The World of Cecil Taylor
May 16, 2018, 9:13 am
Anthony Barboza/Getty ImagesCecil Taylor playing at the Sweet Basil nightclub, New York, 1989
In 1966, the pianist Cecil Taylor appeared in Les Grandes Répétitions, a series of Nouvelle Vague-influenced documentaries for French television about Olivier Messiaen, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and other modern composers. Taylor, who died at eighty-nine in April, was the only jazz musician featured. The avant-garde jazz movement was young, brash, and commanding increasing respect from a classical establishment that had been, at best, indifferent to black music, and Taylor, a conservatory-trained pianist who was creating a radical synthesis of jazz improvisation and European modernism, had emerged as one of its most militant and sophisticated leaders. That same year, he had ended a four-year recording silence with two extraordinary albums, Unit Structures and Conquistador! He was also profiled in A.B. Spellman’s classic book on the avant-garde, Four Lives in the Bebop Business. After more than a decade working menial jobs to pay his bills, he was finally living off his art, and being noticed. Far from being grateful for the attention, though, he insisted that mere recognition was not enough; he wanted to change the very terms of the discussion about musical creation and musical value.
“It’s all music,” he declares in Les Grandes Répétitions, wandering through a vast and elegant Parisian hôtel particulier in a black turtleneck and sunglasses, cigarette in hand, confidently expounding his aesthetic philosophy as if he were a character in a Godard film. “The way one prepares bread, cooks dishes that we eat, can be something that causes the sense to create that which we color by calling emotion… The instrument is just an object. The music comes from inside.” And what music it is, percussive, jangling, and hypnotic, as Taylor pounds the keys and plucks the strings of his piano, provoking impassioned responses from the alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, the drummer Andrew Cyrille, and the bassist Alan Silva—one of the best bands, or “units,” he ever assembled.
Where, the off-camera interviewer asks Taylor, did he study music? “Well, the study would have to be divided into two categories, those of the academy and those of the areas usually located across the railroad tracks. In this case, the railroad tracks were located outside of Boston in a town called West Medford, and there I heard other musics.” What Taylor means is that in the clubs of black West Medford, he was listening to jazz, which had a far deeper impact on him than the classical music he was studying at the New England Conservatory; but the interviewer is puzzled, and asks for clarification.
“Was there a conservatory across the railroad tracks?”
“There are never conservatories across railroad tracks.”
“What was across the railroad tracks?”
“Grass and trees.”
Talking with Cecil Taylor was nearly as memorable as watching him play. We became friendly in 2011, not long after I moved to Fort Greene, where he had lived since the early 1980s. The first time we were supposed to have dinner, he stood me up. (He claimed he couldn’t find the bar, a few blocks from his house.) But a couple months later, I ran into him in front of an Italian restaurant where he often held court. He wore a checkered shirt, big, thick silver bracelets on each wrist, and a black cap that was somewhere between a beret and a yarmulka. “Why, hello, young man,” he said, “would you like to join me for dinner?” We were ushered in by the host, who addressed Taylor as “Maestro” and brought him a glass of Prosecco with a dollop of lemon sorbet, his preferred apéritif.
As we ate, a procession of admirers and hangers-on stopped by our table to pay their respects. One was a tall West Indian man in a homemade white turban who called himself The Captain, and seemed to know Taylor well. I asked him what sort of work he did. “I do a variety of things,” he replied. He and Taylor were meeting up later: I was ending my day, Taylor was just beginning his. When I asked about the bill, he looked at me as if I were insane. The Maestro did not pay for his meals.
We met a few more times, sometimes over dinner, sometimes just to chat on the street. Taylor always seemed eager to talk, but he didn’t like to answer questions, at least not directly. I was initially perplexed by his style of conversation, which struck me as maddeningly digressive and almost impossible to follow. Eventually, I understood that, much like his music, Taylor’s conversation, for all its flights, was intricately patterned, and intensely, even compulsively focused. He invariably talked about the people he loved and the artists he admired: his father, a professional cook from whose kitchen “the most wonderful smells would emanate”; his formidable mother, who spoke French and German and took him to the ballet; Billie Holiday and Lena Horne, both of whom he worshipped; Jimmy Lyons, who had given twenty-six years of saintly devotion to Taylor’s Unit; the architect Santiago Calatrava, whose bridges he adored; and the poet Frank O’Hara, who shared his love of modern art and “was rather pleasant to look at.” (Did he know O’Hara well, I once asked him. “I don’t know anyone well,” he replied.) He railed against the injustices of “so-called American democracy”—he once showed me his heavily underlined copy of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow—and against the smaller but, to him, no less infuriating injustices of the music establishment, which had granted him less credit for launching the free jazz movement than it had to the alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman, whose bluesier, more melodic style was easier on the ear.
