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Cecil Taylor: Courage in Creation

Nick Catalano By

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Ever since innovative artists were faced with reflecting and reacting in their art to seismic events (WWI) revolutionary science (Einsteinian relativity, Darwinian evolution, and political convolution (fascism, bolshevism) over a century ago, many faced years of scorn and condemnation. When they chose abstraction in art (Mondrian, Kandinsky) dissonance in music (Schoenberg, Bartok) or stream of consciousness in writing (Eliot, Joyce) to describe a disjunctive new world they were destined to lose the masses and rely on clairvoyant critics for small measures of acceptance. Courageously, they knew the old forms of order, harmony, and romance could not convey the onslaught of disjointed realities so they had to create, "anti-forms" to depict the new world.

In jazz, Cecil Taylor, a classically trained pianist, and New England Conservatory alumnus in composing and arranging came on the scene in the 1950s. He wanted to extend jazz beyond the advanced harmonies, rhythmic privation, and melodic paucity of the beboppers. He sensed that, after Monk, the next place to go was tone clustering, intricate polyrhythm, and melodic shortfall. But it would take a fearless, virtuosic musician to endure the reaction that would surely ensue. Monk had had a hard time finding audiences and Cecil Taylor would be faced with a bleaker future.

But he went ahead anyway. After his formal schooling he eventually settled in Brooklyn and began his difficult journey. His very first recording Jazz Advance featuring Steve Lacy was actually a farewell to post-bop and a greeting to "free jazz" which would define his future. Soon he was working with altoist Jimmy Lyons and later with Archie Shepp, Andrew Cyrille, Albert Ayler and other like-minded explorers who were anxious to associate with Taylor's space-age sounds and innovative improvisational outings.

Thankfully, after a few decades he began to garner critical if not popular acclaim. By the '70s he had performed for President Carter, concertized and lectured at leading universities and found considerable appeal with European audiences. He received a Guggenheim fellowship in '73 and a similar MacArthur Award in '91. He performed world-wide with a Bosendorfer piano that featured nine extra lower-register keys to service his advanced ideas.

Taylor was the consummate creator, dedicated to his art and determined to ignore the world of celebrity and fame. Ironically, his death on April 5, 2018 at age 89 has resulted in encomiums that will probably assure musical notoriety for him well into the future.

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