Cecil Taylor, who died last Thursday at the age of 89, invented a singular school of the jazz avant-garde that never wavered in its audacity, even as the pianist garnered cultural acceptance and institutional accolades over his marathon career. He also gained the respect and admiration of generations of musicians, who saw him as a model of artistic integrity and commitment. Collected here by Michael J. West are five of their testimonials.
Cecil hired me for his big band around 1982. The thing that influenced me the most was the rehearsals. The performance is over in an hour or two, but Cecil was doing these six-hour rehearsals to get there.
First of all, there was no music. Everything was done by ear. At first I thought this was crazy; there was no way he could remember all this. But he could, and he did. It’s not like he gave you something and then gave you the exact same musical shape the second time out, but you could tell it was roughly the same musical shape—and yet there was also something very spontaneous about it.
Also, his whole approach to spontaneous composition was a major influence. People talk about Keith Jarrett and them being the first to do that, but for me, Cecil was the cat; I think Keith and them got it from him. He had his own universe, and you had to take it on its own terms.
Cecil made a tremendous contribution, and I don’t think it’s given its due. If you look at what everybody is doing today, you have a really wide palette—and you can find the imprint of Cecil Taylor everywhere.
Cecil has been dismissed for a long time as free jazz, as free improvisation. But if you really delve into his language for any length of time, you start to realize there are patterns, tendencies that are very specific and methodical. There’s this huge amount of organization in the music, and we’ve barely scratched the surface of understanding it. It’s very rare for anybody outside of his inner circle to have studied his music. Yet the language that he cultivated so carefully over the years, that’s his life in a nutshell.
There’s also a rigorous research sensibility underlying his vision. People love to talk about him as a character—the neck scarves, the cigarette holders and the Dom Pérignon; that’s also who he was. If you ever had any conversation with him, though, you discovered that he knew more than you about anything you think you know. He knew more than you about your own hometown, or about your supposed area of expertise. He’d already studied it extensively.
“Genius” is putting it mildly. He was one of the greatest minds of the 20th century, in any discipline. It’s not just about him being a musical innovator, but about him contributing ideas to humankind and synthesizing those ideas out of so, so many sources of information.
That’s one thing about Cecil that has continued to inspire me: He showed me that there’s no limit to how broad and how deep you can go.
Cecil represented the full human body in the music: From his lips with poetry, from his body in dance, from his mind and fingers on the piano with intense precision. A full human at the instrument, and a full supporter of us young musicians.
I recall the first time I met him—early 2000, in Berlin. He came to see the Bandwagon play. I saw him sitting at the bar, and I rushed over to him with bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits. He talked about how he liked the music, and then he said to me, “Jason, why do you have the piano at half stick? Your sound is too big to play at half stick.”
And that was a metaphor for everything: full extension, full voice, control and physicality. All at full fullness.
Cecil was the grandfather of free-jazz piano. But what he did was so idiosyncratic, so specific to his own nervous system, that for anybody else to adopt those textures would never work. The stance, the attitude was more of an influence on me than the actual playing.
There was the fearlessness, the complete belief in his language and the willingness to live or die by that belief. At the same time, he was very open-minded. He was always emphasizing his roots in the jazz idiom of Ellington, Monk and Horace Silver. But there’s also some Dave Brubeck in there, and he even took a couple of lessons with Lennie Tristano. The classical influences are obviously there, although you could never think of him as Third Stream. (The one person he really hated was Bill Evans. In fact, after I told him how much I liked Bill Evans, he didn’t talk to me for a few years!)
The bottom line is that Cecil ultimately, underneath all the controversy and the complexity, was a romantic poet. That’s what carries the day: There’s poetry there, and it’s authentic and real. That’s why he’ll be listened to throughout history.
Wadada Leo Smith
It’s very difficult to conceive how Cecil put his music together. He dictates to you, from the piano, what he wants you to play. If there are five people there, he’ll turn to each one and say, “This is yours,” then play it and move on to the next person. And he dictates it in a way where it’s virtually impossible for you to get all of it.
The first time I played in his band, there were four or five days of rehearsal. At the break during the first day, I told him there was so much in what he dictated that I didn’t get all of it. So he dictated it again—but this time it was more complex than the first time!
What I discovered from that is this: Cecil Taylor is the score. He’s the score that manifests all the parts individually to the ensemble, and collectively when he’s playing the piano. Unless you’re really, really deeply connected to yourself—and him—it’s a long journey to actually get to the core of his music.
Now, there has been nothing else like that, ever, on Earth. He was courageous and heroic in the way that he made art, and in the way that he lived.