Cecil Taylor is 83 years old today! Let’s celebrate the genius, the complicated character, the inventor, the uniqueness. I love Cecil because he’s always innovating, he dares to be who he’s, he rebels, he inflames. There is only one Cecil.
To have an interview with Cecil is very difficult. He doesn’t trust anybody and knowing how this music business is, I totally agree with him!. However, I want to expose today few of the many lines we exchanged. Various people know these lines, and that’s the reason why I’m revealing it today; as homage to this extraordinary gifted man. The things you are going to read make part of a book. Every minute spent with Cecil is worthy. Who cares about the sleep deprivation when you discover that Cecil is pure energy and passion?. You better get ready for the journey. If you are not ready for the trip you have to leave the barge. But if you want to test the waters, jump into Cecil’s boat and brace yourself because the pilgrimage bears to be extremely intense.
Born on March 25, 1929 Cecil Percival Taylor is a Master among the Jazz Masters. A conversation with Cecil is an extra-galactic ride. He has an incredible memory. He’s is like a savant encyclopedia. Spending hours, days, months, years with Cecil, being close to him is a great joy. Now, when Cecil begins to talks the trip can last hours…even days. Yes days. Cecil can talk!. He recalls very well his childhood: “Percival was my father’s name. My father’s father was a full-blooded Kiowa. He named my father Percy after the wealthy family that he worked for whose name was Percy. My father’s mother was a black woman named Barbara. Dad’s father was a Catholic minister. He had his own church and his own farm in Cumnock, North Carolina. My father worked as a head chef for Dr. Kindred who was a British doctor topmost of the River Crest Sanitarium in Astoria, Queens. He knew the Percy family and he knew my father’s father. Dig… when I was ready to be born, my father brought my mother to Dr. Kindred, he knew that this five foot woman, who weighed no more than 90 lbs. without me in her belly and had a foot size of three, was everything that dad ever wanted. Dr. Kindred knew that my mother was dad’s dream, so when dad went to Dr. Kindred, he took my father to St. John’s Hospital, a Catholic hospital in Queens, New York. They found a doctor to perform the caesarean operation. Dr. Kindred told the doctor that this woman will live through the operation. Mother and I survived the operation”
When Cecil decides to talk he uses the elenchus rhetoric and if you don’t know him, its’ very difficult to follow up his dialectic method. He can keep five conversation subjects at the same time. I love this challenge as well as his husky voice. He smokes like a train and talks about about his family roots: “Dr. Kindred was from North Carolina where my father was born in 1891. He took my father to work at River Crest in 1916. Before then, dad was working as a farmer on his father’s farm which dad had been working on since the age of five. When World War I started around 1914, Dr. Kindred told my dad that he did not have to serve his country. Dr. Kindred would take care of everything, so he brought my father up to New York to work at River Crest Sanitarium. He set my father up in a house in Long Island City, Queens. My father understood how Dr. Kindred felt about him. Kindred showed dad more love and generosity than dad’s own father."
It’s known that when people get old they tend to remember things from their childhood, it’s the case with Cecil. He has vivid memories about that period of his life and assesses:” You see, my father used to tell me, “Son, you can catch more bees with honey than with vinegar.” Dad must have given Dr. Kindred and the Percy family a lot of honey. They must have been drowning in all the honey that dad made for them. Dad was the oldest of five boys. His younger brothers were Seth, Russell, Hobart, and Lesley. When I met Seth’s daughter Vanessa in 1986, she told me that my dad brought my mother to his family’s home in North Carolina to recover from the operation. She said that every time I cried, it was my father who picked me up. Vanessa’s sister would tell my father, “Percy, you don’t have to pick him up every time he cries.”
The way how Percy Taylor loved Cecil was very special and settled the fundaments for a long and very unique journey. This unconditional love stills an important component on Cecil’s life. He assures: “My father loved me and he made unbelievable sacrifices for us. I understand that we men have no idea what the pain of a caesarean operation is like, so when my mother recovers, she could do no wrong in my father’s eyes. When mother was better, we went to Long Island City where Dad owns a brick house and all the land around it. My father never talked about love but it was obvious that he loved me and my mother. My father was raised a Christian under his father’s tutelage, and he stayed a Christian until the day he died. He was hip! When he became a Christian, he got his own church and his own farm, so dad became a Christian. What I see is that if people are oppressed, they are going to be more Christian than the man they are working for. There was pressure to homogenize society then. You see, Samuel Clemens, otherwise known as Mark Twain, the man whom Bill Cosby called “the best American humorist,” said that “Native American Indians should take a bath or they should be eliminated.”
