Friday, April 06, 2018

to Cecil with love

Cecil Percival Taylor, March 25 1929-April 5 2018 

I first heard Cecil Taylor when I was about 13 and my friend Emery put one of his recordings on the record player. It might have been the most widely known recording of Cecil's, Unit Structures. For some reason I think it was Cecil's solo performance from his time as an artist in residence at Antioch, Indent. This was recorded in 1973, so if it was this recording, it was about 3 years hot off the presses at the time, a remarkable thought. I recall that my first response to Cecil's music was to be frightened by it. Disoriented, mistrustful, thrown off guard, skeptical and threatened. In particular, I took the feeling tone to be anger and frustration. These initial reactions proved both wrong and unnecessary. 


The man's music caused so many different reactions in many people. If you follow the history of critics writing about him, you see that many emphasized how "out there" his music was, some even going so far as to call it "atonal," which hardly any of it actually was (there are some compositions such as Student Studies, some of his solo work from very early, such as Praxis, and a scant few other pieces that are highly chromatic and have constantly shifting tonal centers, maybe approaching atonality). Many critics exalted his "totally spontaneous improvisations," which is a ridiculous myth, as you can clearly hear Cecil's compositions unfold with stunning logic and structure if you just take the time. 

 In truth, there is no one thing you can say about the man's music and have it cover much of any of it. Even when people say "I loved his solo piano recordings," I want to know which period? Because his solo piano style manifested in at least 4 distinct phases. 

I guess one thing you could say was that his music was alive. Is alive. It is soaked in blood, electricity, the peristalsis of a fierce gut, the physicality of a deep tissue massage, the tenderness and vulnerability of gazing at a beloved, the entire night sky of uncountable stars, mud pits, tidal waves, fertility of spring pond peepers, Heraclitean refusal to stand, but formal intricacy refusing to tolerate fat or faltering (to quote AB Spelling) or lies or anything shabby whatsoever. A bundle of swords. A bag of daggers. A thousand dozen roses. Sentiment, but you have to work for it. Muscle skeletal and smooth and cardiac. Groin and balls, brain and spine. So that's one thing you could say. Listen to Cecil's romanticism here 

 Being black and gay or maybe bi and an innovative musician in America from 1929-2018. Go ahead, I dare you. 

He was outed by the execrable Stanley Crouch in the '80s, when being outed was not okay. Not that it's okay now, but it could destroy a person back then. 

Cecil's radical awareness was astonishing. Go back and check out the fierce and fiery, uncompromising panel discussion he commandeered at Bennington in 1964. 

 "That’s what we are and all we can ever be: what we are at the moment. Even if we reflect upon that which we have done in the morning, when we write in the afternoon that’s all we are – what we are at the moment. The sum total of the existence is like what it is up to the point that you die – that’s all. So that if a cat chooses to improvise, which is, you know, a technical mastery of certain materials put in the framework of certain forms. And we are talking about jazz, so we’ll talk about its first form which is the Blues. You cannot tell me – you’ll have to prove it to me – that, when after twenty years of playing, that Charlie Parker didn’t play the Blues as many different ways as was possible within his experience. And if he had sat down to write this it wouldn’t have been any more valid, because, in the final analysis, what we heard was what we heard..[Overton tries to speak, Taylor goes on.] Just a minute, just a minute, what you are negating there is that there is skill in improvisation. What you’re negating is that – wait a minute, wait a minute. Polish, you used the word polish before. When one sits down to compose one…it’s sort of like a spiritual – this is Sunday – a spiritual thing. You know, you sit down and you start writing and you become reflective and your mind works. But whoever told you that in order to play the piano, or in order to do anything, you don’t use your mind?" (an excerpt from that panel discussion) 

 In most interviews with Cecil, you get a sense of his fierce mind and his impatience with narrow mindedness, racism (especially coded or cryptic racism), misconceptions and ignorance. He seems to have repeatedly encountered especially white interviewers who honestly had done no homework whatsoever on him and who had little to no understanding of what he was about. There's a spectacular passage from one interview where Cecil is repeatedly badgered to talk about his "technique," one of the great fetishes of European and American artistic culture, and often a false yardstick that people seem to use to evaluate the worth of an artist. Cecil repeatedly bats the question away until he finally says, paraphrasing a bit because I can't find the exact quotation, "anyone with the time and resources can develop technique." That perspective has long stayed with me, especially coming from a man who obviously dedicated hours and hours and years to perfecting his own technical vocabulary. I can hear the exasperation in his voice. 

 For the most part, the critical perspective on Cecil and his music is laughably inaccurate, often applying hyperbole in the wrong places, misunderstanding the intricacy and subtleties of his work, touting how "difficult" he is but not offering people much of an understanding of how powerful and moving his music is. Calling his "genre" "Free Jazz," which is an awful canard and misnomer, thinking of him as exclusively a rebel when in fact you can hear his reverent homage to a great many of his predecessors, thinking of his personality as "prickly" or "difficult" when in fact he was merely holding strong boundaries for being a black artist in a racist country that totally lacks and sense of black musical history and all of musical history for that matter (although, admittedly, *also* prickly and difficult at times). 

