The Deceptively Accessible Music of Cecil Taylor
The composer and free-jazz giant, who died Thursday at 89, has a reputation for making challenging music, but the reality is far less imposing.
David A. Graham Apr 10, 2018
Sometimes, when listening to an avant-garde giant of yore, it’s difficult to understand what made her so striking. A vanguard by definition lays the way for imitators, so eventually the things that once made her radical now seem conventional.
This is not a challenge with Cecil Taylor’s music.
The pianist and composer, who died Thursday at 89, retains his ability to shock, despite decades of work and critical acclaim and a lengthy discography and performance history. Taylor’s work is stranger and less immediately legible than that of Ornette Coleman, the other major founding father of free jazz; Coleman, who died in 2015, started his career in R&B bands, collaborated with rock musicians, and became a hip taste even for non-jazz obsessives. Taylor came from a more classical schooling, and his music never lost its strangeness.
As a result, Taylor’s strongest constituency was long among music critics. “If there’s any justice,” WBGO’s Nate Chinen wrote last week, The New York Times would run its obituary on page A1. It ran on B8 instead. Like many great artists, Taylor was not especially interested in spoon-feeding audiences, though he loved playing for them. As the jazz critic Whitney Balliett once noted, “Coleman’s music is accessible, but he is loath to share it; Taylor’s music is difficult, and he is delighted to share it.” Taylor read his esoteric poetry during performances, and moved around the bandstand. Some critics were not impressed. “Anyone working with a jackhammer could have achieved the same results,” wrote Leonard Feather.
Taylor divided musicians, too. Critic Gary Giddins recalled seeing Tommy Flanagan, a more traditionally swinging pianist, at a gig and asking whether he planned to cover a Taylor tune. “No, but you can bet I’ll be thinking of them,” Flanagan replied. But Miles Davis walked out of a Taylor gig, and in Ken Burns’s Jazz series, which tended to be dismissive of more outré jazz, Branford Marsalis rejected Taylor’s idea that since musicians prepared for shows, listeners should too: “That’s total self-indulgent bullshit, as far as I’m concerned.”
Taylor’s cameo in that series might lead most listeners to consider Taylor too weird to even approach—whether because of his request that listeners get ready for shows, or because of Marsalis’s crisp dismissal. That would be unfortunate, because Taylor’s work, in addition to being often enthralling and riveting, is deceptively accessible.
Consider the reaction of another listener: Jimmy Carter. In 1978, the president, not renowned as an especially sophisticated jazz listener, hosted a jazz festival at the White House. Most of the bill was reasonably mainstream, if widely varying in style—Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz, Clark Terry, Chick Corea—but it also included Taylor, who must have been hard-pressed to fit his expansive music into the requisite five-minute slot. The music was far from plain, but the man from Plains was agog.
“After the last note faded, Jimmy Carter sprang up from the grass and rushed over to Cecil; Secret Service men scrambled to keep pace,” promoter George Wein, who arranged the show, later recalled. “The president took the pianist’s two hands in his own, looking at them with wonderment and awe. ‘I’ve never seen anyone play the piano that way,’ he marveled.”
Carter asked whether the classical pianist Vladimir Horowitz had heard Taylor. Taylor said he doubted it. “You know he was here. He should hear you. How did you learn to do that?” Carter asked. “Hell, I’ve been doing it for 35 years,” Taylor said. Attorney General Griffin Bell also cornered the pianist, wanting to know where he could buy some of Taylor’s records.
Nearly as long as he’d been doing it, Taylor had been eliciting these divided reactions. At a 1958 performance, Balliett observed listeners alternately mesmerized and agitated: “[Members of the audience] fidgeted, whispered, and wandered nervously in and out of the tent, as if the ground beneath had suddenly become unbearably hot.” While the intricacies of Taylor’s music reward deep study, and have attracted obsessive fans from both jazz and contemporary classical music, he also rewards casual listeners.
Taylor was born and raised in Queens, and began piano lessons at a young age. He went on to study at the New England Conservatory, where he drank heavily of European avant-garde composers. His earliest recordings were comparatively conventional jazz, but he quickly struck out in stranger and fresher directions. Over the course of his career, Taylor worked in many formats, including a long association with the saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, solo performances, collaborations with dancers, and larger ensembles. He also taught at universities and eventually won both MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships.
Trying to convey the experience of listening to any given Taylor composition or performance, much less the breadth of his catalog, is difficult. The initial impression is generally of chaos. This is not music that swings. It is music that fidgets, whispers, and wanders like Balliett’s audience members. It’s ludic and joyful and stretches out over long pieces whose moods shift frequently, sometimes abruptly and other times almost imperceptibly over time.