He keep talking…:” My father always made sacrifices to keep everybody happy. He was a silent man. He never raised his voice to me or anyone. He worked 16 hours a day as a chef at the River Crest Sanitarium. Today, sanitariums are called psychiatric wards, resorts, detoxification clinics, and rehabilitation centers. When I started playing in the clubs around New York City, dad would tell me when one of “my people,” meaning jazz musicians, were staying at River Crest. In the summer of 1948, Thelonious Monk was there."
The first time I met Cecil in NYC he asked me: “what is your astrological sign? you remind me my mother!” . I said: “I’m a Scorpio”, Cecil cracked laughing!. So, I wanted to know more about his mother. This is a subject Cecil never avoids: “My mother was named Almeida. People called her Mattie. My mother’s mother was a full blooded Cherokee and her father was a black piano player. My mother’s mother lived in Long Branch, New Jersey. Almeida had two younger sisters named Blanche and Josephine and one younger brother Uncle Bill who was my roommate until the day my mother died. My mother was a tough woman. She was filled with rage. Mother played the piano and the violin. She had made a film with a black producer before she married my father. Mother’s sister Blanche lived in West Medford, Massachusetts and her sister Josephine lived in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Mother brought me to meet her mother one day in Long Branch. My grandmother ignored me, but I remember the ferocity in her voice when she looked at my mother and said to her oldest daughter, “You don’t make the mistake that I have made.” Now as a little boy, I’m saying, “What is she pissed off at?” Her husband isn’t here but he left her a house. I’ll tell you the reason my mother’s mother was angry. My mother’s father was a musician, a piano player. My mother knew that the reason why her father was not there when she was younger was because he was on the road. It was a matriarchal society. The minute you took the man out of that home, you took out an essential part of the family because the man did the farming, the fighting, and the hunting and then would go home to mommy. No matter how much money these men made for these women, these women were so enraged.”
I know childhood shapes our adulthood, I know we all are the result of our education. In Cecil’s case his mother’s education and his father unconditional love count a lot. I believe Cecil personality holds both characters. I should replace holds by fight…yes; it’s the fight betwen the two characters. Cecil could love and give but he can also express a lot of anger …just as his mother did. He confesses: “Mother’s castration of me started at birth. I am left handed and she wanted me to be right handed. The torture she put me through to try to make me right handed, I don’t even want to go into. Mother taught me how to dress, what to eat, how to behave. One day she said, “Tonight you are going to take your elbows off of the table and you‘re going to eat your vegetables first.” I made a sound and in my inner eye, I could not believe that a mother would do that to her son. It must have been out self-preservation. When I turned my head, I saw a sharp knife stuck in the wall behind me. My mother said to me, “If you ever defy me, I will kill you.”
Every time he mentions this story I have tears on my eyes. He watches me with those big eyes, lights a cigarette and keep going: “I remember once coming up from the basement. I see dad reading a newspaper on the front porch. Mother was inside the house entertaining her friends at the dining room table and drinking coca cola. I told her, “Mom, dad is reading his newspaper on the porch.” She said, “He better finish fast because I have work for him to do.” Father entered the house and he would cook for my mother and her friends. He would eat alone in the kitchen while mother entertained her friends in the dining room. Nobody fucked with mother…Scorpio…ha!”
