Pianist Cecil Taylor, who died on April 5, performed with an eclectic group of artists that included poets and dancers as well as the cream of the jazz world.
Bassist Buell Neidlinger, who passed away last month, played with Taylor for seven years. In 2013 Neidlinger told us about the scene at a favorite East Village hang, the Five Spot Café.
“One time I was working there with Cecil Taylor. Billy Higgins was on drums and Archie Shepp was on saxophone. And Thelonius Monk was working at another club called the Jazz Gallery, which was a pigsty over on St. Marks Place.
“Norman Mailer came in the Five Spot. They treated him like a deity. He was led to a table in the back. He had several followers with him. All of a sudden Norman Mailer got up. He stood on the table and it was as though Jesus was giving the Sermon on the Mount or something. Everything quieted down, the music stopped and Norman Mailer said, and I quote: ‘I just come from the Jazz Gallery where I heard Thelonius Monk. He’s a great pianist. But Cecil Taylor is a much greater pianist. And this group is much more exciting.’
“And then he sort of teetered on the top of the table and some of his sycophants grabbed him and put him in his chair and that was the end of that.”
This week artists who knew and performed with Taylor shared their recollections of the man on and off the stage.
William Parker (bassist): Cecil was always an individual in the way he thought about music and about life. Everybody can be an individual but usually people get it trained out of them, to see a certain way, to hear a certain way. One of the gifts that Cecil had was somehow he resisted conformity. It was just a natural thing to him. He wasn’t trying to be different, it was just the way his personality was and the way he developed things. The way he heard music and saw life was different.
Tracie Morris (poet): He refused to be categorized. He refused to let himself be narrowly defined. He broke conventions. He broke people’s assumptions. You had to get over what you assumed he was, what his music was, what genre it was. He was a singular sound, a singular force.
Joe Locke (vibraphonist): He was one of the smartest people I ever met. Off the stage, away from the music, it was one of the most beautiful and fascinating things to just listen to Cecil expound about any subject. I remember riding the train with him to Europe and Cecil talking about the history of train travel. He knew a plethora of information about the history of rail travel.
We were doing a week at Yoshi’s in San Francisco and I knocked on his hotel room door to ask him if he wanted to get a bite. He had a big suitcase open and there were books all over the bed and they were all about the history of modern dance in America.
He was researching a project he was doing with a dance company and he had carried what looked like a mini-library from New York. Just a brilliant cat.
Pheeroan akLaff (drummer): A well-read and worldly bon vivant who made mincemeat of the mere intellectual. His awareness of history, Egyptology, African civilization, architecture, dance and several areas that informed his music will be a repository of influence when the connection is made and a scholarly organization of his body of work is done.
My connection to Cecil Taylor was rooted in a rare dynamic of trustworthiness and a subtle mentorship that would go in and out of focus since 1977. That year I saw him live for the first time at the Groningen [Holland] festival in which I played in a trio with Oliver Lake and Michael Gregory Jackson. I’m not sure if he heard our performance that weekend, but by 1979 Cecil was thrilled with Anthony Davis and James Newton and how we made music. He saw us as carrying a flame of inventiveness. He recognized our pedagogical foundation, and lauded the choices we made preferring momentary expression over licks.
Dianne McIntyre (dancer): I had just started a dance company in 1972 called Sounds in Motion. And one of the signature areas of my work was that I worked with musicians’ live music. And the music was in the idiom of what you’d call New Jazz or New Music. And one day we had a concert produced by the Clark Center for the Performing Arts.
Cecil Taylor was at that concert. I guess he had heard about me and he knew that I worked with live music. At the end of that concert somebody told me, “Cecil Taylor is here.” I’m like, “What!” [laughs] because I was a fan of his from a distance. I would go to his concerts. I was just so enraptured by his music, the daringness of it, and the emotion in it.
So I went to the door and he said, “OK. I like what you did. I’d like to work with you.” I’m like, “Oh, sure. OK. Wow.” I almost wanted to faint at that point. And we just started connecting and having rehearsals with the dancers.
Tracie Morris: My first recollection of Cecil Taylor is as a poet. The first time I met Cecil it was the mid-’90s at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project. I opened for him and he was reading poetry before he played the piano. I think of him as a poet first even though he’s most renowned as a musician. My first experience was with his poetry and the dense, rich, heavy language that he used. It’s thick.
He had a very well-trained voice. He had a particular sort of tone, he had his particular signature sound, the way he spoke, but if you listen to how he spoke, he had a very solid vocal instrument. Even when he just talked to people. He grew up in those days of elocution lessons and poise, posture alignment, all of that stuff was embedded in the way that he read his poems.
