Las Vegas, 1999. A warm night in January. I'm listening to KUNV playing a Randy Weston number and writing the introduction to Bitches Brew. Not the Miles Davis classic, but a webpage on Fusion jazz. The music is guiding my pen. Seemingly ending just as I conclude the piece. The disc jockey comes on and reviews the songs played. Then says "Everything is not bebop. Everything is not straight ahead. But it's jazz in the traditional sense."
It's a pleasant August afternoon in San Diego. The year is 1979. Martin Rev, of Suicide, and I are listening to sounds on KSDS, City College's all jazz station. Marty had studied piano under Lennie Tristano and is well versed in jazz. We're putting our knowledge to the test by guessing who the musicians are on the songs being aired. Both of us are doing well. Then we're stumped by a certain sax player. About to give up I have a revelation and shout Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Soon the announcer says "that was Rahsaan Roland Kirk." Rev is impressed. "How'd you do that?" I tell him I remembered hearing a whistle, or some percussive thing, or something. And with that subtle stuff going down it had to be Rahsaan.
The beauty of jazz is that whether you're writing, listening to, or playing it, the music always takes you to some wonderous place. A very special spiritual place. Music in it's "totality" is always greater than the sum of it's parts. This is the way Cecil Taylor approaches his music.
Steve Lacy (who worked with Taylor from 1953-1959) in his article "View From the Brink", says "There are two different kinds of jazz: offensive and defensive... Playing with Cecil Taylor immediately put me into the offensive mode." Taylor himself once said that "Technique is a weapon to do whatever must be done." Cecil has been on the "offensive" since the 1950's and he's finally winning the battle.
Music was always a given in the Taylor household. And he grew up listening to Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Erroll Garner. Among Cecil's early influences were Duke Ellington and Fats Waller. He says of the later that "Waller was a great piano player; he could push a group no end: and when he played the piano, it sang." The song "Wallering" from Looking Ahead, is named for Fats.
Taylor says of Duke: "one of the things I learned from Ellington is that you can make the group you play with sing if you realize that each instrument has a distinct personality and (that) you can bring out the singing aspect of that personality if you use the right timbres for the instrument."
Later Taylor cites Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, Thelonius Monk, and Horace Silver as being influential. On Monk and atonality he says "Basically, it's not important whether a certain chord happens to fit some student's definition of atonality. A man like Monk, for example, is concerned with growing and enriching his musical conception, and what he does comes at a living idea out of his life's experience, not from a theory. It may or may not turn out to be atonal."
From 1951-1955 Cecil Taylor attended The New England Conservatory of Music. It was here he discovered the atonalists Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. And more modern masters such as Bartok and Stravinsky. Also during this period he was listening to Dave Brubeck and Lennie Tristano. Young Cecil learned his lesson well. Bassist Bruell Niedlinger is classically trained and has tenured with the Houston Symphony Orchestra. He has this to say about the pianist: "He is phenomenal. There is not a musician I've ever met, including Igor Stravinsky and Pierre Boulez, who come anywhere near having the abilities that Cecil Taylor has." Niedlinger played with Taylor from 1955-1960. He can be heard on Jazz Advance (1955), Looking Ahead (1958), and Air (1960), among other recordings.
By the mid 1950's Taylor was leading his own small groups with musicians Buell Niedlinger, Steve Lacy, and Archie Shepp. In 1957 he played the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island, and New York's Great South Bay Jazz Festival in 1958. And in 1966 Blue Note released two outstanding sessions: Unit Structures and Conquistador (with Bill Dixon on trumpet). Taylor, along with Bill Dixon, was one of the organizers of the Jazz Composers' Guild in 1964-65.
The late 60's and early 70's saw Taylor struggling to get club gigs and record dates. During this period he worked as a record saleman, cook, and dishwasher. He began teaching at the University of Wisconsin, Antioch College in Ohio, and Glassboro State College in New Jersey. Virtually all Taylor's music from 1967 to 1977 was recorded in Europe.
In 1973 he ran his own record label, Unit Core. Releasing Indents (Mysteries) and Spring of Two Blue-Js. Around 1980 his career began to gather momentum with the help from releases in Japan and Europe. He was elected by the Critics to the Down Beat Hall of Fame in 1975. Taylor was finally starting to get the recognition he deserved.
As always seems to be the case with "dense and intense" jazz, Taylor's music appealed to, and was more readily accepted overseas. And in 1986 he received a very high honour. He was invited to a "Cecil Taylor Week" sponsored by the Berlin Free Jazz Society. All the sessons were recorded by Free Music Production (FMP Records) and are available on an eleven CD box set. Taylor has also been voted number one pianist in the Down Beat (Magazine) international Critics Poll for nine consequtive years.
Cecil Taylor is still playing today. Vibrant and vigorous as ever. And as recently as February 12, 1999 has appeared at a Library of Congress concert in Washington, D.C. He is a man that commands great respect. For he has never compromised his creativity. As far back as 1956 Nat Hentoff, Associate Editor of Down Beat Magazine from 1953-1957, wrote in the liner notes to Jazz Dance that "We are in the presence here, and in all (Taylor's) works, of that rarest of phenomena- a genuine creator. And once you absorb his music you will never quite hear the same again." If you have never experienced the music of Cecil Taylor I invite you to do so. Absorb the energy and enjoy!