Every word Cecil said has a very strong mean. His childhood haunts him but I really want to know more about the piano. He finally talks: “The Lincoln upright piano in my father’s house belonged to Uncle Bill. He played the violin, trombone, piano, and trap drums. I know now why my mother treated her younger brother better than she did my father. You see, in Egypt, the line of spiritual royalty went through the women. If the Queen had a brother by her mother, she valued her brother more than the Pharaoh. This is why my Uncle Bill was more important to my mother than my father was. Mother loved Uncle Bill more than the man who changed her life economically…isn’t it interesting?”…
Of course it’s! can you find out there people with such extraordinary journey and emotional burden to bear? Cecil and the piano…it took me months before he talks about it. I know Cecil well, I know what he means, I know what's behind those eyes and the the meaning of his husky intonations. We celebrated his 82 birthday in Manhattan last year. A selected group of people came with their love and devotion. He chooses them. It wasn’t easy...when I asked him for a list of friends to invite to the gathering, he said to me; “you know I have no friends”. I laughed!. I know Cecil doesn’t like celebrations or whatsoever. He changed of subject: “We have inches. In England, they have the metric system. Aha was the Egyptian measurement. There were certain people who took Egyptian history and said it was their own. When they found out the measurement of pyramids and the relationship of the Sun, they wren telling us that the Egyptians did not have a mathematical system. Check it out, when Min Tanaka and I went to the home of American Modern Dance , Jacob’s Pillow (in Becket, Massachusetts), Min is there, they start asking him questions but they don’t know anything about Butoh dancers. I got salty and I got up and I gave them all a fucking lecture. I told them how ignorant they were. Not only did I dance with Min Tanaka there, I also sang and wrote the fucking music! Now, I like to go to a literary bar In Lower East Side. The owner is a very clever dude. He’s a former attorney and artist. On my birthday (March 25, 2011), the bar tender, John opens the door and he hands me a Brandy Alexander, and when I got ready to leave, John didn’t say a word. I told John what my mother did to me with a knife and he looked at me and told me about his young brother. Johnny said: “Look, my mother is 87 and she is not able to remember certain things.” You have in the bar also Daniel Christian…He’s a very intelligent type of cat. He has a lot of shit to talk, he knows things… you see. His girlfriend’s mother was an opera singer.”
Cecil is fascinated by dancers. He dances very well. His cooperation with dancers has been well documented (Min Tanaka, Mikhail Baryshnikov…) and because I know how he feels about Misha I try to bring him up to the subject. He said what he wants to say: “Merce Cunningham told me, “In the morning, I get up and stretch upward and as far as I can go.” In my exercises, I incorporate that."
I want he to fill me with his multifarious stories. He reveals: “Who was in the Count Basie band in 1944 when he played at the Roxy Theater? I know there was Lester Young on tenor sax. He was followed by Illinois Jacquet. Illinois, he played the harmonica too, but I could tell that his technique, I mean, you felt Jacquet was the first tenor player who had the technique to really scream, not him physically screaming but with his fingers and the breath, you see. The one who carried that technique was Albert Ayler. Sunny brought me Albert. Sunny is still living in Paris. He also brought me the saxophonist Charles Gayle and tenor player Frank Wright, and you see, he is to the avant garde what Art Blakey and Max Roach are to bebop, but he turned it around and Art and Max aren’t very happy. Once again, Sunny introduces me to a man with fire in his eyes. This Is in 1962. He said, “They will not let me play.” They were young European men who were into the most modern jazz music. When I heard Albert Ayler play, I said, “Stay right there,” and I called Jimmy. Jimmy loved Charlie Parker and Lester Young."
Cecil knows about everything. I think the secret is in the many books he reads. Cecil buys books almost every moth and he reads all of them. He knows about horses, boxing, basketball (he once owns a basketball team!). He follows up what’s going in the world but he hates television. “They always lie”…I think is true.
I mentioned baseball and Cecil muses: “In 1947, Jackie Robinson is the first black man to go into major league baseball. There were no blacks in major league baseball before then, and Branch Ricky who was the General Manager of the Dodgers told Robinson, “They are going to be mean to you as if they had the right to be mean to you because you’re black.” They sent him to Montreal, and then he came up the next year. Meanwhile, I’m doing what I want to do and I play this piece for Madame Levy (charlotte Levy) and she says this to me, “The way you’re abusing your talent, you should consider being a garbage man.” He laughs and then pursue…: “Dig this, Charlotte Levy’s brother Melvin and his wife were anthropologists. They went to Africa. They want me to play the piano part to a clarinet and piano sonata written by Boulez. For Henry Zucker’s examination, I played the piano part. I came back to New York to see Ms. Levy and when I played it for her, she said, “Oh, you decided to get busy.”….then he laugh again… and me too!
