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The Not So Strange and Bizarre Life of Mike Taylor


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Composer-pianist, Mike Taylor, lies buried in a touchingly simple grave in a cemetery in Southend. His body was found on the beach at Leigh-on-Sea in Essex in January 1969. It was assumed that he had committed suicide. He was 30 years old and didn't leave much of a legacy—a couple of albums now highly prized, a CD of his tunes and songs recorded by the New Jazz Orchestra a few years after his death, and one or two tracks written or co-written for Cream in the late-60s. And yet his life and short career remain a source of fascination for jazz fans that belies his lack of success during his life.

Ronald Michael Taylor was born in 1938 in West London. His younger brother, Terry, was a photographer and an habitué of the London jazz scene of the early 1960s. What happened to him is unknown. Their sister Muriel was their parents' third child. She married an estate agent in Whitstable, Kent and died in 2008 childless. Both parents had died during World War II, their father due to an unspecified illness contracted whilst serving with the armed forces. Their mother died in the autumn of 1944. The circumstances of her death are unclear.

As a result, the three children were brought up in some affluence by their grandparents, who owned a decorating supplies business. The family lived in a big, detached Victorian villa overlooking the common in Ealing. Jack Bruce, who played on Taylor's album, Trio, remarked that, "I remember going to their house to have a rehearsal and it was very middle class by my very limited experience," he laughs. "It was all very sort of posh, very straight—that's the only word I can use." Saxophonist Dave Tomlin, who played in Taylor's quartet, knew him as well as anyone and notes, "His grandparents were very proper and they had this big house. So, it was quite an affluent area—no yobbos or anything like that." Sadly, none of the musicians who played with Taylor were curious enough to ask him about his background.

It's often surprising how bits of jazz history intersect, but another musician who met Taylor at that point was saxophonist Evan Parker. Parker was in his teens and just starting to play jazz.

"One of my friends acted as a kind of go-between—we had a big room where we could rehearse and they were invited across but it was a long schlep across to Staines where we were but they did come across, Mike and Dave Tomlin. I think they thought—and they were right—that they were way ahead of us and were wasting their time. That's early sixties before they'd made records or anything like that."

Taylor worked as a jazz musician from around 1960-68, though he still held down a day job throughout the early period at least. Within those eight years, he went from being a well-groomed, fastidious young man to a shoeless and mentally disturbed down-and-out. Whether his decline was brought about primarily by drug use—LSD and cannabis—or the result of incipient psychosis remains unclear. However, his descent into his own strange hell was certainly a bizarre spectacle for those around him.

The beginnings of his career were straightforward enough, however. It's likely that his first performances were with a The Jazz Messengers-inspired quintet led by guitarist-turned-bassist Goudie Charles. Charles was just making his own first forays on the scene.

"We advertised for a pianist and we had about a dozen and Mike was one of them. And, in fact, the calibre of the guys was so good that he came third on our estimation. There was obviously a lot of Horace Silver in his playing then. He was a nice guy. He was just very ordinary, quite well-spoken, not like your average jazzer then. As I subsequently discovered, he came from quite a well-to-do family and that figured."

Despite being turned down, Taylor would turn up at gigs, sit in occasionally and even wrote a couple of pieces for the quintet. As Charles recalls, the tunes were fine but he adds, "There was nothing about Mike that would have suggested that in thirty or forty years time people were going to be investigating this guy's life."

Charles and Taylor's paths crossed again a short while later when Dave Tomlin told the bassist that Taylor was forming his own group and needed a bassist. Charles still has tapes of two tracks recorded by the group at a rehearsal, one of which, "Phrygie," opens the Trad Dads, Dirty Boppers & Free Fusioneers CD issued by Reel Recordings in 2012. At the time, Taylor's quintet were rehearsing at his grandparents' house and once more it is clear that Taylor's home life was quite different from that of his musical peers, as Charles explains,

"So, I went over there carrying my double bass on the tube which one did then. There's this house looking out onto Ealing Common with these huge windows. I was gob-smacked. Then this little old lady who must have been his grandmother came in—'Would you boys like a cup of tea?'—and it came in this lovely bone china. We were all living in grotty bed-sits all over the suburbs. It was amazing."

