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Cecil Taylor: The Pianist Who's Also An Orchestra

Cecil Taylor, 83, is being feted in a two-week celebration of his music in New York City.
Peter Gannushkin
Cecil Taylor, 83, is being feted in a two-week celebration of his music in New York City.

When you hear Cecil Taylor perform, you never forget it. He's a force of nature at the piano, with a furious attack and a sound all his own.

"His piano is an orchestra," says Ben Ratliff, music critic for The New York Times. "Cecil has been with us for so long. And every once in a while he does these amazing, galvanizing solo piano performances. And you go see them, and you think, like, 'Wow. What was that? That was amazing.' And I can't get that anywhere else in the world. And that's unique."

Taylor is giving one of those rare solo concerts uptown at Harlem Stage tonight. Along with a second show at Issue Project Room in Brooklyn on Saturday, it's the centerpiece of a two-week festival celebrating Taylor's music, complete with archival films and tributes by musicians and poets.

Taylor broke all the rules of jazz in the 1950s. Today, he's still developing his own language.

Makes Perfect

Taylor says that dynamics are the key to expression in music and that he believes in practice.

"One of the things Mother said to me, 'You want this, you're going to practice,' " Taylor says. "And I know how to practice."

He's been practicing a long time. At 83, his lower front teeth are missing — and he chain smokes, which accounts for his viper's rasp.

Taylor has been playing piano since the age of 6. His mother was a dancer who played piano and violin. Taylor says she was a taskmaster who kept his fingers in the correct position with a sharp ruler.

"Mother said, 'You curve your fingers like that' — and when I did this, the ruler came from I don't know where. Crushed both hands. She said, 'Raise 'em! And you'll practice six days a week. And then, on Sunday, you may do as you like.' "

One day off a week eventually led to studies at the New York College of Music and the New England Conservatory. Taylor began his career at Harlem jam sessions — influenced, he says, by the stride piano of Fats Waller.

Unknown Adjectives

When Taylor formed his own band in 1956, he used his classical training to go beyond the jazz tradition — stretching the beats in a measure and playing notes outside the chords of a song.

In 1956, the Cecil Taylor Trio opened a new club in downtown New York called The Five Spot. Trombonist Roswell Rudd, now 76, was a student at Yale at the time, but he spent his weekends at the club. Rudd says Taylor's gig there was a watershed moment in modern jazz.

It was a great mixed reaction. People were being struck dumbfounded by what they heard, and some people [were] just jumping up and running out. You know — it was great.

"Once Cecil had pioneered the opening of that place, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane played there," Rudd says. "Sonny Rollins. Mingus. You know, it goes on and on. But to walk into this place and hear this band of Cecil's — it was just amazing.

"It was a great mixed reaction," Rudd adds. "People were being struck dumbfounded by what they heard, and some people just jumping up and running out. You know — it was great."

Rudd played trombone with Taylor on a 1961 record called Into the Hot. The record was produced by legendary arranger Gil Evans. In a 1980 interview, Evans said his main job when Taylor was in the studio — aside from getting snacks — was to calm the engineers.

"Because if you had been around Cecil long enough, you wouldn't have been so shocked," Evans said. "You know. But if all of a sudden you heard him for the first time, and you hadn't heard him develop, then people were a little bit — I don't know what the adjective is. I don't want to know, either."

His Own Way

Taylor says his music has always been underappreciated. Work has been scarce, and that's often left him breathless with rage.

"I didn't get many jobs," he says. "And there was a time, after I finished a concert, I couldn't speak for at least an hour. I was angry. I was tense. You know, the reality is that some of those things that made me angry are still there. Because they do not understand."

Musicians idolize him. Yet today, Cecil Taylor lives in a rundown 19th-century townhouse in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn, with paint peeling from a steel gate pulled across his front door.

But Taylor quotes Sinatra: He says he wouldn't change a thing.

"This song — I did it my way," Taylor says. "I don't really have any regrets."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Vitale