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Artist Profiles

Cecil Taylor: Mr. Taylor's Filibuster

By Published: March 11, 2004
For someone who could, with little argument, be called the one of the last remaining progenitors of the 1960s “New Thing”, Taylor speaks at length and often about vocalists. But then, that maybe shouldn’t be a surprise for someone who released a record in 1959 called Cecil Taylor Plays Cole Porter. Even then, his modus operandi was evident. The Porter themes, which only constitute about half the record, are interpolated, expanded, and sometimes left on the wayside. He remembers seeing Billie Holiday when he was 13 and thinking “What she did to me, I would like to do to an audience.” He speaks fondly of Lena Horne and Ella Fitzgerald, and notes that they and Holiday were all born between 1915 and 1917. “What a gift the American people got in those three years.” He also holds Betty Carter in no less esteem, as a vocalist and instrumentalist. “As a pianist, she knows exactly what notes to hit,” he said. Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, Ivie Anderson and Frank Sinatra have all caught his ear. More recently, Taylor has been paying close attention to Frankie Paris, a little known singer who performs four nights a week at Arthur’s Tavern in Manhattan’s West Village. Taylor is frequently in the audience.

Instrumentalists don’t seem to win his love as easily. Charles Mingus was “not great,” he said, although “he certainly brought a new kind of technical ability to the instrument.” To find the jazz musicians he most loves, one needs to reach further back, to Lennie Tristano or the members of his beloved Duke Ellington Orchestra. Jimmy Blanton, the bassist for Ellington’s legendary band of the late ‘30s and early ‘40s “reminds me of Barry Guy,” he said. “There are no bassists in America like Barry Guy.”

Even with his love for the early days of jazz, Taylor shows no regard for the neo-romantics that took over jazz in the ‘80s. Wynton Marsalis, he wryly noted, “rose during the Reagan administration.” He told a story of a meeting with Marsalis.

“Could you dance to James Brown?” Taylor asked the young trumpeter.

“Well, sure,” he replied.

“Could you dance to Albert Ayler?”

Taylor recalls Marsalis stammering and not answering. “Well, I can dance to both,” he shot back.

Ten years ago, Taylor marked his 65th birthday with a solo concert at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall. He began the performance, as he often does, with poetry, an emotional performance of vocalese ending with the repeated sentence “Praise the music in a proper space.” Like performances by the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Ornette Coleman that would be at the esteemed institution in the coming years, the concert was notably not a part of Marsalis’ Jazz at Lincoln Center programming. If that can be read as Marsalis slighting Taylor, or the avant-garde (and anyone who has heard Marsalis speak on the subject knows that’s not much of a leap), Taylor has little regard for Marsalis’ music as well.

“Everybody has a voice, it depends on what you make me feel with that voice,” he said. “You don’t have to be an innovator, but you must have integrity and you must know how to make your instrument live. Dexter [Gordon] was so beautiful. Dexter used to do this thing, before he’d play a ballad he’d pick up his tenor and cradle it like a baby.”

If Marsalis represents the current face of jazz, Taylor said, he would gladly divorce himself from the word. And in fact, he has long rejected use of the term. Despite popular belief - even perhaps despite appearances - Taylor’s music is largely composed and highly structured. People seeing him for the first time are often surprised to see the maestro and his musicians reading from scores. He doesn’t use traditional notation, but he does - like any composer - create a piece and rehearse his bands. Six weeks before his string of 75th birthday concerts (March 23rd-28th at Iridium, a midtown club that, with increasingly interesting bookings, might be starting to prove itself as a “proper space”), Taylor was already rehearsing the 16-piece band that will take on the challenge of his dense music.

But that music, he reiterated, isn’t jazz.

“The word ‘jazz’ is inappropriate,” he said. “Ellington called his music ‘Ellingtonia.’ Jazz is connected with the brothel houses in New Orleans.”

After an hour and a half of free associating, I was granted a question. “What did you mean you wouldn’t do ‘that kind of interview’?” I asked.

“Well, that’s why I’ve been talking so much,” began his next soliloquy. And with that began a lecture on history and musicology.

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