Cecil Taylor was very proud but also very thin-skinned. Black, gay, and artistically unyielding, he had attracted slights and insults throughout his long career, and he remembered them all. He recalled saying that Lester Young “liked gentlemen” to a fellow musician, only to be told: “I’m not interested in that shit.” After Lyons died in 1986, the drummer Elvin Jones told Taylor, “Well, now that Jimmy’s dead, I guess it’s over for you.” (He and Lyons, who was straight, were never involved romantically.) Once, when we were having dinner, a late 1950s recording by Miles Davis came on the stereo. For many years, Taylor said he could barely listen to Davis, who had insulted his music after nearly but not hiring him for his 1960s quintet (the job went to Herbie Hancock). “But I seem to be enjoying Miles tonight,” he said. “Maybe it’s because you’re here. You’re very easy to talk to.”
The wounds remained fresh, but Taylor remained curiously attached to those who had inflicted them. There was, for example, the late Bill Dixon, the brilliant, embittered trumpeter and composer who never forgave Taylor for the fact that his most famous recorded solo had appeared not on one of his own albums but on Taylor’s Conquistador! “Bill was a genius,” remarked Taylor, “but he didn’t realize there were other geniuses. And he was more subtly vindictive than Miles.” Taylor often spoke of his estranged friend the poet and jazz critic Amiri Baraka, whom he insisted on calling by his former name, LeRoi Jones. They had been close in the late 1950s and early 1960s, until Baraka brought Allen Ginsberg over to Taylor’s apartment in the East Village. Ginsberg wanted Taylor to write music for a reading of Howl, but Taylor declined, out of loyalty to the black Beat poet Bob Kaufman, whom Taylor felt Ginsberg had unfairly overshadowed. As they were leaving, Baraka sneered, “the problem with our jazz musicians is that they’re not literate.” Still cut by that remark, Taylor told me, “I took a friend to one of ’Roi’s readings years later, after he’d started calling himself Amiri Baraka. I asked him what he thought. ‘Very impressive,’ he said, ‘but how many times can you hear the word black?’ ’Roi started out as a poet, but became a polemicist,” a word he pronounced with disdain.
Baraka died in 2014, two years after that conversation. A year later, Ornette Coleman, with whom Taylor had an even more fraught relationship, died. He never stopped talking about the two of them, and his tone did not soften. “Success makes people less fiery,” he said. “Somehow they become more amiable.” Taylor never became amiable. After Coleman’s memorial, I phoned Taylor to say how moved I’d been by his performance, a solo étude full of shimmering, pointillistic detail; he called Coleman, who was from rural Texas, a “country boy” who had seduced the New York jazz critics, and mocked his opaque theory of “harmolodics,” according to which harmony, melody, and sonic motion are on equal footing. (In fact, Taylor loved Coleman as much as he resented him, and the two used to practice together in the early 1980s, at Coleman’s loft; whether any recordings exist is a tantalizing question.) Was Taylor settling scores? Certainly. But he was also paying a perverse kind of tribute to a rivalry that had altered the course of musical history. As Taylor put it to me in one of our last conversations: “All of the people who’ve mattered to me, all the people I’ve ever cared for, all the people who’ve put up with me, all those people are gone.”
That Taylor lived as long as he did was not the least of his accomplishments. He had a great hunger for life, and for risk-taking; he told his friend the Village Voice writer Robert Levin that he himself was surprised that he had survived the AIDS era. Unimpressed by status and résumés, Taylor befriended rich and poor alike. The bassist William Parker, who played with him for more than two decades, told me that Taylor would sometimes reserve an entire row of seats at his concerts for a group of homeless friends. (This openness sometimes left him vulnerable: a contractor working on his Brooklyn brownstone swindled him of the $500,000 he had received for the 2013 Kyoto Prize; the man was later sentenced to prison.) His appetite for after-hours hanging out was insatiable. On the evening of the 2003 New York blackout, Taylor was spotted walking over the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan, while everyone else was rushing home in the other direction. Almost until the end, he pursued pleasures physical and chemical with an abandon that made his longevity even more of a miracle, as if his body defied laws that applied to the rest of us.
