As adventurous jazz fans have known for decades, and less adventurous fans have lamented for just as long, there’s nothing easy about Cecil Taylor’s music. It’s fast and it’s furious. It’s very nearly incomprehensible and, quite plainly, genius. A close listener would be doing well to follow a quarter of the information shot out in a 60-minute recital, and sitting in his audience is nothing short of being in the presence of brilliance: one can either try to follow the multiple lines of reasoning, catching some themes and missing others, or simply submerge in the sound and bathe in the enormity of his art. Cecil Taylor doesn’t spoon-feed his craft.
A conversation with Taylor, as it turns out, is no less dizzying. The pianist agreed to an interview only on the condition that it not be “that kind of interview.” He didn’t elaborate, I didn’t ask. Some things require a leap of faith. “It sounds like we’ll both have things to talk about,” I suggested, and while we both did, having prepared questions doesn’t guarantee an opportunity to ask them.
Taylor perhaps is also well known for beginning his performances in a less-than-timely way, and so, too, began our interview. He has lived in a three-story brownstone in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn since 1983, a building he is now in the process of buying. Only the numeral “1” remains of the three digits of his address on his front door, but a framed Cecil Taylor and Mary Lou Williams poster is visible through the curtain, identifying it as the right residence - a small comfort while waiting, and waiting, for someone to come to the door.
A long single room on the second floor serves as an office and sitting room. Lena Horne and Mal Waldron CDs are visible on top of the play stacks. The walls are filled with African masks and tapestries, more framed concert posters and photos clipped from newspapers. Among the newspaper clippings is a rendering of a Frank Gehry building proposed for lower Manhattan. Taylor’s home is a few blocks from the Brooklyn Academy of Music and just north of where a proposed stadium for the Nets would be. Gehry’s name has been attached to the development.
Outfitted in a skull cap, sunglasses, dress shirt, sweat pants and (at least) two pair of socks, Taylor spoke about developers and structural engineers, about black entertainment moguls over the decades (a rapper is said to be financing the stadium, though he doesn’t remember the name) and about Gehry’s work. He then wandered to the window. “If you look at the limbs of these trees,” he said, “nature still wins.”
He didn’t sit for the 90 minutes he held court, walking circles around the large room, smoking American Spirits and drinking tap water from a champagne glass. His talk is fast and his thoughts clearly faster; many of his segues are, to the listener, just a matter of trust. He recalled the composer Iannis Xenakis saying that it would take him six months to figure out a 30-minute Cecil Taylor piece. Xenakis is “my favorite European composer,” Taylor continued, but then quickly changed the subject to a Sonny Rollins concert he and Betty Carter attended on a cruise ship. He then spoke of being in a room with Duke Ellington and Richard Nixon (“History will remember who the real president was.”), and went on to explain that “the artists who receive the most notoriety are generally a reflection of who’s in the White House, and given what is being played today, this generally appears to be true.”
In the five decades he’s been recording, Cecil Percival Taylor has not been without notice, however.
He is a recipient of the MacArthur “genius” grant, performed at the White House for Jimmy Carter, and has honorary degrees from a number of universities. “Columbia a couple of months ago gave me a doctorate,” he said. “Of course, they don’t give you any jobs.”