How do you casually describe a conversation with one of the most revolutionary musicians of the last century? Few musicians in any genre explored the full tonal range of a keyboard the way that Cecil Taylor has. In fact, his ferocious playing was so trail-blazing that it made more of an effect on the whole concept of rhythm than all but a few drummers. His blending of jazz and modern classical sensibilities set both traditions on their ear and were never the same since then. Along with Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, Taylor helped to usher in a turning point the history of the music. Avant and free jazz would be unthinkable without his innovations and it's a testament to his work that it is still part of the mainstream with many performers today.
Interview by Jason Gross
Like other towering giants such as Miles Davis, the alumni from his groups read like a Who's Who of musical greats. Jimmy Lyons, Archie Shepp, Sunny Murray, Steve Lacy, Roswell Rudd, Ronald Shannon Jackson, Max Roach, William Parker, Derek Bailey, Leroy Jenkins, John Tchicai and Alan Silva are only a handful of this elite group. That's not even mentioning his collaborations and sessions with Trane himself, the Art Ensemble and Tony Williams.
Now celebrating 45 years as a recording artist, Taylor also celebrated his 70th birthday with a whirlwind, worldwide tour. Not content to rest on his much deserved laurels, Taylor practices piano constantly and always regales crowds with new pieces. He is a one-man multi-media presentation as he sings, chants, reads poetry, dances and plays at his concerts.
It took me over a year to finally pin him down for an interview but who wouldn't have patience for a legend of his stature? Meeting him with one hour's notice at his favorite East Village restaurant (where the staff greeted him as royalty), I was ready to be dazzled and he did not disappoint. Covering everything from his childhood heroes to his favorite singers (which are a huge influence on him) to his favorite collaborators, usually in the span of one answer, Taylor's conversation was a perfect reflection of his music- not at all linear but instead free-flowing and dynamic. How could anyone expect any less of him?
Enormous thanks to Jimmy McDonald and John Grady for helping to set this up.
Q: This has been sort of an interesting year for you in that you've had the chance to reconnect with several of the key drummers you've worked with over the years: you performed duets with Max Roach at Columbia University, with Elvin Jones for an album last year and a couple of performances subsequently, then with Andrew Cyrille, and just now with Tony Oxley over in Den Haag.
Well, when I think about it in retrospect, that's never happened to me before in that there were four different drummers in that period of time... All of them quite different, too, all of them a part of history. Andrew's magnificent. He's a wonderful person and a good part of my musical life. Andrew, who is really part of my skin you might say, is a great accompanist, a superlative percussionist, and one of the most amenable personalities. Playing with Mr. Jones for the fourth time was a great musical experience As you know, in September he played mostly with mallets and brushes. When I played with him the most unifying musical characteristic was that we played as if we were one person. He understands the music that I construct, all the dynamics, the aspects of form. And then the last time, even more so. Then Mr. Roach, well it was quite a phenomenal situation playing with him at Columbia in front of ten thousand people, and then Tony Oxley, he is a joy just to be with. He is immense in what he does, his conception of sound. Then again, I'm leaving out the guitarist, Derek Bailey, who was sort of astounding [during his springtime collaboration with Taylor] at Tonic. He was, well, hysteric. I don't think there's anyone else quite like Derek. So I've been very fortunate.
Q: Do you have plans to do any large-group work?
What I need right now, I have to find out how to set up a situation in which I can organize a corporation or an institute, so that I could get the money from these corporations to present the music. For instance, Derek [Bailey, British guitarist and an occasional collaborator] organized a series of concerts over at the Tonic. I'd like to do that, but I'd like it funded. Because I do have ideas for a large ensemble, you know. Well, I had a forty-two piece band at the Knitting Factory, had a forty-two piece in Frisco! The Italians wanted me to do that for this Instabile band. I had a wonderful call last year from a person who's connected with the Sun Ra Arkestra, said it was Sunny's wish that I take over the band. Well, that's not me, that's his band, the wonderful Marshall Allen. But I've been writing... I spent three weeks at my first gig in Florida [with] eight musicians. I wrote a lot of music, and boy did they deal with it!
Q: What do you do to prepare your music for performance?
Well, I love to practice, simply because that's preparation, part of the process of planning... There's nothing "free" about any of this; it's the construction of cantilevers and inclined pylons. I'm a great fan of Santiago Calatrava, the Spanish structural engineer. If you look at the plans for many of his constructions, they look like animals, or plants.
Q: These are buildings that he's designed?