Taylor’s work was deeply rooted in jazz, but a novice Taylor listener might be best served not thinking about it through the lens of more familiar jazz recordings, but approaching it on its own terms as simply music: which of course is, by definition, organized noise. Another way to think about it is as a conversation between musicians—sometimes tender and sometimes a bit belligerent, but ebbing and flowing as a group conversation tends to do. In this spirit, Giddins likened Taylor to James Joyce:
A lot of bad teachers steered students away from Joyce by telling them that they couldn’t read Joyce until they had read everything from Homer to Vico and all of the previous Joyce works to get to Ulysses. You could spend a lifetime just doing all the preparation and then you are supposed to carry around a thousand pages of footnotes. What pleasure is there in that? But, just take Ulysses on vacation with nothing else and you will find out how truly pleasurable Joyce can be, as long as you don’t expect to get every single line.
Like Joyce, Taylor was a singular genius; like Joyce, he didn’t appear fully formed but sprang from a set of influences. In Taylor’s case, two distinctive jazz influences were Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk. Taylor played tunes by both on his first, most conventional LP, Jazz Advance in 1956. From Ellington, he took an approach that embraced the full capabilities of the piano; from Monk, most notably, he learned the power of timing, percussiveness, and dissonance. In mid-career performances like Silent Tongues, a glimmer of Fats Waller–style stride piano will occasionally shine through, then fade, grinning, back into the foment of the music.
A tune like “Charge ’Em Blues” from Jazz Advance is helpful for understanding Taylor’s larval form as a Monk-influenced improviser and composer, before reaching his full potential as a musician:
Within a few years, Taylor was making music worlds away from that. “It wasn’t the technique and feeling of jazz that Mr. Taylor was rejecting, only its form: the 32-bar song, the theme-solos-theme progression,” Ben Ratliff writes. Instead, a song might have an 88-bar form.
Taylor’s 1966 Unit Structures has the personnel of a standard jazz combo: piano, bass, drums, and saxophones. It sounds nothing like a standard jazz combo. Instruments stop and start, interweaving snatches of melody. There is often no consistent beat, with drums providing percussion but not rhythm, allowing the drummer to escape the timekeeper role and serve as a full, improvising member of the ensemble. In some ways, the music feels more connected to Dixieland jazz—with a polyphonic flurry of players combining their sounds to create a greater whole—than the more familiar structure of later swing and bebop, in which a soloist plays as a rhythm section accompanies him.
“Steps” begins with a squall of horns offering a near-melody of a Coleman-esque variety, but the resemblance to standard structures soon splinters. A stumbling, jittery rhythmic motif bounces among the drums, the piano, and the saxophone. The band surges forward or halts without clear warning.
“The emphasis in each piece is on building a whole, totally integrated structure,” Taylor told A.B. Spellman the same year. “In doing this, we try to carry on—in ensemble as well as solo sections—the mood of a jazz soloist. I mean that principle of kinetic improvisation that keeps a jazz solo building.”
Not everyone bought this. In October 1962, Milton Bass griped in The Atlantic that Taylor was one of a “group of jazz seekers [who] have been making their sound either by running up and down the scales at breakneck speed while changing chords, according to the phases of the moon, or by grabbing individual notes and beating them to death.”
This was both unfair and untrue. The CD edition of Unit Structures helpfully offers an alternate take of the tune “Enter, Evening,” which gives listeners a chance to see how the piece was not random but replicable. But that’s easily felt from the original LP, too. Consider how the band moves through specific, easily noticed sections of a tune like “Unit Structure/As of a Now/Section”: The instruments entering in turn (drums, piano, sax); then a siren-like bass solo; a melodic fragment; a skittering frenzy. That’s the first two minutes, at least.
Another way to grasp the prodigious intentionality, as well as the great joy, at play in Taylor’s music is to watch a solo piano performance. One senses Taylor’s physicality—by the halfway mark, he has sweated through his shirt—but also of the care he takes; the decisions he makes in producing the music, so far from random clanging on the keyboard; and the range of sounds and tones he can draw from a piano. The music may sound crazed, but it is never accidental. This 1984 concert kicks also offers a taste of Taylor’s poetry recitation, which kicks off the performance:
Genuinely understanding the structures that undergird Taylor’s music is the work of years, and then only for the most sophisticated listeners. I can’t pretend to grasp it, or to command his whole oeuvre. The good news is that there’s no need. With all due respect to Taylor’s suggestions that listeners prepare before consuming his music, the best course is simply to listen. Taylor leaves behind a formidable body of work, but it needn’t be forbidding.