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Cecil Taylor: This Music is the Face of a Drum

Robert Levin By

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[Editor's Note: This article first appeared in Jazz & Pop Magazine (April 1971)]

As an artist-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin, Cecil Taylor has finally been able to realize a long-held ambition—the command of a large orchestra.

Comprised of fifteen of his students (and augmented by Jimmy Lyons, Sam Rivers, Leroy Jenkins and Andrew Cyrille), the "Cecil Taylor Ensemble" recently played concerts at Wisconsin and at Dayton University in Ohio and it is scheduled to make its New York debut at Hunter College in May.

The band's repertoire consists entirely of Taylor compositions, pieces which he describes as "embodying ideas that crystallized for me around 1960 and which were first revealed on the 1966 Blue Note dates [Unit Structures and Conquistador] and then in the procedures Michael Mantler borrowed for the Jazz Composers Orchestra (JCOA, 1968) record. They represent a development of those ideas, plus what's current in my musical vocabulary today. I'm involved in the investigation, on a very consistent and steady basis, of the timbres inherent in the instruments of the band, an exploration of their potential, and an attempt to make a definitive sound with a larger number of people than the scene in New York allows.

"This opportunity to work with a large number of musicians—which enables you to do so many things you cannot do with a small unit—could not have happened in New York," Taylor continued. "The scene has forced Monk to play with just four people for so many years and it has imposed unnatural limitations on what he does. At Wisconsin we've been able to rehearse five or six days a week since September because the school is paying for the rehearsal hall. The unique 'high' that I've been getting in Wisconsin, from the nature of the band and from the continual level of activity I've been able to experience is similar to the one I've gotten in Europe when I've worked every night for a prolonged period."

The personnel of Taylor's band (male and female) are young and inexperienced. It's also mostly white. What, I wanted to know, was the significance of these circumstances for him?

"The inexperience of some of the players is a virtue rather than a drawback. There are fewer things to unlearn. My approach to the members of the band—which is similar to the kind of approach I use in the class that I teach—'Black Music from 1920 to the Present'—constitutes a fundamental attack against the whole structure of the way music is given to people and also against how our parents taught us and what they thought was necessary and important to teach us. All of us intuitively knew the things young people know today, but we could not implement our intuitions because of the way we were taught. This is why people drop out of school. I don't tell people in the band how to play. I just tell them: 'Play.' Then, by doing it, they begin to see how to play. I've dispensed with the idea of teaching notes as such. I play for them and they write down what they want to. We have someone in the band who has been playing only seven months. I confront him with possibilities around the one note he can play with ease and have him see how that one note relates to a living musical structure

"As for the personnel of the band being dominated by whites, that's true. But aesthetically the band is dominated by me, and that's one of the most interesting and exciting aspects of it. White musicians are serving a black director and implementing his concepts, rather than the other way around.

"I think this is very important. You see, black music is the face of white culture and white culture is very busy denying it. That's why CBS could give an hour to Janis Joplin and call her the 'Queen of the Blues.' So I'm involved with making it impossible for white culture to deny the truth any longer. As one who bows to the omnipotence of black creativity in music, I'm also involved with conveying spiritual knowledge to anyone who will hear it. Janis Joplin heard something, but what she didn't hear were the spiritual laws and heritage which determine what the tradition is. If she had heard that she'd probably still be alive.

"I'm saying that what African culture has been about is the celebration of life, of joy and of creativity—the manifestations of which are to make one high. The white plantation owner saying, 'Goddamn, where did they get all that energy from?' thought it was just physical energy, but it was more than that, it was spiritual recognition, a recognition that all things in the universe have energy, that you are part of the universe and that everything around you gives you energy. Africans were agricultural, but they paid homage to nature in their dances, in their consecration of a tree before they cut it down.

"The white people who are in the band are in the band because they responded to this concept.

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