Courtesy of Cecil Taylor
FIRESIDE CHAT WITH CECIL TAYLOR
Taylor is a living legend. But it would take a modern miracle for the
industry to realize what the people seem to already know, by virtue of
the tremendous turnout for Taylor's reunion with Max Roach at this year's
Bell Atlantic Festival. As with any living legend, I feel it is a great
honor and privilege to hold court with Taylor. And as with any living
legend, I will let his own words speak for themselves.
FRED JUNG: Your thoughts on Bill Dixon and your collaboration together.
Oh, one of the reigning geniuses in American music in the world. I heard
Bill, as a matter of fact, I wanted to call Bill today because Bill, I've
known Bill, I met when my father pulled that shit on me, which I deserved
to happen, when he moved me from a house, which he lost in Long Island,
to a 113th Street to a house with no piano. It was just two rooms. The
first night I was there, I said, "Oh, shit," and so I walked out of the
house and I walked up 8th Avenue. When I got to 16th Street, I heard some
music across the street, walked up four flights of stairs and that was
my meeting with Bill Dixon. I heard Bill in November play (laughing) with
the wonderful Tony Oxley and why I laugh at all of this is they are both
very similar. First thing I said to Bill Dixon was, "Oh, you have to hear
this great record by Rebe?" "Rebe, who's Rebe?" I said, "Aretha." "Why
are you listening to that shit for?" And when I mentioned her name in
November, he said, "Are you still listening to hog callers?" Now, the
other thing is, Tony is like that too. The funny thing is, after playing
with Tony for three and a half years, Tony, I thought we made marvelous
music together. It wasn't that we ever really quibbled, there was a quality
about Tony that I said, "Well, look T, I think we need some time apart."
We both had tears in our eyes, but I said, "There is someone that you
must get to know." I heard them when they both made their first record
together. They both called me and said, "Well, I thank you Cecil." I had
never heard their records, but someone had brought them to Berlin and
I heard them play the first time and it was absolutely beyond belief.
I, of course, had played with Tony for three and a half years. I had heard
him play with Braxton. I've heard him play with certain people and I didn't
feel that there was that much difference. But, Fred, it was extraordinary.
Bill Dixon is one of the great geniuses in America.
FJ: And Buell Neidlinger?
CECIL TAYLOR: Well, Buell is a baby. He called me. I had occasion to call
him. I don't even want to talk about him because I still think what had
gone on between Buell and I, which started off in 1956, had never really
been resolved. I really feel that he and Steve Lacy are responsible for
some shit that I have never forgotten. I run into them and I really think
that the both of their musicality is tremendously overrated from my point
of view. There is no need more me to say that to them. Steve said something
to me in Finland about a year ago that he should not have said and so
now he understands that I don't want to and I'm happy with that. I would
rather talk about the extreme beauty of Billie Holiday. Always, from the
time I first saw her when I was thirteen and I demanded that they let
me into the club on 52nd Street. He was dressed up like an admiral and
he said, "Boy, where do you think you're going?" I said, "I'm going to
see Billie Holiday!" And he looked at me and laughed and he said, "Young
man, follow me." He took me to the bar and he called over the bartender
and he said, "You give this young man any soda that he wants." And she
walked out on the stage.
FJ: You certainly had some moxie. You must have been quite fond of Lady
CECIL TAYLOR: Well, first of all, she was quite beautiful. The gloves,
for whatever reason, they were satin and they were up over her elbows
and the flower, the gardenia was real and then she started and what was
interesting, the physicality that she exhibited when she was singing was
not unlike a ballerina doing the slow movement of Swan Lake. The body
is always the center of wherever the pulse falls. It is there to let you
know that that is where the heart of the rhythm exudes from. Billie was
like that. There is that thing. Then I saw her in the last concert she
did with the wonderful Mal Waldron playing piano. She knows about stride
pianists and yet, when her last concert that I saw, I believe it was her
last in America before she went to London and that was not a happy experience
for her and then to come back here and die in a hospital. But here is
Mal, a devotee of Monk and Bud, playing chords and boy, by the end of
the third song and we had to wait because she was the last performer in
this performance nonsense that was going on at Town Hall. Yet, physically,
she had changed. The voice had changed, but the passion, the passion was
even more moving and more beautifully terrifying. She had the ability
to take tunes that may have been not the greatest tunes, although her
taste was impeccable, also a part of the tune was to make words sad or
pronounced or sung by other people. When she did it, you knew that she
was creating another language that was personal to her life. That is a
quality, by the way, that the beast, Betty Carter had. Betty, although
we came to a parting of the ways, Betty was magnificent. I would place
her in the pantheon next to Billie. Billie never gave it up and the integrity,
I saw her enough times, that it meant that every time I walked into a
place that she was performing, I knew that I had been blessed by just
the opportunity to see her.