Like many other groups, the quintet had an audition with the BBC, which they passed without it actually leading to a recording. Charles remembers that one number they did for the audition was "Take the A Train." According to Charles, Ginger Baker (or as he was back then 'Pete Baker') was the band's first drummer.

"He was incredibly good but phenomenally loud. There was no amplification then. We were all acoustic and he just overwhelmed us. I don't know how the parting came but it was obviously amicable because later Mike wrote some numbers with him for Cream. So, they obviously kept in touch and Mike said to me, 'We're going to have to change drummers.' My fingers used to be bloodied because ridiculously you just pull so much harder with a loud drummer. It's a waste of time but everybody does it. I said, 'Who's replacing him?' He said, 'Oh, this great 17 year old drummer from Slough called Randy Jones.' If I'm going to be brutally honest, personally, I preferred playing with Randy. I'm not putting Pete down because he was a great drummer, and if we had all been amplified it would have been okay, but Randy was so much better for me personally to play with because he was very quiet and a wonderful player even at the age of 17. It was with Randy that I did the gig that I've got on the recording I made at Herne Bay Jazz club, near Whitstable in Kent."

By that point, Taylor had discovered modal jazz . "Phrygie" uses the Phrygian mode, being partly modal and partly based on chord changes. Charles still has the bass parts that Taylor wrote out for him.

Dave Tomlin had met Mike in 1961 in the Nucleus, a jazz cellar bar in the West End of London. "You could just turn up and play, if you had a pianist," he remembers. "Sometimes Davy Graham would come down and play guitar and we'd play. Then one night Mike turned up and we played with him and he began to talk to me about forming a group."

Horace Silver was Taylor's biggest influence back then. In time, Goudie Charles left the group and Ron Rubin came in on bass. At various times, Chris Bateson played trumpet, and at others (as on the recording of "Phrygie") it was Frank Powell. Gigs seem to have been irregular affairs but the quintet played several times at the Modern Jazz Workshop in Herne Bay. By that time, Taylor's grandparents had moved from London to Kent, as Ron Rubin recalls.

"We used to go down there in 1962 and play at the Modern Jazz Workshop. In the afternoon, we'd go along the front and smoke pot and eat ice cream (laughing). Then we'd go to his grandparents and they'd feed us biscuits and tea like a classic granny and granddad. Sometimes we were still stoned but they never noticed (laughing)."

Marijuana was easy to come by back then, as Dave Tomlin explains, "There used to be this guy called Jimmy Fox, a trumpet player, we mostly used to get it from. No one ever heard him actually play the trumpet," he laughs. "He had a false bottom in his case, so people would think he was a musician but when he took his trumpet out he had all these deals in there. It was a good cover."

As often the case in jazz, quite who played with who and when in Taylor's group is not entirely clear. For example, Jon Hiseman remembers that he took over on drums from Ginger Baker, who he understands left Mike's group to go with Graham Bond to form The Organisation. This seems to be at odds with Goudie Charles' recollections, who dates Baker's tenure as being earlier. Jack Bruce, on the other hand, remembers that he first connected with Taylor through Dick Heckstall-Smith, by which time Hiseman was playing drums in Taylor's group.

"I think Dick took me to hear this new drummer called Jon Hiseman and who was playing with Mike Taylor in Blackheath. That's how I met Mike, although I did know his brother who was a photographer and who took some very nice pictures of the Graham Bond Organisation in the very early days."

Although he later recorded with Taylor, Bruce never played any actual gigs with the pianist. So when Rubin left in 1962 to go to Mallorca to play at the Indigo Jazz Club in Palma—it was there that he came across a teenage jazz enthusiast called Robert Wyatt—it seems likely that Tony Reeves was his replacement and, as Hiseman says, was brought in at his suggestion.

