PRINT September 2018


Cecil Taylor

Cecil Taylor in his home, New York, 1983. Photo: Deborah Feingold/Corbis/Getty.

IN THE MID-1990S, I moved from Houston, Texas, to New York to study at the Manhattan School of Music. I routinely walked from Harlem to SoHo, walks that would basically take all day, and I’d make unplanned pit stops while learning the city. One of these walks was specific: Someone told me about a Cecil Taylor performance downtown. When I arrived at the intersection of Houston and Mercer, I saw a piano on a small stage in the middle of the street. An audience of about three hundred lined the sidewalk. I found are hydrant to stand on. Cecil began playing, growling and crying his way through the music. A butoh dancer, Min Tanaka, moved up and down the street. Sometimes he approached the piano and danced underneath it, at Cecil’s feet.

No one was teaching this at the conservatory, and Cecil’s performance was how I learned about the music in another environment. This was new to me, new in the way that shocks artists out of the fog of their own ego. And that was what Cecil did best: resuscitate with radical electricity the heart of the artist within us all.

During these years, I was studying with the great pianist Jaki Byard, who is best known for being in Charles Mingus’s seminal sextet. Jaki taught the piano as a place of power, teaching me that if I understood the force of two hands, everything would be possible. He liked to brag that Cecil would often come see him perform. A few years later, I was in the Hague for the North Sea Jazz Festival. The festival was, and still is, a gathering of artists representing the genre’s breadth. After the performances, all of the musicians and hangers-on would trail over to the hotel adjacent to the venue and hang out at the bar until 7 am. On one of those nights, I spotted Cecil at his usual station and said to him, “I’m a student of Jaki Byard.” He looked up to the heavens and put his hands on my shoulders and said, “There is no one who knows more about the piano than Jaki Byard.”

That was what Cecil did best: resuscitate with radical electricity the heart of the artist within us all.

It was clear that Cecil also knew so much about the piano. But beyond his ability to shatter sound with his hands and body, he knew the piano as an object. When he approached his instrument, he treated it as a lover. A lover deserves a long approach, a caress, a whisper, all given with intention. Nearly an hour into Ron Mann’s 1981 documentary Imagine the Sound, you can watch Cecil seduce the piano. He performs a dance with it and about it. He moves into the frame, uttering and repeating phrases with different accents on the words and stressing different syllables.

Pa Teh Ro
Pa Tehhhh
Pa Teeeeeeeeeeeh

Then, buzzing his lips like a horse:

What is it you say?
Squared of centimeter
of centimeeee tor
It is luuuuuuminous
The guardian
Watching in . . .

After two minutes of movement and poetry, he sits at the piano, whispers a few words, hides his face behind the piano, then pokes his head up, turns, looks away from the piano, and plays one solitary note. He then puts his hand under his chin to ponder it all.

Cecil’s body was strong as an Olympic athlete’s: trained, running and striding, jabbing his index and middle fingers of both hands up and down—a kind of Jesse Owens of the keyboard. He migrated across the eighty-eight keys. Nothing is static or anticipated, but his love for the spirituals, and for the great singers and poets and choreographers, informed it all.

In the film, he criticizes the powers that support the “million sellers”; he understands that his career has limited his opportunities. The club setting allows audiences to settle in close to the musician, focusing on the listening experience. Cecil depended on the listener’s mind to understand that he was making his own language. His words and phrases repeat across the piano. They stop, move in opposition or in unison. Saying the word again, he makes it short, long, loud, or soft. He misses part of a word—or maybe that is the word?

Later, while gracefully smoking, he declares: “When you are out there making art and accepting the final responsibility that your livelihood depends upon it, then you go forward into it, but you also come to understand that nobody really asked you do to this.” Indeed, Cecil was not asked to “do this,” but he damn well made sure we paid attention to him when he did. Amen

Jason Moran is the Artistic Director for Jazz at The John F. Kennedy Center for The Performing Arts in Washington, DC.