FJ: You will be participating in the Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival this
CECIL TAYLOR: It was right after I finished lunch and the phone rings
and it is monsieur Dorf, himself, "Oh, I've wanted this for four years."
I said, "Well, I understand about exclusivity." George Wein had been trying
to run that nonsense on me for twenty years. It was Marie, who had been
running the office for George Wein and I had to tell her, "Tell him that
I'm not Roland Kirk," as gifted as may or may not be. I don't work that
way. You get me one job George every three years and you are going to
tell me when I can play and whom I can play. These people never understand
that. That is like murder. So he said, finally, exasperated, Mr. Dorf
said, "Well, you know I can tell you. It is going to be outside on the
steps of Columbia and it's going to after the graduation. Twenty thousand
people are going to attend the event. It's graduation. Fifteen thousand
will be there." I said, "Well, Michael, since you can't handle it. I will
tell you what. I have got some ideas for you." He said, "Oh, you have.
Do you know that I'm going to open up a club in Hollywood in six weeks."
"No, Michael, I did not know that." So then at that point, I say, "Well,
you know that I am scheduled to play a duets with Elvin Jones, the twentieth,
the twenty-first, and twenty-second of June." And there is absolute silence
on the phone. Then he says, "Well, Cecil, can you give me a break on this
deal?" I called up my representative who lives in Spain and he said, "No
breaks for Michael." Now, I said to Michael, "Suppose it rains, then what
are you going to do?" I mean, it's all whatever it is. Meanwhile, it seems,
I said to Michael, "Things are going in a way for me that are very interesting
because this thing with Derek (Derek Bailey) was absolutely marvelous."
A week before that I gave a poetry reading. All this shit is happening
on Wednesday it seems and so I played a piano recital in Bologna last
Wednesday. What was interesting about that was that the symphony orchestra
played a piece by Morton Feldman right after I played and when I came
out after my first encore, at least half of the orchestra was standing
FJ: You are scheduled to play a duo concert with Max Roach.
CECIL TAYLOR: When I think about Joel Criss or Michael Dorf saying to
me that, "You know that we have spent so much money on publicity." And
yet, when Joel approached me with the idea of playing with Mr. Roach (Max
Roach), I had something to say, which I will not repeat to you. I just
played with Max twice. Max, hey, greatness. I can tell you, Fred, when
I thought his percussion playing was what he deserved in terms of being
one of the finest percussionists in the world, not only in America, but
in the world. But Ellington wrote a piece saying that they ain't what
they used to be. I mean, not that there is any comparison, but playing
with Elvin those three nights, duets with him, the three nights, just
he and myself, after he had played with his orchestra, the first sets,
those three nights, there was something that was very magical that happened.
First of all, because unlike the record that we had made August 4 and
5 of '98, God, time goes fast, wherever I went, Elvin was right there,
supporting it and making magic with it. That means there are certain limits
that he has imposed on his creativity. And after about ten or fifteen
minutes, the first time we played, I'm just about ready to go, when I
look up and he is looking me right in the eye and I understood. After
the three days, I was in seclusion for four days because I realized that
it was a kind of communication that has happened several times, certainly
when I played with Jimmy Lyons and Andrew Cyrille, certainly when I was
playing with Tony Oxley and William (William Parker). There was complete
understanding that we were going to play together. Elvin so beautifully
said that there was nothing in excess. It is a different situation with
Mr. Roach. Mr. Roach reminds me of when I was growing up, my mother took
me to the Apollo when I was five years old to see Chick Webb. I know about
the Savoy. I know about the battle of big bands. And so when you play
with Max Roach-ipooh, it becomes a battle of the two players and not necessarily
with and of course Max had to be shown that that doesn't work with me.
