At News Conference on His Stolen Prize Money, Pianist Shows Improv Talents
Cecil Taylor, the jazz pianist known for his wild improvisations and free-form performances, was sitting next to the Brooklyn district attorney on Tuesday. The stated purpose was a news conference on the arrest of an acquaintance who was accused of bilking Mr. Taylor of $500,000 in prize money.
But Mr. Taylor did not want to talk about the case.
He wanted to talk about the quality of trees on the train ride between Tokyo and Kyoto, the Kabuki dancers he had once seen in a Balanchine ballet, the conductor Pierre Boulez.
As he riffed and the reporters, with their notepads and video cameras at the ready, tried to get a more linear response, the resulting give-and-take was a piece of performance art in itself. The money accompanied the Kyoto Prize, administered by Japan’s Inamori Foundation, which last year described him as “one of the most original pianists in the history of jazz,” praising his “distinctive musical constructions and percussive renditions.”
Mr. Taylor did not need a piano to display his talent for improvisation. He opened by humming before taking questions, most of them concerning the arrest of Noel Muir, who was charged with second-degree grand larceny.
How did you know this man, Mr. Muir? one reporter asked.
“I don’t want to talk about that,” Mr. Taylor, 85, said.
How did you find out about the fraud? one asked.
“I had friends working on it; they’re here right now,” Mr. Taylor said. “I’ve had a good time in my life. Mostly I did because I asked my mother for piano lessons when I was 5, and she said, ‘I’ll think about it,’ ” Mr. Taylor said. That led to a lively tale, narrated in his growl of a voice, about his mother’s telling him he could be a doctor or a lawyer, rapping his knuckles when he first set his hand to the piano, then telling him he had to practice six days a week.
Mr. Muir was with you on the Kyoto trip? a reporter asked.
“Yes, but that wasn’t important,” Mr. Taylor said.
Asked about what receiving the award was like, Mr. Taylor said “it was a thrilling moment,” though he had also received a MacArthur fellowship and a Guggenheim fellowship, and then, suddenly, he was talking about playing a nine-foot Bösendorfer piano in the basement of — here a reporter’s notes got hazy, finishing with the quote, “I had fun.”
His opinion of Mr. Muir now?
“Nothing. Does not exist,” he said. “What is painful in your life if you have friends? That’s what friends are for. How unhappy he must be, but that’s on him.”
Prosecutors said that Mr. Muir, a contractor working on the Fort Greene brownstone next to Mr. Taylor’s, struck up a friendship.
Mr. Muir helped him prepare for the Kyoto trip last November. But before they left, Mr. Muir opened a Citibank account that he controlled, a law enforcement official said. The official said he then emailed the foundation, directing it to put the prize money into that account, which Mr. Muir said was named the Cecil Taylor Foundation; in fact, the name on the account was the defendant’s construction company. The account is now depleted. Mr. Muir took out some of the money in cash, and spent the rest on his construction business, the law enforcement official said.
Mr. Muir turned himself in on Tuesday; he had not been arraigned Tuesday afternoon. Mr. Muir’s lawyer declined to comment.
“It’s a strong case,” the district attorney, Kenneth P. Thompson, said Tuesday. “He should not have been ripped off, and we’re going to do something about it.”
Mr. Thompson’s office has also filed a civil-asset forfeiture proceeding against Mr. Muir to try to get the funds back. “We are determined to get every dime back for Mr. Taylor that was taken from him,” Mr. Thompson said.
As Mr. Taylor took questions, one reporter asked, “Are you performing?” Mr. Taylor said he had no performances scheduled at the moment. But on Tuesday, at least, Mr. Taylor could be seen in fine improvisational form on the 19th floor of the Kings County district attorney’s office.
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Thanks so much for your help in getting the word out about Tuesday’s presentation with Nate Chinen and Steve Smith. We had 115 attendees, which is the most ever! We ended up moving the event to the sanctuary. They did a great job.