Of the many stories about Taylor’s adventures, the one I’ve always found most revealing—and I am assured by a close Taylor associate that it is not apocryphal—is his seduction of a man who came to burglarize his home in Brooklyn. The burglar became his lover and moved in for several months. This strikes me as a perfect allegory for Taylor’s music, which dramatizes the conquest of danger, the porous line between power and vulnerability, fear and desire, terror and seduction. (These are, of course, qualities that Romantic philosophers associated with “the sublime,” and Taylor was one of the last Romantics.) Taylor’s music is beautiful, but its beauty is daunting, even frightening, and therefore less assimilable than Coleman’s, or even the late, cacophonous work of John Coltrane.
Laszlo Ruszka/INA via Getty ImagesTaylor during filming of Les Grandes Répétitions (1965–1966)
Taylor, who often thought about his music in relation to architecture, described it as “constructivist.” The most conspicuous building block of his style was his use of tone clusters: shattering cascades of notes, sometimes produced by his fists or forearms. He traced this device, and his powerful touch, to his African ancestral heritage. “In white music,” Taylor told the British journalist Val Wilmer, “the most admired touch is light… We in Black Music think of the piano as a percussive instrument: we beat the keyboard, we get inside the instrument.” (Not that he rejected the Western classical tradition: as he put it in Les Grandes Répétitions, “I don’t divide musics. I feel that one must absorb them—digest them, eat them.”) The uninitiated were startled: the piano wasn’t built for this kind of assault, any more than the canvas was meant to be splattered with paint from a can. Taylor’s tone clusters became his signature, and are as much of an emblem of modernism as Pollock’s drips. Tone clusters were not Taylor’s invention: they had appeared as a flourish in the work of Henry Cowell, Stockhausen, and other modern classical composers. But in his music, where improvisation was an extension of composition, another way of elaborating form, Taylor turned clusters to different ends, using them to create kinetic waves of sound, with elaborate structural patterns. The result was an alternative to conventional swing, a new method of generating momentum that the musicologist Ekkehard Jost called “energy.”
That energy could be exhausting for the listener, since Taylor’s pieces often went on for more than an hour without pause. The pianist Jason Moran told me: “The first thing that comes to mind with Cecil is strength, how physically strong he was, like Olympic athlete strength.” Yet Taylor’s strength never came at the expense of precision, even at extreme levels of velocity and volume. Like Thelonius Monk, Taylor played every note with intention, and scarcely used the pedals, since, with them, “what you hear is a blur.” Taylor’s studies of Bach as a child had taught him that “each note was a continent, a world in itself, and it deserved to be treated as that. When I practice my own technical exercises, each note is struck, and it must be done with the full motion and amplitude of the finger being raised and striking—it must be heard in the most absolute sense.” Thanks to these exercises, Taylor developed an exceptional finger dexterity, and a complete mastery of his attacks and releases. When he hit a cluster, he would raise certain fingers so that some notes would end up short, while others would continue to ring. As the pianist Craig Taborn told me, “fingers don’t do that naturally.”
This combination of strength and precision transformed Taylor concerts into events of rare power. The only piano recital I’ve attended that rivaled them was a performance of Julius Eastman’s Gay Guerrilla, a piece for four pianos. In a lovely remembrance for The New Yorker, Alex Ross portrayed Taylor as an exponent of the “art of noise,” in the tradition of composers like Ligeti and Xenakis, and of punk bands like Sonic Youth. But Taylor was also an exquisitely lyrical pianist whose softer playing was as memorable for its delicacy as his attack was for its ferocity. Gary Giddins, one of his great champions and most insightful interpreters, called him “our Chopin.” Taylor’s rendition of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “This Nearly Was Mine” on his 1960 album The World of Cecil Taylor—one of the last standards he would ever perform—captured its heartbroken mood with quiet caresses of the keys, punctuated by imaginative, often vertiginous leaps in dynamics. His own compositions—notably, his mysterious, crepuscular 1966 piece “Enter, Evening”—had an alluring streak of sensuality, even eroticism.
