I’m a list maker, and with the departure of Cecil Taylor, I’ve been looking through old lists. Somehow I’ve held on to a sheet of loose leaf paper on which is entered the particulars of every concert I attended as a high school senior on Long Island in the first half of 1972. I was close to flunking math, probably because I was spending too much time in Manhattan. Monk at the Vanguard. Sun Ra at Slugs’. Ornette at what was still called Philharmonic Hall. Mingus at the Mercer Arts Center, a night when his big band got so raucously off-track that he threw in the towel and – smiling weirdly – hoisted his bass into the air, set it on his head, sideways, and turned in circles as the band played on.
The list also records the first times I saw Taylor.
Looking at those entries – a January solo show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; a July performance at Carnegie Hall, part of the Newport Jazz Festival – it all comes rushing back. I’m talking about the rumble and momentum of his music, its accumulating energy. Cecil Taylor was Promethean, and to see him for the first time was an overwhelming and physical experience. There were others who projected a similar kind of power during that period. Try sitting in the same room as Milford Graves or situating yourself directly in front of McCoy Tyner at the Vanguard. But Taylor was the paragon. To witness his focus and pummeling precision – you were stepping into the rapids. Uncorking his magic bottle, Cecil would take you on a trip, sharpening your senses. He could wear you out, as well. But all the while, he taught you about the potential of sound. His rumble was the rumble of truth.
The New York jazz scene of the early ‘70s often gets short shrift; cultural histories of the period tend to focus on the emergence of punk rock and the flowering of classical minimalism. But anyone who was there knows the jazz scene was equally charged, enriched by the arrival of outcats from Chicago (Muhal, the Art Ensemble, Braxton, Threadgill, Jenkins), St. Louis (Oliver Lake, Hamiet Bluiett) and L.A. (David Murray, Arthur Blythe). But that was only icing on the cake – the ongoing scene in the clubs and lofts, where on any given night you were bound to run into Jackie McLean or Clifford Jordan, Lee Morgan or Woody Shaw, Pharoah, Rahsaan, Betty Carter, Elvin, Max, Jo Jones, Billy Higgins, on and on. Working bands were the norm and few could touch the Cecil Taylor Unit, which during this period operated in its purest form — a perfect triangle of Taylor, alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons (a genius who looked like a maître d’ in his waist-length jackets) and drummer Andrew Cyrille, three native New Yorkers taking you to another planet. We all tend to favor the music we hear in our formative years, and I could be falling into that trap by saying this was Cecil’s greatest group. It was certainly a break-through period for Taylor. His whole process seemed to crystalize. The music had such grandeur and somehow a stillness at its core. Whether or not Beethoven was black, Taylor was a black Beethoven, the pure artist, building a language, and not giving a fuck about what anyone might think about it.
So imagine how I felt when I met Taylor in 1974.
By then, I was hosting jazz shows on the Columbia University radio station, WKCR-FM. We – all the student jocks – were a bunch of jazz obsessives; looking back, I’d say we fashioned ourselves as evangelists, with Sam Rivers and Archie Shepp among our patron saints. Sometimes we wondered if anyone was listening. But then the phone would ring: It would be Mingus, calling to correct something you’d said about Charlie Parker. That was unnerving.
Taylor would call, too, and occasionally he would pop up to the station with his entourage. For instance, there was the night in 1973 when he tuned in and heard one of the jocks discussing soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, more or less setting Lacy on the same pedestal as Coltrane and Bechet. Next thing you know, Taylor’s manager, a guy named David Laura, phoned in to say that Cecil wanted to address this matter of Steve Lacy and his role in the development of the soprano saxophone. Lacy, of course, had once been in Taylor’s quartet. At Newport in 1957, they had recorded one of the great versions of Billy Strayhorn’s “Johnny Come Lately,” but – whatever. Taylor arrived, sat down, watched the little green “on air” light come on, and launched into a not very kind assessment of his former bandmate, stationing him about 20,000 leagues below Coltrane and Bechet.
At this time, Taylor was in the midst of a recording streak with Indent, Spring of Two Blue J’s and the unforgettably titled Bulu Akisakila Kutala, which contains some of the Unit’s most outrageous work, a genuine levitation. In 1974, he was preparing for the release of Silent Tongues, his solo album, recorded at the Montreux Jazz Festival. Once again Laura dialed up the station and – luck of the draw – it fell to me to interview Cecil Taylor. I had just turned 20 and was a shy guy, though gaining confidence as an interviewer: Rivers, Wayne Shorter, Horace Silver, Billy Harper, Paul Bley, Don Cherry, Lester Bowie and others were among my “guests” around this time. But I knew Taylor could pose certain challenges, that he was a non-traditional thinker, that his conversation was not necessarily… linear. Amid nervous preparations, I found a recent magazine piece in which he had described his frustration at having to travel to Japan to find an audience, while New York, his hometown – Taylor grew up in Corona, Queens — gave him the cold shoulder.
Aha! This became my first question when Taylor sat down in the studio: “Cecil, why do you think your music is so enthusiastically received in Japan, while finding an audience here in New York can still be such a struggle for you?”
He stared at me as if I were insane – and, worse, as if he were offended: “Why, I have no trouble finding an audience in New York,” he said, curtly. “There’s no trouble at all. My concerts are very well attended.”
Which was true, now that I thought it through. Whenever I saw Taylor – at the Met, at the Whitney – the place was pretty much full.
I don’t remember a great deal more about the interview, which, thankfully, must now be disintegrating on an old reel-to-reel tape in the KCR library. I do remember a few obscure references to Ellington and the way Taylor – to my horror — stood up and began to move around the studio in a slow dance. He circled the room, miles from the microphone, squatting and rising, pretending to hold a broom, making sweeping motions and saying something about “mopping the floor,” a phrase he kept repeating, working it into a mantra.
I had lost control of the interview. But, amazingly, I was the recipient of a private performance by Cecil Taylor, who almost always began his concerts by padding about the stage in his moccasins, dancing, silencing the audience with his poetry. Each time, he tuned himself up in a spiritual sense, preparing for the moment when he would sit down at the keyboard to reveal his grandeur, every cluster and chord some kind of luminous monolith, calling us to attention.
Last week, I scanned the responses to Taylor’s death on Twitter, where someone likened his passing to the disappearance of a planet. It’s true; Taylor was that singular, and now he’s gone. But, thank God and technology, we still have the music: the beauty inside his turbulence, the rumble of his truth. People recognize the truth when they hear it. A tingle goes up the spine. Aha!
Or as Cecil put it in one of his album titles: Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly!
— by Richard Scheinin
(Rich Scheinin has written about jazz since the late ’70s. From 2003-15, he was the classical music and jazz critic for the San Jose (CA) Mercury News. Fed up with that paper’s decimation by Alden Global Capital, its hedge fund owner, he recently moved to Santa Fe, NM, and has resumed full-time music writing.)