Courtesy of Cecil Taylor



Cecil 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.

CECIL TAYLOR: 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 Day.

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 year.

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 there.

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 music.

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?


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? Email Him.