For a relative unknown, Taylor certainly seemed able to pull some highly talented musicians into his orbit. Forty years on and Dave Tomlin marvels at the music they made together. "He'd got his finger on something that was utterly unique and different. His compositions were just unlike anything else. It was so utterly beautiful but it was still jazz. It was an honour to play his music because nothing else was like it."

And Taylor certainly wasn't alone on the British scene in trying to find new ways of playing jazz, as Jack Bruce makes clear. "I thought he was very forward-looking at the time and very open. I was originally in a trio with Ginger and Graham Bond but Graham was only playing alto sax at that time. So, it was very much along the lines of a sort of Ornette Coleman band really in the sense it was a trio without a piano. We were all trying to find our own music as it were."

Back then all reports suggest that Taylor was quiet, polite, shy in manner and very precise in his dress. His hair was cut short and he was always clean-shaven. True, he smoked pot and was a musician but these were the only "bohemian" aspects to his life. He was married to a beautiful girl called Ann and looked more like a suburban nine-to-fiver than a jazz musician. For much of the period up to 1966, he continued to work in the family business. Taylor was, however, an early user of LSD, along with people like Dave Tomlin, Graham Bond and Ginger Baker. Tomlin picks up the story.

"It was much more an elite thing. People didn't know about LSD. There were all kinds of happenings in private flats and everyone would take acid. It was much later that it became a commoner sort of thing. Round about '64 there were Americans coming over here and bringing this new kind of energy, if you like. The English thing was very polite but they would cut through all that. So, that was very attractive to a lot of musicians."

According to Ron Rubin, Taylor became quite a proselytiser for the drug, which at that time was not illegal. "One night Mike and a couple of others, including a chap called Steve Stollmann—brother of the man who ran ESP records—came round. They said this is the greatest thing in the world blah, blah, blah. Something in me said, 'Don't!' I had read Aldous Huxley's Heaven and Hell and, of course, Graham Bond went potty and threw himself under a train and Mike went potty and Dave Tomlin went very weird for a time. So, I was glad I listened to that voice and not to them."

With hindsight, there were already signs that all was not well with Taylor. The neatness that others have noted with hindsight seems to border on the obsessive. He insisted on taping each rehearsal and performance and then listening endlessly to the result. The way he drew his own staves on artist pads with a five-pointed pen and copied each part by hand was a time-consuming and totally unnecessary practice, even if, in trumpeter Henry Lowther's words they were "works of art in themselves."

For a couple of years, Taylor took LSD without anyone noticing any significant changes in his behavior. Gigs, though sporadic, continued and the band—at that time still a quartet—played its most prestigious date on August 29, 1965 supporting Ornette Coleman at Croydon's Fairfield Halls. Given the obstacles caused by the work permit system of the time, getting to hear "new wave" American artists in the UK was a rare occurrence and their albums were often only available on import in specialist shops. As a result, Ornette's set proved a surprise for Jon Hiseman but not just because of the radicalism of his approach,

"I was surprised for the simple reason it never occurred to me that anybody was doing anything like we were doing anywhere else in the world at the time. There weren't any musicians coming into London playing that sort of music and living in suburbia. I didn't have access to any esoteric recordings that might be in some famous jazz record shop in the centre of London. I had no idea that there was this movement in New York playing free music. What I was doing was a totally original form for me and it wasn't based on anything I'd heard from anywhere else. In fact, people around me, including musicians who were my contemporaries, would come and listen to this strange Mike Taylor thing and didn't get it at all. So, the Ornette Coleman concert was a bit of a surprise for me from that perspective."

The group's performance was given a fairly lukewarm response by critics, though Ornette was, according to Tomlin, quite complimentary. However, with the support of trumpeter Ian Carr, producer Denis Preston agreed to cut an album with the band. Pendulum featured Taylor, Hiseman, Tony Reeves and Dave Tomlin on soprano. Again some critics didn't get it and, for the time, it simply didn't sound like anything else around. The group took standards like "A Night in Tunisia" and "But Not For Me" and fashioned wholly new compositions from them. On the Gillespie tune, only Tomlin ever quotes the theme in its entirety. The group play across bar lines and yet the music swings. As for the three Taylor originals, these are even better with the title track a stone classic of 60s jazz.