Bridges. He's done other things, railroad stations... Because you see, we're dealing with space. And if you look at a bridge, you cannot ignore the spacial, rhythmic connotations, particularly when you look at cable-stay box girder bridges, and to me the most outstanding proponent of the cable-stay box girder bridge is Calatrava. I don't believe we have one of his cable-stay box girder bridges in this country. He's been in competition in Boston, which he did not get; in Frisco they got a poor imitation. They were first done I believe in Germany, after the second World War.
Q: I know you're also interested in choreography and literature.
I think, from the idea of choreography, the Kabuki theatre, and from watching tap dancers... mother took me to see Bill Robinson, the great Nicholas Brothers. Mother prepared me for all of that. Mother took me to see tap dancers, gave me Schopenhauer to read. When I was ten or eleven I spoke French and German. I had the best.
Q: At this point, do you see the piano almost as an extention of yourself?
Yes, it had better be! It's all part of the muse, the dance. To use the muscles of the body doing exercises, the body becomes a construction. In order to dance, one must be cognizant of the relationship between the fingers and the arms, in space, in duration... This idea of rhythm, rhythm exists in everyone. In the way one speaks, in the way the heart beats, in the way we walk... Sometimes when it goes really well, you wonder, "who's that at the piano?" Sometimes you just get lost, but you always try to reach that level of transcendence.
Q: Let's talk about some of your early influences. Who comes to mind first?
Well, mother took me to see the great Ella Fitzgerald... I can remember sitting in the Paramount Theatre in 1944 and I was stunned by her improvisation on "Lady Be Good". And then getting to know Babs Gonzales, who really revolutionized the concept of words at that time. The relationship between Babs and the best rap people, it's very interesting that people don't think about that. But when you listen to Babs and you hear the lilt, his presence in terms of where he placed his words in terms of the rhythm section, it was really amazing.
Of course, when one heard Billy Eckstine singing "Stormy Monday Blues", you knew that it was another point of view, but still within the framework of the music, always growing. And then to hear him sing "Goodbye", which I believe was Benny Goodman's theme song, or to hear the Mary Lou Williams' arrangement for the Benny Goodman Orchestra of "Roll 'Em", when everybody else was talking about "Sing, Sing, Sing", to hear "Roll 'Em", you knew Mary Lou Williams had great genius.
The magnificent thing about Billie Holiday was that no matter what happened... Seeing her when I was 12 and understanding that not only was that sensuous, and that the sensuality was not separate from the way she moved and sang. Billie was in the middle of whatever the rhythm was, and her body showed that. And then the last performance that I saw, her majesty [had switched] from a stride pianist to Mal Waldron, and he voice had changed, her physicality had changed, but the passion! Another person very similar, Chet Baker. In Berlin I finally saw that last film, when he was young and beautiful and sang "You Don't Know What Love Is." Billie sang "You Don't Know What Love Is" on that album with strings, which certain erudite critics, one in particular, gave it a "C minus", ha ha! I've only worn out four copies of it.
Q: It's interesting to hear that singers had such a powerful effect on your work. What about some of the instrumentalists that have been important to your musical conception?
CT: [Ellington band altoist Johnny] Hodges was immaculate. And Ben Webster what a sound! The Ellington Orchestra, I suppose we do have favorites. Ellington was the maestro, and if you listen to "Ring Them Bells" in 1929, and you listen to "Diminuendo" and "Crescendo" in the mid Œ30s, and then you listen to how it was played by Paul Gonsalves and that incredible solo with the Cosmic Band [an Ellington band small-combo which recorded Cosmic Scene for Columbia in 1958], featuring Paul and Clark Terry, with the maestro playing piano. Or that very seminal record for me, "Subtle Slough" which was first done by Rex Stewart, the rhythmic implications of what [bassist Jimmy] Blanton was playing. Then when Ellington played "Cross The Track Blues" with that wonderful opening statement by Barney Bigard, who's still my favorite clarinetist, and Ellington's growth from stride piano to the gentle logistic way he played chords with space in between. [laughs] What a man! What a man!
You know, I played in Johnny Hodges' band for about a week in 1955, in Chester, PA. That experience was so wonderful, such a pleasure I didn't even touch the piano for the first four days, until the wonderful [Ellington band trombonist] Lawrence Brown said, "er, Cecil, the piano has 88 keys, it'd be nice if you'd play one note occasionally." (laughs) Then of course, Basie's band was lighter, and their conception of that single stem or motif, which the word "riff" doesn't describe the organic nature of how that band created it's magic.
And Miles, he was the mean devil incarnate! But such a mind, such a mind. And such creative growth, from those days of genuflection to Diz and Bird. And that remarkable record that the master Bird made, it was merely the ground theme of "Embracable You", and Bird took this extraordinary solo, and then you heard Miles come and pause and make sound then, we knew that was the beginning of another voice. And soon after that, Birth of the Cool with the great master Gil Evans, and we heard the fluidity and love of Mr. Davis... Davis was one of the greatest organizers of musical sound this country has ever known.