For Taylor, sound implied the movement of bodies: his art was always deeply corporeal, and only became more so. Small, graceful, and rather feline, he often came on stage in pajamas or sweatpants that gave him the flexibility he needed, yet made anything he wore seem elegant. Drawing inspiration from flamenco and Kabuki theater, he moved about the piano as if he were dancing with it, and he collaborated with Mikhail Baryshnikov, Dianne McIntyre, and the Butoh artist Min Tanaka. “People used to snigger when Thelonious Monk got up and started moving,” he said, but “I didn’t find it funny; in fact, I was rather mesmerized.” He found it odd, on the contrary, that “the so-called—in quotes—serious fine artists just sit and look glum. There is not much happening with their bodies. But the body is an instrument.”
The first time I saw him perform solo, in the early 1990s, he began by tip-toeing up to, and then around the piano, for a good ten minutes. He read one of his poems, which I found inscrutable, but he delivered it beautifully, in a grave, sonorous, stylized voice. The ritual that preceded the playing felt, at first, like a kind of foreplay: the Maestro was giving us another kind of pleasure, while making us wait. But it was also, I came to realize, a way of throwing himself, and his audience, into the rhythms of his imagination, the dance of his music. “Rhythm,” he wrote in his liner notes to Unit Structures, “is life the space of time danced through.”
Cecil Taylor was as urbane an intellectual as jazz has ever known: reader of Camus, friend of the Beats, student of modernist architecture. But in describing his work, he often invoked metaphors of magic, spirits, or nature, likening himself to “a vehicle for certain ancestral forces”; he evoked his fascination with growth, vegetation, and the environment in such album titles as Air Above Mountains, Garden, In Florescence, and The Tree of Life. The formalist language of musicology reminded him of his unhappy days at the New England Conservatory, where he clashed with professors who belittled his hero Duke Ellington and he sought refuge in the “grass and trees” of West Medford jazz clubs. (“The first thing that I did,” after graduating, he said, “was to walk down 125th Street [in Harlem] and listen to what was happening.”) Although he admired the work of Ligeti and Xenakis (a former architect, he noted approvingly), he also said, “I’ve spent years learning about European music and its traditions, but these cats don’t know a thing about Harlem except it’s there.” His tradition, he emphasized, was an oral, mystical one, and while he developed a peculiar, almost indecipherable form of notation, he mostly frowned on the use of scores in performance. “The problem with written music,” he explained in Les Grandes Répétitions, “is that it divides the energies of creativity… While my mind may be divided looking at a note, my mind is instead involved with hearing and playing that note, making one thing of an action. Hearing is playing. Music does not exist on paper.”
It existed in performance, where Taylor, like Ellington, was both pianist and conductor, leading the members of his unit in improvisatory suites that expanded and contracted in bursts of energy, like living organisms. In rehearsals—Taylor was a prodigious practicer—he drilled his unit in his music’s “cells,” the phrases, riffs, and motifs that supplied cohesion and a sense of direction. But they were never told what to play, and had to find a place for themselves in Taylor’s music. (According to William Parker, this was not always easy, since Taylor “was already playing all the parts.”) The most illuminating account of how this worked in practice was written by Taylor himself, in the liner notes to Unit Structures, a work for sextet. “Form is possibility… The player advances to the area, an unknown totality, made whole through self-analysis (improvisation), the conscious manipulation of known material.” In the “plain” established by “group activity,” he continues, “each instrument has strata: timbre, temperament,” while the piano serves “as catalyst feeding material to soloists in all registers.”
Taylor was the master builder of the free jazz revolution. This was not well understood at the time, in large part because Coleman’s emancipation of jazz improvisation from the chordal structures of bebop fit so naturally into an American mythology of negative liberty, of removing constraints—or, more to the point, of overthrowing one’s masters. In Coleman’s “free jazz,” improvisors could explore their melodic ideas in relation to their fellow musicians, rather than a formal structure; the purpose was to liberate musicians from the rigidities of bop improvisation, and to allow for greater spontaneity in the moment. Taylor was less interested in freedom from inherited forms than in the freedom, or obligation, to create new ones. “The whole question of freedom has been misunderstood,” he said. “If a man plays for a certain amount of time—scales, licks, what have you—eventually a kind of order asserts itself… There is no music without order—if that music comes from a man’s innards… This is not a question, then, of ‘freedom’ as opposed to ‘non-freedom,’ but rather it is a question of recognizing ideas and expressions of order.” If Coleman left the house of bebop in ruins, Taylor showed what might be put in its place. The work of jazz composers like Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, and Wadada Leo Smith—members of the Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians—is all but inconceivable without Taylor’s example.