For Tony Reeves, the originals work best and he expresses doubts about Taylor's use of the three standards. "I thought they didn't work at all. The original things like "Pendulum" itself were much more effective but "But Not For Me" skirts and wanders around the tune and eventually launches off into hyperspace. You could have played the free form part of it to any head."

It did well enough, however, for Preston to ask Taylor to make a second album for his Lansdowne Series. Meantime, Taylor had also written some pieces for Group Sounds Five, a group "led" by trumpeter Henry Lowther and also featuring Jon Hiseman and Ron Rubin. Of the four pieces he wrote for the band, both "Black and White Raga" and "Thirteen Note Samba" revealed something of Taylor's compositional ambition. The former is featured on the wonderful New Jazz Orchestra recording Mike Taylor Remembered available on Dusk Fire and showcasing many of the musicians who had played with Taylor.

The follow up to Pendulum was a Trio-cum-quartet affair called appropriately Trio, featuring Hiseman and Ron Rubin, back on bass having returned from Mallorca. On three tracks—Sammy Kahn's "While My Lady Sleeps" and two Taylor originals, "Two Autumns" and "Guru"—Jack Bruce joins Rubin on bass and he alone is heard on "Stella By Starlight."

Ron Rubin seemed rather nonplussed about the record 40 plus years on and recalls being told by Taylor, "to play as far away from the standard chords," as he could on "The End of a Love Affair." While accepting that it worked, it seemed "wrong" to him then and now. But as he added in his journal, "Hiseman plays beautifully. For me the best track is the hauntingly lovely "Abena.""

Another entry in Rubin's journal gives both a flavor of the times and a glimpse of Rubin's ambivalence and of the pleasures and pains of working with Mike Taylor,

"Saturday 18 February 1967—Mike Taylor, the Three O'Clock Man came around, as usual bang on time. A gauche mélange of inspiration and inadequacy, hipness and naïveté. Pot smoking, we did our way-out free-form improvisations. Mike tapes and listens to them in the night—heat of the moment creations, which he then transmutes into compositions. There's a lot of dross but when it gels, it's magic. Gabbed for an hour about theories of music and new forms of expression."

The irony that an album he played on is now so sought after certainly does not escape Rubin, as he says, "By 2007, the disc had become a collector's item. I sold my spare copy for £200 and heard the album was on offer on the net for over a grand. At the time it was made Mike was working as a dishwasher. That says it all."

Rubin is right about "Abena," but the record is quite magnificent with "Guru" another dark, exotic masterpiece, while everything else—standards or originals—sounds fresh and beautifully weighted. Trio was Taylor's swan song, though Neil Ardley and the New Jazz Orchestra would revive his work for the Mike Taylor Remembered album and Jon Hiseman with Colosseum would keep the flame alive. Both records are indispensable parts of any self-respecting collection. Whilst Trio was briefly available on Universal, a reissue of Pendulum stalled over an ownership issue, that has never been resolved.

Some of the songs on Mike Taylor Remembered—"Timewind," "Summer Sounds, Summer Sights" and "Jumping Off The Sun"—actually began life as a projected Taylor-Tomlin musical, with the latter contributing lyrics. They never finished the project but perhaps inspired by this experience, Taylor collaborated with old friend Ginger Baker on songs for the third Cream album, Wheels Of Fire. They produced three songs—the whimsical "Passing The Time," eccentric "Pressed Rat And Warthog" and stirring, magnificent "Those Were The Days." For the first time, he was making some money from his music and he was also writing for the New Jazz Orchestra. The band's second and finest album, Déjeuner Sur L'herbe, includes two fine tunes by Taylor—"Ballad" and "Study" (based on an exercise played by Spanish guitarist Segovia).