Then it comes the subject of piano players, Cecil lights another cigarette and tells me: “I go out to California, Paul Bley had made a record with Ornette Coleman. When Paul Bley, who came from Canada, comes to New York, I knew that Paul when we played, we had a different language and at a certain point Paul takes me. As years go by, Paul says, “I have had so many gigs, I don’t have to practice.” So, here we are in California, and Paul opens for me. Paul never liked me very much. If I was Paul, I would not have liked me either. Even when he decided to play, he felt he did not have to practice. When I walked into my dressing room after the concert, this is at least 20 years after I left Boston, who walked in there? Marge Neil, still looking beautiful. She looked at me and smiled, “I see you’re still up to it aren’t you?” Those are the kind of things that happen in your life that money can’t buy."
And of course, we talk about Jimmy (Lyons) a lot. Jimmy was very important in Cecil’s life. Cecil loved Jimmy and Jimmy loved Cecil. There are two pictures close to his bed, you can see Jimmy and the other one is William (Parker). One sense the love when Cecil recalls Jimmy, his face changes; “I first saw the wonderful Jimmy Lyons standing in front of the Village Gate in Greenwich Village. The club was located on Bleecker Street and Thompson Street. He was talking to a young woman. This was in 1960. Jimmy was like my father. He never raised his voice. When I got to know Jimmy, he told me that he and Sonny Rollins lived in the Bronx. Jimmy made his way through the downtown clubs with Sonny. One day, he took the young Sonny Rollins to see Big Bad Ben Webster, who was a tenor player like Sonny. When Ben finds out that Sonny plays the tenor sax, he invites Sonny up on the stage to play. As soon as Ben starts playing, Sonny almost fell off the stage. Jimmy had to hold him up. It was Jimmy who took Sonny to meet Bud Powell. Jimmy liked Lester Young and Donald Byrd and his favorite singer was Sarah Vaughan. When I start working with Jimmy Lyons, I learn that the woman whom I saw him talking to in front of the Village Gate got angry at him. She took his saxophone and hit Jimmy in his mouth. He lost two teeth but nobody knew it when he was playing. In the beginning, Jimmy and I might get three gigs. He played with other musicians and singers, and sometimes I played solo gigs.”
Cecil is also a poet. He began to write poetry in the 60s when he falls in love with a poet. But poetry first found him: “Bob Kaufman was a poet from New Orleans. He had a loft in Soho. I was playing at the 55 Club on 55 Christopher Street in Greenwich Village when he asked me to come over to his place after my show to hear him read his poetry. I told him that my set did not end until 4:30 am. Bob went to the club and he waited for me to finish my set around 4:30 am. He brought me to his loft and he read his poems until 1 pm the next day. He was a gifted poet. This was in 1961. Bob hooked up with Roi Jones and Allen Ginsberg. I also met Saita, a Scorpio woman at the 55 Club. She took a liking to me. When I met Saita, she had stars on her forehead. She told me, “You look like my oldest brother and he’s a pimp. You will be my little brother.” She designed her own clothes. She had a walk that would turn heads. All of the men admired her. She was a player. She shows me how to dress for my sets at the 55 Club. I have been blessed with wonderful women in my life.”
Sunny Murray is another character, someone important in Cecil’s life. He revokes:” I decided to bring in the drummer Sunny Murray after Jimmy Lyons tells me what Sunny said to him when Jimmy brought him to Europe, “that mother fucka Cecil Taylor. I could have been the greatest bop drummer in the world.” Sunny could be the funniest man in the world. Sunny knew how to play like Elvin Jones. He is a revolutionary drummer. He invented the language, and drummers like Max Roach and Art Blakey hated him. When I get Sunny into my loft, he goes, “When you play like that, what I am supposed to do?” I said, “Sunny, clear your mind.” He got it. In October 1962, we record my album Nefertiti, The Beautiful One Has Come for Reverent Records. Sunny had showed me his scar. I told him, “Sunny, you know what you have here? It’s an old diagram. You think the cats are going to say ‘WOW’ when you show them. They are not going to understand it, Sunny Murray. I love Sunny. .."
