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The Not So Strange and Bizarre Life of Mike Taylor

Duncan Heining By

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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,

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