went into a bossa nova...

When he walked off, I'm standing there mesmerized, and he sees me and comes over and I say, "Hey, give me some more of that shit!" [laughs] I gotta hear that band again, cause man, the music is alive!

Q: We've been talking about various different styles of music. Do you ever feel insulted when people use the term "jazz" to describe what you do?

Well, Ellington said to Mr. Gillespie, "Why do you let them call your music bebop? I call my music 'Ellingtonia'!" It's about American music that never existed in the world until we did it.


Cecil Taylor Explains It All
by Patrick Ambrose
April 10, 2007
The Morning News

Pianist Cecil Taylor stormed onto the New York City club scene in the 1950s, shaking the foundations of modern music with what would become known as free jazz.

PATRICK AMBROSE has a cup of tea with the master.

The Morning News Contributing Writer Patrick Ambrose is a journalist who lives in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in Timber Creek Review and Mysterical-e.

As the lights of Rose Theater dim, a drummer unleashes a series of brooding pulsations, buffeting the tom-toms in time with the entrance of the elusive Henry Grimes, a preeminent bassist who until recently had been away from the music scene for more than three decades. Impeccably dressed and with a shock of white hair, Grimes strides on stage with a violin to thunderous applause and scratches out a gritty sequence of notes, scraping against the placid resonance of the soothing beat. Pheeroan akLaff’s palpitations have put the audience in a trance.

Offstage, someone howls and there’s a sound like fluttering sheets of corrugated steel. Suddenly, a dancer whirls into the scene, whacking a cymbal with a mallet and spewing guttural utterances as he spins toward a grand piano at center stage. He reaches into the case and plucks the strings. A faint ray of light illuminates the face of pianist and NEA Jazz Master Cecil Taylor, wearing a black skullcap. He reads something in an unfamiliar language, and then begins to play, his agile fingers sprinting furiously across the keys as he stitches together a complex assortment of rhythms. His energy is stunning, and at one point, he’s banging the keys with his forearms and elbows, while Grimes, now on bass, threads akLaff’s beats with simmering serpentine runs. The trio is tight throughout the performance, and the crashing polyrhythmic waves of sustained intensity eventually taper into a palliative high-end melody—an ebb and flow in the two-part score. When the piece ends, the audience is drained, but ecstatic. Hoots and hollers fill the auditorium. Adoring fans give Taylor a bouquet of red roses. The maestro receives two curtain calls for his unprecedented performance.

A couple of days after that March 10 concert, an essential event in the Jazz at Lincoln Center Music of the Masters Series, I call Taylor at his Brooklyn home. “Did that composition you performed on Saturday have a name?” I ask. “I’ll tell you what,” he says. “Call me back with a title and I’ll tell you if it’s the right one.”

* * *

In mid-February I visited Taylor a few days before he was scheduled to fly to Japan to perform a concert with pianist Yosuke Yamashita. Taylor’s residence is a testament to his importance and longevity as a fixture in modern music. As we made our way up the stairs to the second floor of his three-story brownstone, I felt as if I had wandered into a museum—jazz memorabilia, historical artifacts, artwork, and tapestries covered the walls.

“Would you like some tea?” Taylor asks. “It’s organic green tea and I could add a few shards of apple if you’d like?” That sounded great to me. We passed through a room filled with stacks of books and CDs with several tables supporting wood and ceramic sculptures. In the middle of the den floor, a wisp of fragrant smoke curled from a stick of burning incense. Once in the kitchen, my host boiled water on the stove.

A conversation with Cecil Taylor can oscillate from an earthy, casual exchange to a rigorous intellectual exercise—a collage of cultural history, science and Western metaphysics—one moment the topic is Amiri Baraka’s poetry, and before long, you’re onto genetic recombination and Michel Foucault. Digressions are frequent, but Taylor always manages to return to previous points raised after subtly embellishing them with tangential facts and figures. And there’s an underlying logic to his means of expression, similar to his playing style—the unfamiliar soon gives way to understanding and clarity. The listener gets the message.

