By MARTY GOODMAN
“Technique is a weapon to do whatever must be done.”— Cecil Taylor
“Conquistador” was the first Cecil Taylor jazz album that I ever heard. It astonished me, and the title piece nailed me to the wall with its dangerous, urban sound. Taylor’s sideman, Jimmy Lyons, blew amazing sax riffs; the coolest, hippest, New York tough style music that I’d had ever heard. And it still sounds that way 50 years later!
Cecil Taylor passed away on April 6 of this year at age 89. He was still playing in his maniacal way when I saw him solo about 10 years ago, stopping short to read one of his amazing poems and then continuing to play.
Cecil Taylor’s assault on jazz tradition and Euro-centric culture was as explosive and game-changing in jazz as the “action painting” of Jackson Pollock on the 1950s art scene. Taylor, like Pollock, smashed the language of art when it was no longer sufficient and invented a new one. Taylor was a wholesale assault on the Western musical tradition. It was bluesy, it was abstract and it was angry. Taylor was a Black artist stuck in a Cold War cultural wasteland called America, where jazz music—all music—was in the hands of mostly white businessmen.
Epithets such as “anti-jazz” were hurled at what was called then jazz’s “new thing,” i.e. the avant-garde. The harshest critics were largely white producers and critics, but even established artists like trumpet icon Miles Davis put him down.
Club dates came slowly in Taylor’s early days. Even though in 1962 he received Downbeat’s “new star” award, he was unable to get work for most of the 60s. He claims he lived on welfare for at least five years during that time. The impact of other, innovative, but strikingly different musicians, like the more popular pianist Thelonius Monk, helped widen the door, but just a bit.
By the early 60s, Taylor’s music became more and more abstract. The recordings from those years were jewels, which document Taylor’s evolution toward more and more experimentation: Jazz Advance (1956), Looking Ahead (1958), The World of Cecil Taylor (1960), Cell Walk for Celeste (1961), and Nefertiti the Beautiful Has Come (1962). Those albums introduced new avant-garde heroes—soprano saxman Steve Lacy, tenor sax player Archie Shepp, bassist Buell Neidlinger, who sadly passed away in March, drummer Sonny Murray and alto sax man, Jimmy Lyons (died 1986).
However, Taylor’s landmark albums, Unit Structures (May 1966) and Conquistador (October 1966), broke all “rules” of musical order, although, for those who listened, a deeper structure lay inside. The albums challenged mainstream jazz to its foundations.
With those historic albums behind, Taylor slowly gained an audience as revolutionary thought and new forms of popular music became a mass phenomenon. Jazz musicians reflected the insurrectionary mood, heavily influenced by the new Black consciousness and the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and the Black Panther Party. It was arguably the music’s most fertile period.
Other radical Black stylists—Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, and John Coltrane—were also affected by 1960s Black nationalism. It was reflected in their music, sometimes overtly politically (Shepp wrote the play, “The Communist”), but mostly not. Yet, their angry discordant musical voices were a cry for justice.
Cecil Taylor himself was not an overtly political man and no activist. But New York poet Steve Delachinsky, Cecil’s friend of 30 years, pointed in a phone conversation with me, “He certainly was anti-capitalist” and hated politicians.” Steve added, “He was the most eccentric regular guy you could talk to.”
Rebels like Cecil Taylor shattered old notions of order. Twentieth-century modernist classical composers like Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, and Bartok who broke down barriers of structure and tonality, but here was a musician who took breaking down barriers to a new level—in fact, he demolished them!
In 1952, he entered the New England Music Conservatory and said this about Western classical forms, “Everything I’ve lived, I am. I am not afraid of European influences. The point is to use them—as Ellington did—as part of my life as an American Negro” (liner notes, Looking Ahead). In A.B. Spellman’s 1966 classic “Black Music,” Taylor says, “I never would have thought of playing the piano without thinking it out along Ellington’s lines, and that’s the base.”
Yet, no one challenged “acceptable” music with the ferocity Taylor put into each performance. Even when playing solo, his sets could last an hour or more. He broke more than one piano in the process, pounding keys, sometimes using his forearm or elbow. But for those who listened, Taylor’s music revealed an inner structure, tone clusters, even echoes of old-timey blues and the musical structures of jazz giant and Taylor hero, Duke Ellington.
Cecil put it this way, “There is no music without order—music comes from a man’s innards. But that order is not necessarily to any single criterion of what order should be as imposed from the outside. Whether that criterion is the song form or what some critic thinks jazz should be. This is not a question, the, of “freedom” as opposed to “non-freedom,” but rather it is a question of recognizing different ideas and expressions of order.”
Said Jimmy Lyons, Cecil’s longtime alto sax frontman, whose expressive intensity seamlessly complemented Taylor, “If you take (music) another way than the way Cecil outlined it, then that’s cool with Cecil. That’s the main thing I learned with Cecil, the music has to come from within and not from any charts.” Taylor’s fearless explorations revealed awesome improvising abilities and a lighting fast mind, like with jazz giant Charlie Parker (1920-1955). “When I play the piano I feel like my fingers are dancers on the keys,” said Taylor. In fact, Taylor collaborated with Japanese butoh dancer Min Tanaka and dancers Mikhail Baryshnikov and Heather Watts on a short ballet in 1979.
Taylor received artistic awards, which included money, a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1973, a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 1991—which enabled him to purchase his home in Brooklyn—and the Kyoto Prize in 2013.
In 2016, the Whitney Museum of American Art presented “Open Plan: Cecil Taylor,” a dedication to his work. It was a five-part exhibition with videos, audio, scores, photographs, and poetry with live performances by over twenty of Taylor’s musical collaborators, as well as dancers, playwrights, poets, filmmakers and writers.(see videos at whitney.org/Exhibitions/OpenPlanCecilTaylor).
It’s hard to grasp Cecil Taylor’s impact. Rooted deep in African-based musical forms (and feelings) Taylor tasted what the European classical tradition had to offer but did not slam the door on the Western tradition. His favorite Western composers were giants of modern classical music—Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and others.
In an assessment of Taylor’s work from the classic “Four Lives in the Bebop Business” (1966), poet and critic A. B. Spellman wrote, “There is only one musician who has, by general agreement even among those who have disliked his music, been able to incorporate all that he wants to take from classical and modern Western composition into his own distinctly individual kind of blues without in the least compromising those blues, and that is Cecil Taylor, a kind of Bartok in reverse.”
Cecil Taylor once said of his music, “This music is the face of a drum.” Cecil’s piano, a giant drum—the foundational instrument of African American music—woke jazz up.