It's hard to be exact about the time sequence but the contrast between increasing success and personal turmoil was, however, to become more and more marked. His marriage had ended effectively in 1965, with Ann leaving him for another man, though they were only finally divorced in 1968. According to Tomlin, Taylor was understandably devastated by the separation and when the same thing happened to him, they both struggled to cope. Pendulum was made against this background. As Tomlin remembers: "I don't know how I did it. But you just get in the studio and do it, though I remember there was one point where I just wailed out what I was feeling at that time on one of the pieces."

It wasn't long before Taylor gave up his flat handing it over to his brother and Jon Hiseman. According to the latter, from that point on Taylor was of no fixed abode, though he usually found a friend's floor or couch to sleep on. Often he would turn up at their place or else he'd stay with Graham Bond. Taylor's hair got longer, he grew a beard and abandoned shoes. Jack Bruce, hardly a prude, was shocked. "He changed drastically. He used to come along to Graham Bond gigs and sit at the front playing bongos or something. He completely changed and became a hippy, I guess."

In 1967, Taylor even served a short prison sentence, probably for possession of drugs. By now Dave Tomlin had embarked on his own life odyssey and was living and working at the Notting Hill Free School. One day, there was a knock at the door.

"There was this guy standing there like some dirty tramp. He looked pretty mad but the Free School had this rule, 'nobody get's turned away.' He had dirty bare feet and hair all over the place, beard all over the place and he had this little drum and red eyes staring. So, I made him a cup of tea and gave it to him. As I looked up, I suddenly realized it was Mike Taylor. I said, 'Mike! Fuck it's you.' He just stared. He stayed for a while and then one day he disappeared."

The tales about Mike Taylor began to get stranger and stranger. Tomlin had formed an ad hoc improv-performance group called Giant Sun Trolley and Taylor was supposed to join them for a gig at the UFO club in February 1967. Instead of joining the band onstage, Taylor walked through the throng of dancers and lay down on the floor staring at the ceiling. As Tomlin says, "It was a statement of some sort but of what I don't know. You couldn't talk with him. You either saw what he saw or you didn't get it."

Around this period, Taylor asked Henry Lowther to do a gig with him at Ronnie's Old Place along with Ron Rubin and Jon Hiseman. Henry remembers the experience only too well.

"Mike used to walk about with a little drum made of clay. On this gig, he alternated between playing the drum and playing the piano. He'd just get up on the piano and hit it with his arms or with his elbows. Then he'd come back from the piano, sit on the floor and play this clay drum and, periodically, he would scream. Everybody was disturbed by this, the audience. Everyone."

Evan Parker has a similar memory and tells that drummer John Stevens reserved a chair for Taylor at the famous Little Theatre Club.

"But I remember later on when Mike was obviously no longer playing piano but doing a lot of psychedelics, I think, he used to come to the Little Theatre Club and was always welcome. Sometimes, he'd sit there and play a little hand-drum, sometimes he'd say something but he was never asked to stay away. People liked him a lot."

Ron Rubin remembers a particularly bizarre gig at Ronnie's Old Place with just him and Mike Taylor. His journal entry for Monday 28 August 1967 reads:

"Old Place again. Duo with Mike Taylor. Mike turned up bearded and barefoot and had a job getting past the doorman. Played no piano at all, just a broken tabla drum and pipes. Astonished American couple in the front row gaping at the burning fag between Mike's toes. At one point Mike seemed to be talking mumbo-jumbo. When I said, I couldn't understand him, he said, 'It's OK, Ron—I'm talking to the loudspeaker.' Manager, John Jack, goggling at all this from the back of the club. But he did pay us."

Though Rubin, and others, tried to get Taylor to seek help, he just brushed such suggestions aside or, as Jon Hiseman says, "would just grin knowingly to himself about things you couldn't possibly know." Rubin's journal entries concerning Taylor over that last year of his life begin with one entry that makes chilling reading. It says that friends were becoming scared to let Taylor into their homes.

