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Cecil Taylor Explains It All

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. A conversation with the master.

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.

Credit: Patrick Ambrose

“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.’“

Credit: Patrick Ambrose

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.