The thing that gives me the most joy about Cecil is that in Brooklyn, in Harlem, in Manhattan most recently at the Whitney retrospective, there was a range of context in which he was appreciated. And that appreciation was demonstrated to him in his life. That makes me feel happy because so many of our geniuses don’t get the type of accolades while they’re alive.
Joe Locke: I used to play at this place called Manila on 21st Street in Manhattan. And Cecil used to always come down and hang. And he would always say to me, “Joseph, be prepared for a call from me some time, we’re going to concertize together.” I would always laugh and say, yeah, sure, I’m going to play with the great Cecil Taylor.
But he said it repeatedly and lo and behold, several years later the phone rings, it was [agent] Joel Chriss asking me if I was available to do these dates with Cecil at Cecil’s request. So he was a man of his word. These kinds of singular artists, they don’t come again. He was a unique musician because he was a unique human being. His music was a reflection of the human being making it. Just a special cat.
Pheeroan akLaff: My conversations with him proved that he cared about us, often predicting that we would have to someday fight revisionist conditions that market Jazz just as he did for decades. His verbal rants with a faux ire about the music business were rife with stories to keep everyone laughing for hours. He adored many musicians and artists of all stripes, and could wax voluminously about them. Duke, Strayhorn, Max, Monk, Vaughan, Horne, Little, and more. Yet he had no qualms about spicily satirizing a few.
William Parker: When I first started playing with Cecil, he never told you what to play. He never said, “OK, the music is supposed to sound this way.” It was all a matter of trust and intuition.
Cecil had a natural energy. I guess music and playing the piano was his majestic place, his place where he was not in this world. He was in heaven when he was writing music, which he did every day, and playing the piano.
There was a period where he was dancing every morning and he would have special exercises that he would do. Music and creativity, he was meant for that. I couldn’t imagine him doing anything else.
Pheeroan akLaff: He never told me what to play, or how. On occasion, some with claims of curiosity of his process would ask me how we would rehearse. Of course that would be part of the Eurocentric frame of inquiry based on logic or disproval, while feeling reduced by an overwhelming alchemy. Sort of Sun Ra-like. Leaving folks with the idea that they could actually figure it out.
Dianne McIntyre: Before I met him, I saw a concert where he had a solo dancer in the concert. And he would get up and dance as part of his playing. Sometimes while he was playing and sometimes he’d leave the piano and dance, recite poetry and come back.
After I met him, we began rehearsing. Some people were concerned because our studio was in Harlem. Cecil then was way downtown on Chambers Street, before he moved to Brooklyn. They said, “Do you think Cecil Taylor’s gonna get on a subway and come all the way up to Harlem? Oh no! Because he’s royalty. I don’t know if we’re gonna get him up here.” And I’m like, “Well, we’ll see.”
We rehearsed every day. And Cecil was there. And it was not just that commute [laughs] it was also the piano we had in those early days. It seemed like we almost found it in a rummage sale. It was a big upright piano and it was painted white with blotches of gold on it, as if it was in a dance hall or something. However, we always kept it tuned and it had a big sound. And that was the piano that Cecil first rehearsed with us.
William Parker: A lot of people all over the world have been influenced by the freedom in the music, the fact that it wasn’t boxed in to a particular form.
I discovered when I was playing with Cecil that I could play any kind of rhythm. I could play a samba, I could play a bossa nova, I could play a blues, I could play a waltz, I could play any kind of melody, I could play anything in music that I wanted to play during our sets and it would work. It helped me redefine free music as you’re free to choose any element of music during your performance.
A lot of piano players say, “I don’t want to play chord changes, I don’t want to play patterns, I want to play different.” So he inspired a lot of people like that.
A lot of people tried to intellectualize what Cecil was doing. Cecil was very anti-intellectual as far as music was concerned. When it really started, “letting go” was like a field holler. It was related to the old music. Create that steam. And that’s what the end result of the music was. We rehearsed five days, eight hours a day and then when the gig came, all the music he’d given us and the notes and the sounds and the structures, now it began to come to life in another kind of way.
Dianne McIntyre: The first work that we did had no improvisation at all. This particular work was completely set. So when we’d be in rehearsal, Cecil and I had very few words. I think we spoke a little bit at the beginning about what direction we’d go. I mean, three or four sentences and then we’d just go.
He would watch some things that I was doing with the dancers and he would develop a phrase and motif and I would hear the motif and then I would further develop what the dance was doing. It was merging back and forth, back and forth.