However, there is a certain kind of attitude that he possesses that makes
it rather difficult. There are certain tricks that he plays and maybe
at this point, he's not even conscious about it. When I was in Milan this
year, I have been to Europe three times already, Italy two, I have decided
to do it, although I'll have to come back from Florida because I am doing
a seminar with eight young adults there, I've decided that Max, I already
know one of the pieces that I'm going to play with Mr. Roach and I do
hope that he will come this time to really play and listen and to be a
part of something beyond his own ego.
FJ: There are times then that the musical creativity is so overwhelming
that you admittedly go into a self-imposed seclusion. Vissi d'arte, living
for your art, like Maria Callas in opera and Beethoven in European classical
CECIL TAYLOR: Well, that happens when I am preparing for a concert. What
happens is that I have learned from physical failings that I had by the
time I was fourteen, I had my first peptic ulcer when I was fourteen,
which happened the year after my mother died, which is a comment on the
stress that was in the family on one level, but on the other level, I
must say certainly after reaching the age that I am now, which is twice
as long as I ever thought I'd live, given the fact that she and people
in the family all dying of cancer by the age of thirty-five. I must say
that it has been glorious to re-evaluate her position, what she had to
go through, and what was given to me. You struggle therefore to make your
life yours as much as you have to and particularly after the performance,
you being to understand what the nature of the gift you have been given
or the nurturing you have received in order to get to the point where
you not only bring you to others and yourself as a result of the performance,
you also begin to understand the work you have to do in terms of developing
your person to the level of your art. In preparing after three or four
days of intense preparation, I know that I must go out and be with people
or just around them for a day and a half to relax and to have my favorite
drink and my favorite meals and my favorite whatever and then I come back
and go to bed and get my juices and rest for another day and then when
I go back and do the work, I find that it has been enriched because of
the human contact. Once you have made the commitment, it never leaves.
My best friend, who happens to be a woman, said to me, "They all say that
your music is formidable and when will you become a formidable human being?"
So there is a lot of work for us to do. It becomes startling. I just recently,
after that poetry reading, it was a continuation of the realization that
I had six months about some of my interpersonal relationships that I really
wasn't quite aware of what I was doing to fuck them up all the time. And
once you get that realization, you say, "Jesus!" So I would go to this
friend of mine, who we haven't talked to each other a great deal over
the last twelve, fifteen years, because we've always been in our soup
as it is. So I go up to her and say, "Well, why didn't you tell me?" She
looked at me and sort of smiled and the smile said, "Cecil, I can't tell
you everything. You've got to do some work." It becomes, even in the realization,
that yeah, it is OK, because you have been helped by the realization to
the dedication of your music or your art and then you also begin to understand
that there are people that have meant a great deal to you as a human being
and by that, I mean, they will tell you if you are full of shit on this
point, rather than people who will be sycophants, who will just accept
anything you say, do, or give. If you live long enough, you begin to get
the residuals of maybe a larger piece of what existed. I'm having these
interesting discussions with people about religion or about art or what
are we in relation to these beautiful trees that I am looking at right
now. You can always look out my windows, my windows in the front and the
windows in the back and see another rhythm happening and identifies us
further with the processes of nature. That is sort of where I am at at
this moment, although I am pissed with Air France because they lost my
bags. Why am I really angry because I can go out and I can buy some bags
tomorrow and none of my most beautiful clothes were in that bag. The other
thing that I am very fortunate because I never put the music or my notebook
in the bags. I always have them in an attaché case with me.
FJ: When did your mother pass?
CECIL TAYLOR: She passed May 3, 1943.
FJ: Are you paying homage to her?