In his lifelong revolt against convention, Cecil Taylor’s first act of rebellion was becoming a musician. Born in 1929, he grew up in a middle-class home in Long Island—“a very puritanical home,” he said, where he was taught that “one was going to hell if one masturbated.” Percival and Almeida Taylor, his parents, were both educated professionals with Native American mothers. They were friendly with Sonny Greer, Ellington’s drummer, and took their only child to hear swing bands in Harlem. But they were also determined to raise him to become “a dentist, a doctor, or a lawyer.” (Taylor once jokingly described himself as a “very well brought up… displaced peasant of the Black middle class.”) Although Percival sometimes sang the blues, the “minister of culture,” in Taylor’s words, in the house was Almeida, for whom serious music could only be European classical music. She became Taylor’s first piano teacher when he was five, and had him reading Schopenhauer by the time he was nine.
Almeida Taylor died when her son was fourteen. Cecil credited her with instilling a sense of pride in his Cherokee ancestry, and giving him “the opportunity to be able to transcend cultures,” but she was a volatile, severe, and punitive mother, and theirs was a tormented relationship. “Cecil’s childhood was compromised,” Parker told me. “The piano was like a meditation for Cecil, a safe world, and as long as he was playing it, everything was all right. The piano bench was his throne, a place where the spirits entered and taught him how to live.”
But when Taylor began to play in New York in the mid-1950s, after leaving the New England Conservatory, the piano bench was far from a safe place for him, and no spirits were there to rescue him from the wrath provoked by his music, or from the pervasive homophobia of the jazz world, where same-sex desire was common but very much on the down-low. (Taylor never hid the fact that he was gay, but wondered how a “three-letter word” could “define the complexity of my identity.”) Musicians deserted jam sessions when they saw him; at one point, someone who disliked Taylor’s playing broke his wrists. Club-owners complained that people became so mesmerized by his playing that they forgot to buy drinks. The Argentine writer César Aira’s short story “Cecil Taylor,” which reimagines his early years, concludes with Taylor being escorted out of a club where he’s been gigging, and paid “twenty dollars, on the condition that he would never show his face there again.” The pianist Marilyn Crispell, whose early work owed much to Taylor’s style, told me, “When I think about Cecil, what I think about is the courage it took to be black and gay and to be playing this totally unheard of, weird music back in the 1950s. He really opened the way for all of us who came after.”
The controversy aroused by Taylor’s work never entirely subsided, even as Coleman was gradually integrated into the mainstream. Taylor’s music was “atonal,” or too European, or it didn’t swing, charges that made Taylor, a highly sensitive man, even more defensive. Jazz critics, he remembered, “were prepared to hear Stravinsky and Bartok in my playing, but not Ellington and Horace Silver.” In fact, few musicians played Ellington’s compositions with as much authority or originality as Taylor did, in his 1956 trio version of “Azure,” or in his 1960 octet version of “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be.” But his Ellingtonian affinities went beyond these homages: Taylor drew powerfully on what he called Ellington’s “orchestral approach” to the piano—using the keyboard to conduct and feed ideas to his sidemen with the aim of generating larger structures—as well as his sumptuous writing for horns. Recognizing this, the great arranger Gil Evans hired Taylor to write a group of big band pieces for Evans’s 1961 album Into the Hot.
Frans Schellekens/Redferns/Getty ImagesTaylor in rehearsal at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, Netherlands, October 23, 1987
Taylor readily acknowledged what he had learned from Bartok, who taught him “what you can do with folk material,” and from white jazz pianists like Dave Brubeck, who deepened his understanding of harmony. But Taylor aimed to produce a black vernacular sound, one that reached back from Ellington and Monk to earlier styles like boogie-woogie and stride piano. His favorite piano was the Bösendorfer Imperial grand, precisely because of its nine extra keys at the funkier lower register. He refused to have it tuned, since tuned pianos sounded “European” (that is, classical) to him, and he couldn’t get the quarter-tones he loved. The blackness of Taylor’s sound should have been obvious, but it was lost on those who missed its lower frequencies. Even a critic as perceptive as Gunther Schuller was capable of writing, in a review of Taylor’s first album, Jazz Advance, released in 1956: “One does not feel the burning necessity that what he says has to be said. Especially on the blues, one has the impression that Taylor lets us in on the workings of his mind, but not his soul.”
