IF YOU HAVEN'T LISTENED TO CECIL TAYLOR IN a while, you might find that he doesn't seem so weird anymore. Not because the clustery, jabbing way he plays piano has changed, but because you have. And even if you've never heard him, Taylor is one of the forces that changed you. He's like Gertrude Stein or Pablo Picasso or Akhenaton — a concentrated agent of evolution.
Robert L. Doerschuk wrote a smart thing in his new 88: The Giants of Jazz Piano, referring to one of Taylor's simpler recordings, from 1961: “If one concentrates only on the piano, blocking out the bass and drum patterns, one hears the modern Taylor: conceptually vigorous, disturbing, and ultimately thrilling.” The same could be said of early work by Ornette Coleman or Albert Ayler. You can hear the radical genome. Once it gets in an artist's blood, it marks him and drives him to influence others, even as he evolves along his own path.
The connections spread quickly. One of the musicians on that 1961 record was saxist Archie Shepp, who'd been basically an R&B honker before he met Taylor. In practically no time, Shepp became a leader of a New York avant-garde that included drummer Sunny Murray and saxist John Coltrane, both of whom also played with Taylor.
Coltrane, who's been carved in history's cliffs as the planet's most famous saxophonist, in fact had rubbed up against Taylor as early as 1958. Before he was the God Trane. As Taylor's sideman. Though the album Stereo Drive and Coltrane's sculpturally controlled blowing were both conventional by Taylor's standards, the music they made together was still shivery enough to sound fresh four years later, when it was reissued under the saxist's name as Coltrane Time to exploit the eclipse that the increasingly adventurous Trane had meanwhile imposed over the jazz world. In public perception, the architect — Taylor — had become the bricklayer.
Taylor has remained unfamous, despite the $365,000 MacArthur “genius” grant that belatedly acknowledged him in 1991, despite unbroken respect among his peers, despite a White House performance in 1978. (When Jimmy Carter tried to offer admiration, Taylor ran away.) Well, Coltrane died in 1967; Taylor's still spreading new seeds.
It's not too hard to understand why the masses haven't latched on to Taylor. After a period from the mid-'50s to the early '60s, when he usually relied on ä the sturdy walking bass of Buell Neidlinger and the swinging drums of Dennis Charles to keep listeners on a tether, he cut loose. Like an exploding star, his music simultaneously squeezed itself into a ball and flung itself outward. He designed severe septet orchestrations (Unit Structures, 1966), poured out his guts in tireless solo improvisations (Silent Tongues, 1974), and flogged his small groups, usually featuring alto man Jimmy Lyons, through continuous hill-and-dale chase-downs lasting over an hour (It Is in the Brewing Luminous, 1980). He applied his aesthetics to dance, theater and poetry. “To feel is perhaps the most terrifying thing in this society,” he said, and he made audiences very afraid. Paying close and continuous attention to him was like holding your hand in a deep fryer.
Taylor's own evolution, naturally, draws from extremes. At the New England Conservatory of Music, he learned the mold-breaking theoretical lessons of Bartók, Stravinsky and Schoenberg, whose harmonic innovations made clearer imprints on his playing than anything from the “jazz” tradition did. But he always bowed to Ellington, and that connection isn't as surprising as it might seem. Duke, through the arrangements of Billy Strayhorn, tapped the same neoclassical sources that attracted Taylor. And there was more, beyond the music: the Ellington personality.
Musicians have three basic ways of dealing with people they don't know: Get Lost (Miles Davis), Come On in My Kitchen (Jimmy Scott) and Sophisticated (Duke Ellington, Cecil Taylor). Reading an interview with Taylor, you're always aware that he's intelligent, cultured; rather than music, he's as likely to discuss Berlin bridge architecture, Native American rituals or butoh dance. What you don't get from a transcript is Taylor's manner, which bears Ellingtonian traces.
An after-show backstage confab at the Jazz Bakery a few years ago provides a snapshot. Unlike Ellington, Taylor is small, fine-boned, but he projects a similar sense of personal containment. Squatting like a pasha, he moves his hands with grace and deliberation. He addresses his circle of admirers in the kind of clipped, slightly formal tones you might remember from William Powell in a Thin Man movie, his gaze wandering slightly above his listeners' heads. And they are, still, his listeners. He talks about the food in Egypt, about the audiences in Europe. He's a world figure, even if the folks in Cedar Rapids don't know it.
Likable? Not exactly. The guy's not a populist; his days as a dishwasher, a record-store clerk and a playground basketball player are long behind him. Taylor's personality is consistent with his music: He's an intellectual artist, sure of his value.
The value is in evolution. Taylor has talked about being suspicious of the distinctions between things and between people that are always being artificially reinforced, and he's talked about being a sponge that can absorb all kinds of culture. When he twists and squeezes himself, all that culture comes jetting out mixed together, hitting you with a strength that can't help but make an impact, whether on a mental, subliminal or cellular level. You evolve a little. As Edward Albee said recently in a Weekly interview with Steven Leigh Morris, you have a responsibility to listen. But if you aren't listening, Taylor will get you anyway, with what he called, in a 1975 Down Beat interview with J.B. Figi, “the homage that the musicians pay to the continuance of life, and that is not only the life of people, but the life of all things that move.”
TAYLOR HAS ALSO SAID THAT POETRY saved his life, and he has sometimes incorporated it in his work. He calls Billie Holiday and Ben Webster poets. So it's fitting that his appearance at All Tomorrow's Parties would be on a day shared with a number of spoken-word artists. (Maybe he'll perform some of his own poetry, which is half imagery, half rain-forest chatter.)
You may or may not know about the folks on the Thursday ATP bill: John Sinclair (White Panther theoretician), Smog (dark songwriter Bill Callahan), Lydia Lunch (New York no-waver, filmmaker, word-spewer, troublemaker), Ira Cohen (“electronic multimedia shaman” — see Jay Babcock's interview herein), Gerard Malanga (poet-photographer best known for Warhol associations) and Eileen Myles (politicized poet). Worthies all.
But try to catch Nathaniel Mackey if you can. He's an educator, editor (Hambone), poet and novelist whose evolutionary way with words is his own. Let's open his Bedouin Hornbook at random: “The composition, he said, had begun millions of years ago, the ambiguous verdict of a galaxywide dispute between conscious and mechanical forces.” Y'know?
If you're reading this on Thursday, March 14, you can catch Cecil Taylor (11:15 p.m.) and the rest (Mackey begins at 7:10 p.m.) tonight at UCLA's Royce Hall.