CECIL TAYLOR: Oh, well, isn't that interesting that you say that, Fred,
because it was last year that I did a concert for Michael Dorf and because
of the problems with one of the instrumentalists in the group, I've known
this person for about eight years, we became friends and when I understood
what had happened to him as a result of his father's treatment to his
mother and the woman that he married and her treatment of him, I began
to understand what the dynamics were in my family. Even though he came
from Finland, I saw a striking similarity. My father's mother was a full-blooded
Kiowa and mother's mother was a full-blooded Cherokee. Human beings are
all truly of the same family, if for no other reason, they do the same
kind of shit and they do the same kind of stuff that is the opposite of
shit. And the other thing is, I moved into this building May 3, 1983.
There have been synchronic things that have been happening and I have
to leave next Saturday to go to Victoriaville. There is going to be a
festival in honor of something that I've done. I know Marilyn Crispell
is going to be there. I'm to play the last night and then I go off to
Florida to work with the young adults for three weeks and then I'm to
fly back (laughing) to play June 4 with Mr. Roach. It's nice. It's really
very, very nice. I'm not really very happy with what's going on in this
city or in the world.
FJ: What concerns you?
CECIL TAYLOR: That fire in New Mexico for instance or the thing that are
happening with police in New York City. I think the Republican who was
defeated by Bush (John McCain) is a man that must be watched very carefully.
Mostly because of what Eisenhower said when he left and that is that one
must be careful about the military. And when one thinks about the report
in this book that was published about slavery, one of the definitions
of civilizations, one half the time in those highest civilizations and
more than half of their time has been spent at war. Now that is making
a very devastating commentary in spite of all the banality of religion.
People still go around killing people for half the time of the greatest
of civilized characteristics. Therefore, to kill may be the highest of
traits of those societies that we consider civilized. That is rather ominous.
FJ: Is there a difference then between black music and white music?
CECIL TAYLOR: First of all, I've got to say this. Essentially, the individuals
are all basically stemming from the same source. We are just one huge
family. The interesting thing is that we are all carrying fossils that
go back three million years. For each bipod, there are differences that
indicate the uniqueness of their fossils. In thinking of, I'd rather not
think of it in terms of black and white. I would rather think of it in
terms of culture. For instance, I am very fond of the kabuki. I've been
very fortunate because I had a mother who spoke French and German and
was in black silent films at one point, but then on the other hand, my
father was one who never raised his voice and was a head chef, who loved
Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, and Judy
Garland. My mother's person was Ellington. And so I was a progeny electrified
by two different temperaments and it took a while to understand how powerful
that was. But he was sort of like a very quiet kind of force that once
messed with, one had to pay. His way of making you pay was not to raise
his voice, but to find out the point of vulnerability based on what he
economically had made possible for you and mommy dearest. I think not
only of mother, but I think of what both gave me because they were both
two different kinds of human beings. Dad had to pay because mom's dad
was not there and mom was the oldest of three sisters and one brother
and her mother was a magnificent looking full-blooded Cherokee. I met
her the first time, the language in both of their bodies told me a great
deal about what mother was expected to do. She had married very well,
but rage, which comes about because of human failings without understanding
why people can do only as much as they can do, but when you are very young,
we do not understand that. We are being shaped, nurtured, whatever. So
there is a lot to all of this.
FJ: You have had long associations with various dance companies and your
affinity for dance is well documented.
CECIL TAYLOR: I came back from Spain after working with a dance company.
The oldest member of the company was thirty-five. The relationship with
the music that I was doing and the dances was amazing. My first dance
experience was in 1956. Now, the emotion was wonderful. The Alvin Ailey
company, that's wonderful because of the politics involved in all of that.
Baryshnikov was interesting, but these dancers now, outside of your ballerinas,
they are involved in contact and natural running and walking movement
and also some very interesting theories about rest, composure, and relaxation.
I was playing with them for about a month.
FJ: In traveling to various institutions of higher learning over the past
year, I have, firsthand, seen a slow, but evident change in the music
with younger people clamoring for advanced forms of improvisation. There
is a certain hunger for it.