“Isn’t it interesting?” he says. “This afternoon I turn on CNN and there’s this handsome guy, the weather reporter, and he’s surrounded by snow and they’re all laughing, talking about it. And then you see Baghdad. What does that say about our sensibilities? And did you see el Presidente’s press conference this afternoon? Oh, he’s something. But, you know, when I listen to these people now, I’m only interested in their thought processes. I’m saying, ‘Oh, really? I see. OK.’ But I don’t believe any of it.”

Taylor squeezes half a lemon into our tea, then adds honey and apple slivers—a perfect elixir for the raging blizzard outside. We depart for the den and settle into two chairs.

“I’ve been living in this house since May 3, 1983, which is interesting because my mother died on May 3, 1943,” he says. “Mother was a force to be reckoned with. When I was five years old, I asked her for piano lessons. And she said to me—God, it was more than 70 years ago and I remember it so clearly—’You will be one of three things: You will be a dentist, a lawyer, or a doctor.’ And then she pointed at the piano and said, ‘You will practice for six days a week and I will supervise. You will get the basics, and on Sunday, you may do what you want.’ And so isn’t it interesting? I started to invent musical sounds on Sunday when I was five or six years old.”

Taylor’s percussive style was so unusual—so far beyond the comprehension of his musical peers—that his early work was often ridiculed or dismissed entirely.
Taylor, an only child, had his mother’s undivided attention. Almeida Ragland Taylor taught her son French and German and had him reading Schopenhauer while most other kids struggled with juvenile fiction.

“Mother’s first cousin was the first black man to play European music on a radio station,” Taylor explains. “And she entered me into all kinds of European piano festivals. Of course, I never won, but it was marvelous because she sat there through it all. She also took me to the Apollo to see Chick Webb, whose new singing star was Ella Fitzgerald. Her hit song at that time was ‘A Tisket, A Tasket.’ The next year she took me to the Paramount to see that extraordinary Lionel Hampton. It was a most marvelous education. She knew exactly what she was doing.”

As it turns out, Taylor did not pursue law or medicine. He studied piano and music theory at the New England Conservatory from 1951 to 1955. And his affinity for generating incomparable sounds—that gift he’d been cultivating since childhood—worked its way into his repertoire. Taylor’s percussive style was so unusual—so far beyond the comprehension of his musical peers—that his early work was often ridiculed or dismissed entirely by listeners when he began performing in New York City jazz clubs.

“My working experience began at a place called Club Harlem,” he says. “And the piano had seven keys that didn’t work. You started at 9, took 15 minutes off each hour, worked until 4 a.m., and got $7. I also played at the Apollo Bar with a very tall alto player. We used to groove on ‘Dark Eyes.’ I would gig on Friday and Saturday, and I recall walking in there one night, and the bartender saying, ‘Oh shit. It’s going to be a weird weekend.’“

Since then, no other living composer has shaken the foundation of modern music more defiantly than Taylor has. Take Jazz Advance, his 1956 debut album, as an example. At the time it was released, nothing even remotely similar existed. Constellations of dissonant chords frame Taylor’s iconoclastic phrasing—an integration of the rhythm and melody that renders them indistinguishable from one another. When I bring up Jazz Advance, Taylor bursts into laughter.

“When I listen to Jazz Advance, I understand why it was an anathema to many musicians and to the academy that was in vogue at the time,” he says. “And I also understand why I like it. You know, one doesn’t decide to become a musician. The forces of nature decide that for you. You don’t have any choice in the matter and once you make a commitment to music, everything else that you do affects your playing.”

In 1958, Taylor recorded four pieces with saxophonist John Coltrane that are now available on a CD entitled Hard Driving Jazz. In a single studio session, these two visionaries laid down material that carried jazz into completely new directions during the ‘60s. The material contains traces of swing and bop, but Coltrane’s and Taylor’s solos display their commitment to playing beyond the songs’ melodic parameters. [Listen to “Just Friends”]