For me it was the intricacies of his motifs. They were so detailed and so clear. And then they would have a blast. The blasts were composed also [laughs]. They were set.
In those days we were rehearsing in the evenings. In the daytime he would refine what he was working on and myself, we would refine what we had done with his music. And then we’d come back together and we would refine what we were doing together.
This particular work we did was called Shadows. It was the first more formal work that we did together. And we performed it in November of 1975 at a tribute to a dance icon named Syvilla Fort. Ms. Fort was very ill at the time and so this big festival of dance was created for her in a Broadway theater. And she was present.
And of course they had the amazing grand piano there in the center of the stage for Cecil. Oh, it was just glorious! I loved the lyricism, the rumbling, the adventure, the emotion, the attacks. All those inspired me and still inspire me in the dance. When I heard his music from the very beginning I could hear and feel the dance. And then later when I met him I realized dance is a great love of his.
Joe Locke: I played duo with him in Italy. None of the things that I felt that I owned, that were my musical identity, I could rely on none of it playing with Cecil. Because it was a completely different experience playing with Cecil. I had to change everything about my playing and about my concept of who I was as a musician.
It was sheer improvisation. There were no songs, it was 90 minutes of pure duo improvisation. And without a net. I had to become completely reactive. And anything that I felt that I’d played, pet things of mine that I felt I owned, that I could pull out and apply to the situation, none of that worked. I said OK, man, I’m a child again, I’m a baby here. I had the technique to play the instrument but I had to become completely reactive and not rely on anything that I previously knew except to listen as deeply as I could.
William Parker: What you’ve trained yourself to do, as Cecil used to say, you trained yourself to respond to sound, so that if the music goes “bursts of sound,” you know what to do. If it gets very quiet, you know what to do. If it gets very jumpy and agitated, you know what to do. You know that if Cecil was playing fast, you could play slow. If Cecil’s playing slow, you could play fast. You could use all of the possibilities there.
Cecil used to dictate all the notes to people in the band and one guy said, “I don’t know if I can play all these notes.” And Cecil told him, “Well, just play the ones you like.”
And that was his philosophy. He wasn’t tied down to “Yeah, just play free.” Because yeah, you were playing free but you were playing free with a lot of information and a lot of possible directions in your head. You had been trained to play free. Which is very difficult. And Cecil trained his whole life to be free. It didn’t just come out of emptiness. It came out of rigorous playing every day, whatever method you want to play with, you’re playing every day and you’re practicing. And that’s what he did.
Tracie Morris: One of the things I liked about Cecil was his sartorial choices. Beyond categorization. It wasn’t anything for him to wear a scarf around his head, a cravat, doo rag, dreadlocks, anything. Even though things didn’t seem to go together with anybody else, they went together with him. He made a whole bunch of things work.
Pheeroan akLaff: He did not like to touch money. Allison Paul, who famously waitressed at Sweet Basil and several clubs in the Village, told me she had to instruct all the others not to bother him with the check when he came in for a night of champagne and dinner with friends. He would always return and gratuitously cover his expenses. There was a kind of aversion to reducing what we did to art and compensation.
Joe Locke: What he taught me was there’s no limitation on how to be expressive in this music. There were no rules and that expression is how you use your personal imagination to express yourself inside this music, that the music is big enough to embrace every perspective.
William Parker: A lot of people really didn’t like when Cecil even touched the piano. He caught a lot of flak. Because they weren’t seeing where the music came from. I can understand it because it could really go right over you or go through you. And if you’re thinking of traditional jazz, and you say OK, there’s no syncopation, there’s no melody, you’re saying what it doesn’t have but that’s like if you come from Ethiopia where everyone is seven feet tall and you go to Japan where people are shorter, you say there’s no tall people, there’s no this, there’s no that – yes, because you’re in Japan.
Pheeroan akLaff: Cecil was like an uncle to me. I did, though, connect him with people who truly adored him, musicians and friends alike. For his one of his birthdays I took saxophonist Jun Miyake to his home (with inexpensive champagne) and put on a duo concert for him. Cecil was very private when he wasn’t gregarious. I would pray for him and knock on the door occasionally while I lived near him in Fort Greene for over 30 years. It will be difficult for me to pass his home again.
Dianne McIntyre: I learned a lot from Cecil as an individual. Just the perseverance, the discipline, the fun – he’d always have fun. Rehearse, do that detail, work work work work work and let’s go relax. Let’s go sit over here. Let’s go out to this restaurant and sit and laugh. He was just a magnificent human being. And his music reflected that.