When you think of virtuosity, how can one not talk about the extraordinary Albert Ayler and what he laid down? Technically, I don't think I've heard a saxophonist with that kind of articulation. And Eric Dolphy, he was a very considerate man, a very warm man... You know, the last two performances he did in America, I was fortunate enough to be there and I said to him, "Eric, you're the first level of greatness." Some die too soon. Albert died too soon. When you think about the implications of that band, with Albert's brother who compressed that trumpet sound, and the brilliance of that sound. There's one trumpet player alive today who comes closest to that sound, and that's [former Taylor Unit trumpeter] Raphe Malik.
What I'm saying is that we have such a rich tradition, until we get to a man like Bill Dixon, who is undoubtedly one of the great voices in American music today. I had the great pleasure of hearing he and Tony Oxley and two bassists playing in Berlin last November, absolutely extraordinary. Beyond the ken of what's thought to be important here. But, one has to allow for the decadence of merchandising...
I mean, it's such a history of accomplishment, that has gone down in America. The music has it's roots in America, in the soil of America... The traditional legacy of the music which went on in Africa, that exists here by Native Americans... And when I talk about soil, grandfather on father's side was Kiowa, coming from the same region as Mingus' wonderful drummer Dannie (Richmond). And mother's mother, growing up in Long Branch think about that, that's a Native American name she was full blooded Cherokee. So having the last name Taylor, yep, there's the European. But there's also West African and Native American, so my roots in this country go very deep.
Q: Well, certainly you've known and played with some remarkable players over the years.
I think we've had fun. There's a book called The Most Beautiful House in the World [Wharton professor and urban planner Witold Rybczynski's personal account of designing and building a new house, in which] there was one chapter that had a three letter word: F-U-N. I think about that a lot. What I mean, actually, is that the fun becomes a celebration of those great practitioners who've preceded us, and the honoring of the attempt we're making. It becomes a celebration of life and becomes a joy to be permitted to attempt to create that kind of sound environment. I also find that there is in my life, a certain water rising, or a wave, the ebb and fall of it. The pull is only occasioned by things that producers perhaps don't understand.
Q: Are there some younger players whose music you enjoy?
This idea about technique, people don't understand what that is. They talk about a certain wonderful trumpet player from New Orleans. That man has no technique! The reason he has no technique is because he hasn't developed a language. And the nondescript Roy Hargrove? Clever guy, but I heard him recently, ain't nothin' happenin'. He better practice!
I'll tell you an interesting guy that I heard, was a man named James Carter. The night before, I spent with [members of Carter's current electric band, drummer] Calvin [Weston] and Jamaladeen [Tacuma, electric bassist]. And the next night I go into practice, and in walks James Carter. So I ask him, he talked about his control over his instrument and he went into [talking about] Eric Dolphy. And I asked him what he thought about Anthony Braxton's music, and he dropped his head and said, "What can you say?"
So I said to him, "One courtesy deserves another. I'll be there tonight when you play," and lemme tell you! I'm backstage, and that band starts, and Jamaladeen and Calvin... you know there's a difference between the blues and rhythm and blues, and man, when that band started, the intensity of the new rhythm and blues that they played! Carter is off stage, and when he walked in he stunned me with what he do! Know what he did? He made one harmonic sound, [imitating] eeerrrrrrrrgh, and then he walked off the fucking stage! And he comes back and makes another sound. Now, when he starts playing, when he was confronted, when he had to deal with that rhythm and blues shit, it wasn't about notes. And when James did this obbligato, man, it wasn't just technical, it was passionate! So James, at the end of that first number came and gave us his theme that demonstrated all of his control, and it was something.
This is where I almost cried. He starts a piece, alone, and he's got a sense of humor, and he knew he had the audience, and he started playing "Good Morning Heartache". Gross, I was almost reduced to tears by what he did. I thought of Charlie Gayle, and he gave us that, but he also gave us Don Byas, and then he played softly, and went into a bossa nova...
When he walked off, I'm standing there mesmerized, and he sees me and comes over and I say, "Hey, give me some more of that shit!" [laughs] I gotta hear that band again, cause man, the music is alive!
Q: We've been talking about various different styles of music. Do you ever feel insulted when people use the term "jazz" to describe what you do?
Well, Ellington said to Mr. Gillespie, "Why do you let them call your music bebop? I call my music 'Ellingtonia'!" It's about American music that never existed in the world until we did it.
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