A Lot of Energy—Remembering Cecil Taylor (1929-2018)
Having worked with Cecil, I felt like I could make music with anybody on the planet and I do.
I met Cecil Taylor in 1958 through Ted Curson, the trumpet player from Philadelphia. It was at a rehearsal in Brooklyn that I was doing with another pianist, one of my colleagues from high school, Leslie Brathwaite. Ted and a saxophone player named Harold Owsley were walking by this place where I was rehearsing and they heard me and Lesley, so they came in to see what was going on. They stayed for a while and after we finished up, Ted said to me that he was going to go to Manhattan for a rehearsal with this pianist named Cecil Taylor. “You’ve never heard anyone play piano like him,” he told me. “So if you want to come, I’ll introduce you.”
So I went with him to the Hartnett School of Music, and he introduced me to Cecil. After the rehearsal Ted had to leave, but before that he asked Cecil if I could play with him and Cecil said, “Yeah, sure.” After Ted left, Cecil and I stayed there together. But then the school closed, so I told Cecil that there was a place up in Harlem called Place Pigalle where I’d go sometimes to do jam sessions. There was a piano there and I knew the bartender, so I thought we could go up there and continue playing. So we took the subway and went uptown to Amsterdam Avenue and 152 Street, and I asked the bartender if we could play and he said okay. So we sat down and started playing again. But I didn’t start playing with Cecil on a professional level until 1965 and, by that time, I had a full palette of music I had been playing with other people.
That happened again at the Hartnett School of Music. I was there studying harmony and theory, and I was also playing in the big band there. One day, while I was playing with the big band, Cecil was rehearsing in another room. At one point, he came over to me and asked me to come to his rehearsal room after I finished with the band. Sonny Murray was supposed to be at that rehearsal because they had a job at Brandeis University, but Sonny didn’t show up. So Cecil asked me if I would want to take the job and I said sure. Jimmy Lyons was in the room and so was Albert Ayler, but Albert didn’t make that job. There was a bass player who went with us whose name I can’t remember right now. But that’s how I started playing with Cecil. From that first job at Brandeis until 1976, I played every single job with him for 11 years straight except for one in the earlier years that Milford Graves did with him in Pittsburgh.
We would rehearse for hours and then Jimmy and I would pack up, Cecil would still be there at the piano practicing. Sometimes I’d think, “Gee, this guy’s really got a lot of energy.” That was very impressive to me. He was very dedicated. But throughout the years we were together, Cecil never told me what to play. He never said, “Do this. Do that. Don’t do this. Don’t do that.” Both of us came out of the tradition. I never met Charlie Parker, but I met Max Roach when I was 11 years old. I started in the drum and bugle corps in Brooklyn, and people like Willie Jones and Lennie McBrowne would come down and help the kids and would say there are other ways of playing drums other than playing marches. So I started playing the trap set and as a result, in high school, I wanted to get into playing jazz. That’s where I met Eric Gale, the guitar player, and Leslie Brathwaite and we started playing as a trio. You have to begin somewhere, so we learned Cole Porter tunes and Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie tunes.
Cecil didn’t always play the way he did. He was doing stuff with Bill Barron and Ted Curson and Dennis Charles. Cecil loved Duke Ellington. Sometimes, if you listen to the stuff that Cecil played later on, you can hear some Duke Ellington in it. He also liked the drummer Sonny Greer, who worked with Ellington. Eventually Cecil decided that he wanted to do the kinds of things you hear on Unit Structures, which he had already started doing before that when he played with Sonny Murray at Café Montmartre in Denmark. But our direction always came from what had preceded us, because if what preceded us was not what it was, we would not have had those shoulders to stand on. So when we got together to play and he was playing how he played, I had to decide how to play in relation to what he was doing. I could have thought about playing metrical time, but it didn’t work for what he was doing so I had to decide to do something else.
Music has so many different components to it—you bring all that to the table and then you think about what the concept is and you have to deliver it with an emotional connection so that most human beings relate to it with some kind of emotion. It could be, “This stuff is great; I love it!” or “I can’t stand it.” But it gets to people for that reason. I don’t think anybody sits there and tries to analyze what they’re hearing on a scientific level. They like it, or they don’t like it.
After we played at Brandeis and Bennington College, Blue Note wanted Cecil to record for them, although I don’t think he ever said, “Let’s rehearse because I’ve got a Blue Note date.” For Unit Structures, he assembled some more musicians to add other voices, like Eddie Gale Stevens Jr. and Ken McIntyre, and we had two bass players—Henry Grimes and Alan Silva. Cecil’s expectation was that the musicians would play the music the way he gave out notes. Most jazz has a prescription. Somebody writes a composition and they would like the people who they hire to bring their signatures to the composition. With the prescription of the composition, improvisation takes place and how the musicians improvise on what is given denotes their signatures. It’s really a two process thing: people write the compositions and then they get the musicians to interpret it. There’s another way that compositions are made, sometimes it’s just with free improvisation, so then the composition comes after the fact. We rehearsed a lot for Unit Structures, but if I had to write out all those rhythms that I played, I don’t think I could do that. It’s just a feeling.