"Saturday 13 January 1968—Henry Lowther says Mike is going completely potty—he attacked Ann, his wife, because she 'wasn't treating the man she now lives with properly' and is almost certainly certifiable and perhaps dangerous. Marie, my wife, is scared for the children and Dick Heckstall-Smith's wife won't let him into the house. Mike thinks that Dave Tomlin wants to kill him. He seems to be sinking fast."

Then he asked people to return his manuscripts. One day, Jon Hiseman came home just as it was getting light. "I returned to see a lot of white paper sticking out of the dustbins. Mike had thrown all his scores away and I took them out. It was these that formed the basis of the album, Mike Taylor Remembered." But much of the rest has been lost.

On or around 19 January 1969, Mike Taylor made his way to the Southend area. His body was found washed up in Leigh Creek not far from the station. After a week, he was eventually identified through his fingerprints, which were taken when he was sent to prison in 1967. The coroner returned an open verdict, the only possible course.

There have certainly been a few fanciful stories about Taylor's demise. Local Southend newspaper reports describe the man found on the beach as being "aged between 25 and 30, 5ft8ins tall, of medium build with shoulder length dark brown hair, auburn moustache, a long straggly full beard, straight nose, blue eyes and large ears with small lobes. He was dressed in a cream-striped shirt, two white vests, two pairs of trousers and brown shoes." The police spokesman quoted in the report adds, "It is very strange he has not yet been identified. He was found with £6 on him and had been in the water for about six or seven hours—perhaps less."

It is unclear what Taylor was doing in the area but Leigh-on-Sea had been a regular town for the band to play in. The mainstream trumpeter, Digby Fairweather, remembers vividly a performance at the town's Studio Jazz Club in the mid-sixties. At the inquest, Taylor's sister suggested that he might have been in Southend to attend a concert. She also told the court that her brother had tried to "gas himself two-and-a-half years ago 'due to his inability to be recognized as a musician.'" She continued: "I saw him at the beginning of January and he was much better because he was now recognized."

Of course, it is not unusual for people who subsequently commit suicide to experience an improvement in mood before they take their life, what his sister Muriel had noted might have been just a shadow. LSD use had clearly affected Taylor psychologically. We know that following the making of Trio he had slept rough in Richmond Park for a time communing with the deer or otherwise living with Graham Bond, with whom he would consume acid in large quantities. It seems likely that he did have an underlying predisposition for psychosis but given the volume of drugs he was using—LSD and cannabis—these alone would surely have done him no good. His death by drowning 'under mysterious circumstances' near Southend-on-Sea in 1969 has merely enhanced the myth. A tragic figure, dying romantically for his art?

The evidence, what there is, suggests that it was as an accident, or more, likely a misadventure. The curious aspects of the case are how he was dressed, that he had a reasonable amount of money on him and that he had travelled from London to Leigh-on-Sea. People in distress do strange things but would Taylor really have taken himself all the way to Leigh to kill himself, however disturbed his mind? The additional vests and two pairs of trousers he was wearing might suggest that he had prepared for the cold January weather. In general, individuals actively considering suicide do not tend to worry about such details. As for the money he had on him, back then, this was plenty to buy food and pay for a couple of nights in a reasonable, if cheap hotel. It all suggests a level of preparation and planning that was unnecessary for someone intending to take his own life.

We will never know, of course, and many will no doubt prefer the romanticized version of the tormented artist too emotionally sensitive to survive in so cruel a world. In a way, any mystery is surely exaggerated. Mike Taylor took a lot of psychedelic drugs, which can mess up even the most stable individual. His behavior, bizarre as it became, stemmed from a psychosis probably brought on by drug use. There's nothing mysterious in that. One thing is clear, on 19 January 1969, the British jazz scene lost one of the most interesting talents it had ever produced. Mike Taylor now rests in peace and on his gravestone in a Southend cemetery are the words, probably written by him,

"A dive from a springboard/Into cool clear water/And yet I furnish my springboard/With my experience/So that my life/Is more than my action."

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