A big silence comes after. Then he said: “Check this shit out: In October 1962, a promoter brought me and my band, Jimmy Lyons and Sunny Murray, to Europe. Our first show is at the Metropole Jazz Club in Oslo, Norway. The company rented a big dancehall. Sunny and I are at each other’s throats. Whenever that happened, Jimmy would put his arm around my waist and say to me, “Remember Cecil, you are older.” And then I would calm down. After our first set, a young Norwegian woman comes up to Jimmy Lyons and tells him, “Are you people crazy? Don’t you know that we are supposed to dance to this music? You people should have been born dead.” She told this to Jimmy Lyons. Jimmy was a very handsome man, it’s a genetic thing. So when our second set was next, the manager told us, “If your group plays, we will not make any money. Dig: our second show is at the Golden Circle in Stockholm Copenhagen. These Swedes knew all about contemporary jazz in America. A painter from Sweden named Kurt Lindgren gets up on the stage and starts playing the bass with us. While I was in Europe, I got to hear music from György Ligeti, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Pierre Boulez before their music came to America. The third leg of the tour takes place in Copenhagen. Here, Sunny introduced me to the tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler. He tells me, “You should hear me play. I am the best saxophonist you’ve ever heard.” I am not impressed. Albert did not know then that I don’t look for the best saxophonist or the best trumpet player. My standards are different. My musicians play for me. When I see Ayler the next day, he has tears in his eyes. He tells me, “They won‘t let me play.” I said, “You stay right here.” I looked in and this Swedish guy is running the broadcast. He asks me if Ayler is with me and I say, “Yes.” I brought Albert on stage with us. That man could play. When I heard him, he sounded better than John Coltrane. Ayler was technically the most prodigious tenor saxophonist I have ever known. If Adolphe Sax invented the saxophone, no European has ever played like the great black masters of the instrument. After the broadcast in Copenhagen, John Coltrane, who also performed on the TV show with his band, was there and he offered to drive me back to the hotel. He told me that he saw me with Jimmy Lyons and Sunny Murray at Take 3. He told me, “When I heard you at Take 3, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I did not know that three men who make so much music.” Then he asked him, “Who was that tenor player up on stage with you?” It was Albert Ayler.
He had told me that Sonny Rollins and Eric Dolphy first discovered him. Albert had a brother Donald who played the trumpet. I found out that Donald had a way of playing all the notes condensed into one octave. Man, the brilliance of that funkin’ sound. Well, Sunny took an instant liking to Albert, and he brought Albert on tour with him the following year. Albert played a few shows with me, Jimmy and Sunny at the Five Spot and Take 3 in 1963. Our recording of the track “Four” from the broadcast in Copenhagen is on Albert’s box set (Holy Ghost: Rare and Unissued Recordings (1962 – 1970)."
"The last concert I did with Albert Ayler was at the Philharmonic Hall in New York City’s Lincoln Center on New Year’s Eve 1963. You know, what’s interesting about that show is that two white college students produced that event and rented Lincoln Center for the concert. The hall was renamed the Alice Tully Hall in 1973. After that show, I had problems with Bob Levinethrope. They want to keep jazz musicians in subterranean caves called clubs. Also performing at the New Year’s Eve concert was John Coltrane and his band with Eric Dolphy on alto sax, Elvin Jones on drums, McCoy Tyner on piano, and Jimmy Garrison on bass. I told Eric, “You cannot out blues John. That’s not why he has you in the band.” After that Eric did an arrangement of African brass and it was beautiful. Garrison gave Eric a lot of trouble in that band. Eric was a very considerate man, a very warm man. I think of him as the first level of greatness."
Drummers are very important for Cecil. This attraction for drums came from his childhood but this is another story that I will reveal one day. Cecil enounces: “Charles Denis was my first drummer. He brought Art Blakely’s spirit into the band, a lovely man. Sunny, of course, invented the language. Andrew Cyrille, if I were to use the word classic, he’s got it. Playing brilliantly that was Jimmy Lyons and Andrew Cyrille. The first great band I had was Jimmy and Andrew."