CECIL TAYLOR: I was wondering just what the response would be and fortunately,
after forty-five, fifty years of making music, it's been a very interesting
change and what's happening with young people now, coming from wherever
they're coming from, punk or from rock. You can see it in the response
that they give to you when you are playing and if you are playing silently,
you don't even hear them breath. You know that if they are not asleep,
they are in stunned attention.
FJ: Younger audiences tend to accept the music without any preconceived
biases or prejudices.
CECIL TAYLOR: Yes, yes, yeah. Well, Fred, this is the other thing. I'm
trying to tell as many musicians as possible. One of the things that has
been unfortunate, and I don't like to use the term responsibility, but
it begins and it seems to me, maybe and how we are led into, by that I
mean, the reason I play, I'm not even sure why, but once I had been touched,
it was my responsibility to try and bring it to the highest level of personal
dedication and involvement that was possible for this one human being.
Also, with that, it means that you realize that music, for all of its
strengths and encompassing energy that requires, it is not the only art
form and if you make a choice then I must do it to the highest and fullest
extent of my capability. Then, of course, perhaps it becomes the lowest
form of entertainment for those moguls who are interested in that which
is viable. And as a consequence, if you are fortunate, if you have been
educated or led to certain avenues just out of curiosity by perhaps friends
or parents or a combination of both. You then know and you come to learn
that there is much mystery and magic happening. It could be in painting.
It could be in dance. It could be literature. It could be in sculpture.
It can be in so many things. And if you start investigating all of these
things, you then discover that you are not alone and that each magical
creative product has its own sources of enrichment and upon investigation,
your own sense of self, in relationship to the world, grows, in terms
of understanding and then of course the obvious thing, in the specifics
of seniority, you know, journalists write and label things very quickly
and for reasons that I've questioned seriously, but beyond that, because
that is not very important. It becomes like I should be concerned about
Giuliani's crap or the crap that has gone on with the President and his
old lady. No, I am concerned about what comes closest to making my life
more full, so when I listen to certain music now, labels on those music
means nothing to me because I'm finding young musicians who play incredible.
I wouldn't even attempt to label it. However, it has been labeled for
me, so I don't have to think about that. But once one sees that and the
loveliest thing is, they do one of two things. They look at me and go
the other direction or they come up as happened in one of the very interesting
sections of Chicago, after I did this concert at this beautiful place.
I was taken to the other side of town and I was introduced to this keyboard
player of this band after I'd been stunned by the first set that they
played. He looked at me and he said, "You know, you are responsible for
this." The oldest one in that group was twenty-eight years old and they
had been together for six years. I have a record of theirs that they sent
me. These guys are very, very gifted, but now, we would like to show you
how we can make it viable. The young men looked at me and laughed and
said, "That had already happened." I said, "Then, all I can say is to
keep doing what you are doing." So it has been a very wonderful period
for me, particularly now, but at the same time, it's been evolving like
the serpent does or like the wave. It goes up and it comes down. When
it comes down, you have to really deal with the reality, some of which
are rather difficult, but then you grow up. Then I can come to some kind
of grip or understanding with these people, for instance, who are trying
to get my house, the IRS (laughing).
FJ: Is there rhythm in life?
CECIL TAYLOR: Oh, yes.
FJ: What is the rhythm of life?
CECIL TAYLOR: Oh, it exists in all of us. It exists as the sun turns and
as we go around the sun. I mean, Egyptians knew that well because in dealing
with the inundation of the Nile, they discovered that the Nile would rise
at a certain point of the year. The seasons are a manifestation of rhythm.
Birth, of course, comes about through rhythm. And so I feel that rhythm
is the single most important grid in the construction of music.
FJ: After a period of time on this earth, man takes toll of the life,
which he has lived. Doing that, has Cecil Taylor lived a formidable life?
CECIL TAYLOR: That is not for me to say, Fred. That is for me to continue
doing what I'm doing. The celebration is how your work has developed over
the decades. The people will let you know that you have served them well.
Fred Jung is the Editor-In-Chief and pinches himself every morning. Comments?