By the late ‘60s, Taylor and saxophonist Ornette Coleman had become known as the co-founders of free jazz—a controversial movement in which the artists abandon the rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic structures normally associated with improvised music to create impromptu sketches based on the musicians’ instinctual choices. Taylor has always had a disdain for labels, and those who pigeonhole him as a free-jazz improviser with no regard for form aren’t listening carefully. Two of his most revered works of the ‘60s, Unit Structures and Conquistador!, are provocative, labyrinthine journeys into alternative aural dimensions, and yet the music is meticulously detailed, with rhythmic statements that surface, disappear, and reemerge as elements of new patterns. On these two albums, Taylor makes a radical break with convention, completely doing away with the traditional notion of the rhythm section. The drums, bass and piano are no longer relegated to supporting grandstanding soloists. All of the musicians are soloists with independent voices, engaged in an intimate musical dialogue for the duration of every song. The title track of Conquistador! even has moments where all of the artists join together in choruses of spellbinding melodic expression.

Taylor has always had a disdain for labels, and those who pigeonhole him as a free-jazz improviser with no regard for form aren’t listening carefully.

Though they led the free jazz revolution together, Taylor and Coleman never actually collaborated. But they shared a rare combination of attributes—a mastery of their instruments and an absolute fearlessness when it came to pursuing and adhering to their artistic ideals. Throughout the ‘60s Taylor had difficulty finding work, and at one point he received public assistance. But things turned around in the early ‘70s. In 1971 he obtained a teaching position at the University of Wisconsin and the next year he served as an artist-in-residence at Antioch College. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1973, and in 1979, Taylor played at the White House for President Carter. In the late ‘70s and on into the ‘80s, he worked with choreographer Diane McIntyre and her New York – based company Sound in Motion, blending jazz and spoken-word performance into dance productions. It was during this period that one can observe another shift in Taylor’s approach to composition. Rather than having the musicians converse through note sequences, Taylor’s new ensemble, the Cecil Taylor Unit, generates dense syntheses of sound textures with varying degrees of resonance and granularity. The inclusion of violinists like Ramsey Ameen and Leroy Jenkins has produced a style notably different from his more jazz-orientated combos of the ‘60s. Taylor’s work with violinist Mat Maneri on Algonquin, a 1999 release commissioned by the Library of Congress, is an unusual and yet lovely take on chamber music.

It took nearly 40 years for Taylor to be recognized by the academy. In 1990, he was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts, and in 1991 he received a MacArthur Fellowship, otherwise known as “the genius grant.” Taylor shrugs when I mention these accomplishments.

“On March 3, I have to go to the Kennedy Center, a gathering for the so-called NEA Jazz Masters,” he says. “But I got over being around crowds of people when I was 11 years old in Yankee Stadium and somebody yelled, ‘N., sit down!’“ Taylor laughs heartily. “And you know what? I can tell you all about the New York Yankees.”

* * *

I come up with a title for Taylor’s Rose Theater performance and give him a call. Fortunately, he is in a jubilant mood. “How about ‘Obliquity’?” I ask.

“Oh, what a wonderful word,” he says. “You know, I’m sitting here with my champagne and apricot juice and all I need is a cigarette. Pardon me while I find one. I want to read you some material I hope to publish. It’s from a larger work entitled ‘Maturity Returned To.’ It’s my conception of when a sound begins.”

The poem is a meditation on the reciprocity between art and science. Taylor’s unwavering control over language clarifies connections among physics, music, geometry and genetics that I wouldn’t have made otherwise. By the time he’s finished reading, I’m thinking, “Absolutely. Of course, that’s the way it is.”

I just needed Cecil Taylor to explain it all to me.