I keep mentioning poets, particularly those who Cecil admires, Amiri Baraka and Maya Angelou. Cecil brings to light:” Max (Roach) told me, “Maya Angelou wants to do my life story.” I went with Max to meet Maya at a posh club in New York City. When Maya comes out of the cab, she looks like she is floating. She is wearing my mother’s favorite color red and her skirt is pleated. We enter the club and the waiter sees Maya and goes, “Oh, Maya” and seats us right away. Maya looks straight at Max and says to him, “Max Roach that is not how I built my reputation. If you want me to write your life story, you will look me straight in my eye and not lie to me.” Max started giggling."
Now is time to finally mention Mary Lou (Williams). Cecil can spend hours talking about Mary Lou: “Mary Lou Williams invited me to play a duet with her at Carnegie Hall. It was scheduled for April 17, 1977. She had her ideas for the concert and I had mine. What writers like to do is show the point of view of one of the party’s. I don’t think there has been an equal dissertation of the concert. Writers want scandal you know, but I was there. At the rehearsal, Mary gives me this material to play. She says, “We are going to do this from beginning to end. Now go out there.” I say, “Mary, I have to come in before I can go out.” She did not find that funny. She tells me, "We going to do that again thousands of times all over again." I would answer her, “Yes Mrs. Williams.” She wanted to do boogie woogie and ragtime music. I look at the material that she had prepared and I go, “There’s no Jelly Roll Morton on this. There’s no Fats Waller.” Those cats invented what she wanted us to play. She looked at me and said, "I know all about you Aries men. My husbands were Aries." I tell her, "Yes Ms Williams, but the difference between me and them is they are all dead and I’m still alive." “If you don’t do exactly what I tell you at this concert,” she swore. Then she got her fist ready and goes, "Do you see this fist?” She took a swing at me and misses because I ducked. I smiled at her, “I guess I float like a butterfly and sting like a bee,” quoting my favorite phrase from Muhammad Ali.I was being a naughty with Mary Lou, but she was being bossy making the band rehearsal for hours and only 15 minutes for lunch. Afterwards she would tell us, “We’re gonna do this from the begin until the end." I wrote a ballad and brought it to Mary Lou. She liked it and said, "Cecil, that’s a pretty tune. Are you giving me the copyrights?" I laughed, "No Ms Williams that's my ballad.” Mary Lou wrote a number of arrangements for Duke Ellington’s band in the ‘40s, only he took the copyright for them so she never made money off of them. She was upset with me all through rehearsal and before the concert. Before we went on, I put my left arm around her waist and I sat her down. I gave Mary the last two numbers that concert. I wish I had saved the letter that Mary sent to me after the show. She was mad at me. She rented Carnegie Hall for that concert and when only half of the tickets were sold, she asked me to reimburse her for some of those tickets that had not been sold.”
I believe God distribute gifts in a reasonable way. Cecil childhood was very difficult, but he has that gift, that energy, that passion and he made a legend with these. He’s a warrior, a perfectionist from whom I learned different shapes and forms of love.
The image still fixed on my mind: Cecil smoking in his living room watching his three trees on the backyard repeating what he said first at the French Embassy on November 2010: “One of my wishes has been realized. I found love. It was difficult, but I found it. Because when Billy Holiday sang, “You don‘t know what love is,” great singers will tell you about yourself. Love is a partnership. It‘s a sharing. It‘s not a polarity. It’s an accommodation. Human beings take great joy in being able to share. Whatever you are given, you learn to give back”.
Cecil, I know you will laugh saying “what love has to do with it”…but we love you. Happy Birthday!
Ana Isabel O
More Articles in Community Articles
LARRY RENI THOMAS TOP TEN JAZZ 2013
Larry Reni Thomas
SFJAZZ Collective at the Ferguson Center in Newport News, Va.
Best of the Best for 2013
London-Based Label RareNoiseRecords Presents a Night of Progressive Music at Shapeshifter Lab, Dec. 13 at 8PM
Preparing For Fame
Kathryn Ballard Shut
New England Conservatory’s Jazz Lab