Taylor recognized no such distinction, but he understood all too well that intellectually-minded black musicians were often reproached by white critics for neglecting their souls, the thing they supposedly knew best. “The most terrifying thing in our society is to feel,” he said, and in his music, he gave expression to feeling in radical ways that made new and unusual demands on his audience, as in the most adventurous works of literature and visual art. More than any other jazz musician of his generation, Taylor defined himself as an artist, and therefore, in his view, as a member of an elite: artists, he told his friend Robert Levin, were “the true aristocrats of society.” He didn’t reject the term “jazz”: he was too enamored of jazz musicians like Billie Holiday and Lester Young—and what Taylor loved, he loved fully. But he wondered “if jazz is a noun, an adjective, or a political science term.” Never fully embraced by the jazz world, he was lionized by writers, poets, dancers, and artists who admired his audacity and had as little use for categories as he did. His work demanded what Susan Sontag might have termed an erotics of listening (after her call in Against Interpretation for “an erotics of art”). Those who fretted over the deeper meaning of Taylor’s work, or its relationship to jazz tradition, were cutting themselves off from its distinctively visceral pleasures.
One of his earliest (and loudest) admirers was Norman Mailer, who heard Taylor at the Five Spot, on the Bowery, in the early 1960s, and was so astonished that he stood up on his chair and declared, “This guy Cecil Taylor is so much better than Monk.” Mailer cost Taylor his gig: an influential friend of Monk’s reported the comment to Joe Termini, the Five Spot’s co-owner, who was already looking for a pretext to fire Taylor. “Norman knew about a lot of things, but music was not one of them,” Taylor told me at one of our dinners, adding that “if it weren’t for Monk I could not have existed.”
This was true, and I could see why being compared favorably to a musician he revered might have left him ill at ease. Still, Mailer was right about the impending change of the guard: Taylor was a revolutionary, and his music made all those who came before him sound a little older, even a little dated. On his early recordings (1956–1960), Taylor kept one foot in bop, as if he were still testing the waters, working with the only straight-ahead rhythm section he ever used, the drummer Denis Charles and the bassist Buell Neidlinger. But even on albums like Jazz Advance and The World of Cecil Taylor, you can hear all the elements of his mature style: the percussive tone clusters and radical dissonances, the unusually rich timbral variety, the daring oscillation between explosive fury and lyrical repose, the exuberant use of call-and-response.
What brought these elements into focus and turned them into a bold and coherent style was several years on the couch. “Cecil was the first black guy to have his own white shrink,” the drummer Sunny Murray joked, but Taylor, who went into analysis in the late 1950s, never doubted its value: “I lost perhaps 90 percent of my guilt, and I could go ahead and do what I felt I had to do.” The fruits of this liberation were fully heard for the first time on his 1962 trio date with Murray and Jimmy Lyons, Live at the Café Montmartre, recorded at a club in Copenhagen. Taylor is no longer playing standards or traditional song forms, much less chords. There’s an almost wistful allusion to the recent past in Lyons’s sweet, singing alto, which, in its high notes, evokes Charlie Parker. But Lyons resists any fixed time signature as he weaves in and out of Taylor’s relentless percussive flurries, creating a beautifully improbable synergy that, in spite of the music’s density, allows it to soar. Murray, meanwhile, is everywhere, playing textures against Taylor’s piano without bothering to maintain a steady pulse. For all the memories of bop stirred by Lyons, the performance opened the door to a new and disorienting world, without the metrical compass usually supplied by a drummer, even in early free jazz. “Cecil’s group was the one that broke the time barrier,” Craig Taborn says. Although Murray took great pride in his work with Taylor, he later complained that “working with Cecil Taylor was one of the worst things that ever happened to me,” because he “became stereotyped in that role and no one wanted to hear me play.” Taylor himself would not record a note for the next four years—one of the many gaps in his recording history.