I was blessed to attend several of his performances after about 1981, both solo piano and ensemble. One of my big regrets is just missing the incredible unit he put together in the late '70s, featuring Ronald Shannon Jackson, Ramsey Ameen, Raphé Malik, Jimmy Lyons and Sirone. One of the greatest ensembles in all of American music, and relatively well documented by a couple of excellent New World Records studio sessions, the epic One Too Many Salty Swift and Not Goodbye and Live in the Black Forest. Check out the shuffle blues inflections of this remarkable piece 


But I was lucky enough to get to about 10 performances altogether, including Manhattan for two nights of the Cecil Taylor Big Band at Lush Life (or was it Fat Tuesday?). It was surreal, experiencing music of such astonishing power and uncompromising integrity in a nightclub setting with a "two drink minimum." Weird to remember that these concerts were not too long after he had performed on the White House lawn, in the concert organized by the Carter administration. 

The long partnership with Jimmy Lyons itself could be the subject of several essays and appreciations. It's always dangerous picking "a favorite," but one of the great high points for me is the encore to Calling it the Eighth, puckishly called Calling it the Ninth (the recording began on the 8th of Nov and ended on the 9th of Nov, 1981). Lyons and Cecil, perfectly backed by William Parker and Rashid Bakr, laying down some heartache. 


When I heard that he had recorded a series of duets with Max Roach, I was astonished. The recording is a remarkable document of a moment of intersection and continuity in American music. What a dialog! A breakaway breakneck heartbreaking and record breaking monsoon of exuberance. The CD version includes a spectacular drum solo by Roach and some solo piano by Cecil that is not on the vinyl. "Exuberance is beauty," writes Wm. Blake, and it resonates. 


Cecil tried academia a couple times, a path that some of his contemporaries were able to follow to provide some financial and material stability in their lives. He was a professor at the University of Wisconsin for maybe one semester and I think he taught a jazz improvisation or jazz history class, not sure. One thing I do know, because he confirmed it, was that he failed every single student. He was asked to leave. No institution and no musical idiom could contain him. "I must create my own system or be enslaved by another man's," wrote Wm. Blake, and it resonates. 

 Another passage from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by Blake comes to mind: 

"Thus Swedenborg’s writings are a recapitulation of all superficial opinions, and an analysis of the more sublime—but no further. Have now another plain fact. Any man of mechanical talents may, from the writings of Paracelsus or Jacob Behmen, produce ten thousand volumes of equal value with Swedenborg’s, and from those of Dante or Shakespear an infinite number. But when he has done this, let him not say that he knows better than his master, for he only holds a candle in sunshine."    

The secondary side effects of culture that come close to Cecil's sun are just candles by comparison, whether those side effects are opinion, reaction, imitation, analysis, hagiography, dismissal and ridicule, what have you. 

The last time I saw him, in Albuquerque back in maybe 2004, I went with Chris Jonas, who had been in his big bands of the early '90s, the project in which Cecil invested his MacArthur Grant. Chris and I went backstage afterward to say hello. I was floored, frankly. It's very strange, to have a hero for 40 years and then to have a chance to meet that artist. I have met many celebrities and while there is a certain novelty to that, my values don't really run that way. But to be in the presence of an artist with the combined personal and historical significance of Cecil was a weird moment. 

And my musician friend and I were invited back to his hotel room, where we sat on the floor while Cecil held court and talked for a couple hours, his conversational style weaving seemingly disconnected lines in long arcs that always somehow came back to tie together. At one point in this long solo performance, he pointed to me and said "and this person here, this friend of yours Chris, I notice he hasn't had any champagne or anything else this whole time, but he's delightfully generous with his cigarettes, so he's no doubt paying very close attention," and he got a twinkle in his eye and moved on to more commentary on the Robert Caro biography of Lyndon B Johnson and somehow into a riff on Betty Carter, whom he referred to as "The Beast," and Ornette Coleman, "Ornette-y Poo" and Braxton "The Professor." 

I was still smoking at the time-- American Spirit menthol cigarettes, which happened to be Cecil's favorite. I think he smoked about a six of mine. I thanked him for opening up his hotel room to us, thanked him profusely and probably a little too obsequiously for the opportunity to meet him, when we left at 3:30 in the morning. He seemed deeply amused by my reverence and he scrunched his face in an exaggerated expression of dismissal and regally waved his hand and said "well, it was a *party*, after all, wasn't it?" His inflections were often in a long drawl, and it took him a few seconds to say the word "party." 

 These words too, just words. There's much more than words left. Go to his sessionography, dig and dig and dig. Even his spoken word performances, as recorded on Chinampas, not just words. In 43 years of open ears I continue to find new ideas in the air when I listen, even when I listen to recordings I have had almost that entire time. Who among us is capable of comprehending the generosity of such a legacy, such a gift? 

Well, it was a party, after all, wasn't it?