—Published April 10, 2007

Discography of pianist Cecil Taylor

As leader

Jazz Advance, 1956
At Newport (one side of LP), 1958
Looking Ahead!, 1958
Stereo Drive (also released as Hard Driving Jazz and Coltrane Time), 1958
Love for Sale, 1959
The World of Cecil Taylor 1960
Air 1960
Cell Walk for Celeste, 1961
Jumpin' Punkins, 1961
New York City R&B (with Buell Neidlinger), 1961
Into the Hot, 1961 (features tracks also released on Mixed)
Nefertiti the Beautiful One Has Come, 1962
Unit Structures, 1966
Conquistador!, 1966
Student Studies (also released as The Great Paris Concert), 1966
Praxis, 1968
The Great Concert of Cecil Taylor (also released as Nuits de la Fondation Maeght), 1969
Indent, 1973
Akisakila, 1973
Solo, 1973
Spring of Two Blue J's, 1973
Silent Tongues, 1974
Dark to Themselves, 1976
Air Above Mountains, 1976
Cecil Taylor Unit, 1978
3 Phasis, 1978
Live in the Black Forest, 1978
One Too Many Salty Swift and Not Goodbye, 1978
It is in the Brewing Luminous, 1980
Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly!, 1980
The Eighth, 1981
Garden, 1981
Winged Serpent (Sliding Quadrants), 1984
Iwontunwonsi, 1986
Amewa, 1986
For Olim, 1986
Olu Iwa, 1986
Live in Bologna, 1987
Live in Vienna, 1987
Tzotzil/Mummers/Tzotzil, 1987
Chinampas, 1987
Riobec - Cecil Taylor & Günter Sommer, 1988
In East Berlin, 1988
Regalia - Cecil Taylor & Paul Lovens, 1988
The Hearth, 1988
Alms/Tiergarten (Spree), 1988
Remembrance, 1988
Pleistozaen Mit Wasser, 1988
Spots, Circles, and Fantasy, 1988
Legba Crossing, 1988
Erzulie Maketh Scent, 1988
Leaf Palm Hand, 1988
In Florescence, 1989
Looking (Berlin Version) Solo, 1989
Looking (Berlin Version) The Feel Trio, 1989
Looking (Berlin Version) Corona, 1989
Celebrated Blazons, 1990
2Ts for a Lovely T, 1990
Double Holy House, 1990
Nailed, 1990
Melancholy - Cecil Taylor, Harri Sjöström, Evan Parker, Barry Guy, Wolfgang Fuchs
The Tree of Life, 1991
Always a Pleasure, 1993
Almeda- Cecil Taylor, Harri Sjöström 1996
The Light of Corona- Cecil Taylor, Harri Sjöström 1996
Qu'a: Live at the Iridium, vol. 1 & 2 - Cecil Taylor, Harri Sjöström 1998
Algonquin, 1998
Incarnation, 1999
The Willisau Concert, 2000
Complicité, 2001
Taylor/Dixon/Oxley, 2002
Two T's for a Lovely T, 2003
The Owner of the River Bank, 2004

As sideman

Jazz Composer's Orchestra: Communications, 1968 (Taylor featured on 2 tracks)
Friedrich Gulda: Nachricht vom Lande, 1976 (Taylor featured on 3 tracks)
Mary Lou Williams: Embraced, 1977
Tony Williams: Joy of Flying, 1978
Historic Concerts (with Max Roach), 1979
Art Ensemble of Chicago: Thelonious Sphere Monk, 1990 (Taylor featured on 3 tracks)


Cecil Taylor is the grand master of free jazz piano. All the Notes captures in breezy fashion the unconventional stance of this media-shy modern musical genius, regarded as one of the true giants of post-war music. Taylor is first seen musing over Santiago Calatrava’s fleecy architecture—a typical sign of the pianist’s famed eclectic interests, which extend from soloing, combo and small orchestra work to spoken word performance.

Seated at his beloved and battered piano in his Brooklyn brownstone the maestro holds court with frequent stentorian pronouncements on life, art and music while demonstrating his technique and views infusing his super clustered playing. Students at Mills College, where Taylor has a regular teaching gig, devise an avant-garde “free composition” under his generous tutelage. Taylor plays with his band at Yoshi’s in Oakland, NYC’s Lincoln Center, and the Iridium with his large ensemble Orchestra Humane.

Since the 1950’s Taylor has steadfastly represented jazz’s avant-garde, a fact reinforced by notable commentators Elvin Jones, Amiri Baraka, Nathaniel Mackey, and Al Young. The recording of the UCLA Royce Hall solo performance is an example of his astounding mastery of complex musical constructions. All the Notes is an intimate portrait of a consummate musician and sound thinker in triumphant maturity, bringing out Taylor’s nobility, devotion and belief in a truth that can only be found after a lifetime of invention.