When people listen to recordings, I don’t know how they react because I’m not there. So many writers wrote about it and what some of the writers wrote about it was good and it wound up in the Smithsonian Collection, so it had to have impressed some people! After that, when we recorded Conquistador, also for Blue Note, Bill Dixon played with us. But a lot of people didn’t particular care for the music that we were making. That’s the way it always goes. Not everybody is going to love everything you do and you can’t expect that. A lot of times in the earlier years, Cecil Taylor, Jimmy Lyons, and I—and maybe one or two other people on occasion, like Alan Silva—would make maybe only three jobs a year, so it was not really that heavy in terms of quantity of work. More often than not, when a record comes out, it takes a while to circulate and perhaps as it circulates around the world, people begin to be impressed by it, so then we began to get calls. Eventually, as time went on, we began to work more.
The first time I ever went to Europe was with Cecil Taylor, Jimmy Lyons, and Alan Silva. It was right after those Blue Note dates. I think it was Alan Silva’s first time in Europe also, but not Cecil’s. It was a lot of fun. The first job we had was in Germany. We did a concert in Stuttgart, which was recorded back stage. And we did an interview for a magazine called Jazz Podium. I remember the woman who was the editor, Gudrun Endress, chaperoned us for a couple of days and then we went to Paris. We were invited over there by a group of young French aficionados; none of them were musicians, but they really appreciated what we were doing so they wanted us to come over to Paris and play the music.
A few years later, we were in St. Paul de Vence at the Maeght Foundation, which has a lot of paintings by Miró and Bacon and sculptures by Calder and Modigliani. It was Sam Rivers, Jimmy Lyons, myself, and Cecil. Alan had left the group some time before that. I don’t recall us doing very much more after that with a bass player. Obviously he felt that he didn’t need one. We played a great concert there, and we all got lithographs from Miró—who lived on the grounds there—because he was so impressed with what we did. After the rehearsals for that, we’d go into Nice and go to the discotheques and have a party and dance to whatever was popular, like James Brown. Cecil loved to dance.
Toward the end of the time I played with him, we went to Japan. It was just Jimmy, Cecil, and myself. We played what we played. We played duets. We played trios. This is my own feeling, but you can make music with anybody. You don’t have to have a set formula like trumpet, saxophone, bass, piano. That’s okay, but you don’t have to have that. As you play, the music becomes so substantial that you don’t even miss the other voice until it gets there and then it adds to the mix. Music comes from the inside out, not from the outside in.
Later that year we played at Town Hall, and Sirone played bass at that concert with us. After that, we kind of separated. Jimmy stayed, but I started to do other stuff. Maybe if I would have stayed, Cecil would have preferred that. I don’t know. I just felt that it was time for me to do something else. But I still played with him a couple of times afterwards. It wasn’t like after that there was nothing else. I played with him at a place called Fat Tuesday’s in Manhattan, and we did something again up at Symphony Space a couple of years after that. The last thing that I did with him was a concert in Berlin. It was after the wall came down. I played timpani some on that and Cecil was also playing timpani. I remember as I was playing drums, he just got up and started playing timpani. Cecil was different.
Having worked with Cecil, I felt like I could make music with anybody on the planet and I do. I’ve gone to Japan and played with Japanese musicians, I’ve gone to Africa and played with Africans, and I’ve gone to Israel and played with Israelis…Italy, Russia. But I had a lot of opportunities I never would have had if I wasn’t with Cecil.
As time went on and Cecil had gotten older, he had severe arthritis so it was difficult for him to walk. But on occasion, as he was getting older, he would come and listen to the groups I had been working in with Oliver Lake, Reggie Workman, and Geri Allen.
A couple of years ago, they did a big thing for him at the Whitney Museum of Art. They had a whole floor that was dedicated to him. I didn’t even know about the comprehensiveness of the things he had done and the people he had been involved with. But during that week, they asked me to play a solo, so I played a solo and he came. He was right in the front row, and he enjoyed it. And then I did a trio with Enrico Rava and William Parker, and he stayed for that. That’s the last time I saw him dressed and socializing in public.
When I next saw him, he was at a rehabilitation center on York Avenue around 76th Street. We had a good time just reminiscing about the past and what was going on now. He was still Cecil, even though from time to time, he wouldn’t remember things. Then he had to go back to the hospital; he was in a lot of pain. But when I saw him in the funeral parlor, he was laid out like a prince.