Although less extensively recorded than other artists of his stature, Cecil Taylor still managed to amass one of the most imposing, and varied, bodies of work in postwar music. It included small group masterpieces like Conquistador! and Spring of Two Blue J’s, with Lyons and the magnificent drummer Andrew Cyrille, who combined Murray’s polyrhythmic energy with a stronger sense of pulse; dense and funky suites like 3 Phasis, full of ornate counterpoint with Lyons’s alto, Raphe Malik’s trumpet, Ramsey Ameen’s violin, and the delightfully bombastic drumming of Ronald Shannon Jackson; and duos with drummers like Max Roach, Tony Williams, and Tony Oxley. Last year, a ravishing duet with the new music accordionist Pauline Oliveros, that had been filmed in Troy, New York, in 2008, surfaced online. Taylor’s playing in this is subdued, intimate, crystalline in its lyricism: he looks over his piano at Oliveros, echoing some of her lines, responding playfully to others, creating a shared isthmus between their very different musical worlds. I was reminded of some lines from one of Taylor’s poems:
We have abilities to
become in otherness’s ourselves
transported beyond pedestrian
In his solo recitals, Taylor pursued a different kind of dialogue—one that was with himself. (“Improvisation,” he noted, “is the ability to talk to oneself.”) Albums such as Indent, Silent Tongues, Air Above Mountains, For Olim, and The Willisau Concert are ambitious, complex, sometimes intimidating works; they advance what the pianist Matthew Shipp calls “a grand gesture of presenting a solo piano cosmos.” Taylor began performing as a soloist in the late 1960s, a little before Keith Jarrett, who is more often credited with pioneering the solo improvised recital. Although Taylor spoke contemptuously of Jarrett (“Keithie-Poo,” he called him), he confessed that his rival “gave me the desire to work very hard on my technique.” The results were staggering. The pianist Fred Hersch, who first heard Taylor’s solo work in the early 1970s, told me he was bowled over by his “ability to jump really wide intervals, to go from low to high almost instantaneously and then work with these shapes. He had this kinetic awareness of all eighty-eight notes of the playground of the piano.” But when Hersch revisited Taylor’s work after his death, he noticed something else: “how incredibly organized his music is, how disciplined.” Although Taylor was less widely imitated than Jarrett, Hancock, or McCoy Tyner, the force, complexity, and intricacy of his playing have made him particularly attractive to pianists working at the outer edges of jazz—a category of three or four generations of musicians, both in America and Europe, that would include Muhal Richard Abrams, Don Pullen, Borah Bergman, Marilyn Crispell, Alexander von Schlippenbach, Irène Schweizer, Matthew Shipp, Craig Taborn, Kris Davis, Jason Moran, Vijay Iyer, and Angelica Sanchez.
Taylor’s biggest audiences were always in Europe, which added to his bitterness about America. “Freedom in America,” he said, “is the freedom of having poison in the air.” In 2016, he finally received a celebration in his hometown, not at Jazz at Lincoln Center, which ignored him, but at the Whitney Museum. In what turned out to be his last concerts, he performed over two nights at the museum, which also devoted an entire floor to Taylor memorabilia. But the most thrilling Taylor retrospective—the high point of the second half of his career—took place in Berlin in 1988, when he spent nearly two months performing with some of Europe’s finest musicians, serving as a one-man bridge between two schools that had drifted apart, the black American avant-garde and European free improvisation.
On Alms/Tiergarten (Spree)—one of the thirteen albums on the FMP boxed set that emerged from his Berlin visit—he led a seventeen-piece orchestra that generated gloriously thick, overpowering slabs of noise beneath which any pianist other than Taylor would have been crushed. (The saxophonist and composer Anthony Braxton said that Taylor’s orchestral style reminded him of Edgard Varèse, or rather, correcting himself, “an African Varèse,” since “if Cecil were to read that he might buy a gun and shoot me!”) Taylor, who considered his music a “celebration of life,” never sounded more joyous than in the music he made in Berlin. It had been two years since the death of Jimmy Lyons, his closest collaborator, and after a period of silence, he was ready to play again.
“It was like the Godfather had arrived,” William Parker said, describing the welcome Taylor received in Berlin. “Cecil was around a positive thing in Europe, and there wasn’t anything to drag him down.” Over those two months, Parker shared an apartment with Taylor, and often cooked for him. It was the closest Taylor ever came to a domestic life. He loved being taken care of, but as Parker recalls, “he was fighting with being normal—like, is everything OK?” When I asked Parker what those concerts in Berlin were like, he remembered something the bassist Sirone (Norris Jones) told him: “The great thing about playing with Cecil is that when you play with him, you know you’re going to go all the way, and you’re not going to stop until the music gets where it’s going.” One night, Taylor went all the way with Parker and the drummer Tony Oxley, the other members of his Feel Trio, and Taylor was exultant. Oxley, who was in charge of collecting the money, asked how he should divide it. “Just keep the money,” Taylor said. “The music was so good, I don’t want the money. I am very happy because we were able to play music tonight, and nothing else counts.”
Calle Hesslefors/ullstein bild via Getty ImagesTaylor, 1989