Friday, April 6, 2018

Cecil Taylor (1929 - 2018)

Cecil Taylor. Photo by Peter Gannushkin.
By Martin Schray

Cecil Taylor is dead. The beautiful one has gone. The eighty-eight tuned drums have become silent.

The last great founding father of free jazz isn’t here anymore. His name stands in one line with Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler and John Coltrane, he was “the first musician of any importance to consequently introduce atonality into so-called jazz“ (Valerie Wilmer).

Although Taylor’s talent on the piano has been noticed from the very beginning of his career, many club owners rejected his radical approach. “Cecil was forced to work in places where he couldn’t have had to work. It wasn’t because nobody recognized his genius, it was because black genius isn’t recognized in this country“, Chris White said, a bass player who worked with Taylor occasionally from 1954 - 60.

However, at every stage in his development, Taylor played with total sureness and the tremendous drive that was his main characteristic. His staggering technique, his use of extreme chromaticism made it obvious that there was someone who was very knowledgeable. Often he had several melodies going on at the same time, all of them in different keys, he worked with different harmonies, he had a vast range of dynamics and attacks at hand, as well as tone clusters played for percussive, not harmonic, effect, that’s why many people were reminded of “eighty-eight tuned drums“. Taylor rushed across the keyboards, sometimes almost faster than the speed of light. Or, as Paul Lovens put it: “He plays in a completely different league if it comes to music“. His long-time collaborator Jimmy Lyons said: “Playing with Cecil made me think differently about what’s music about. It’s not about cycles of fifths, it’s about sound“. Taylor always refused to play the obvious. He was hitting each note with an intense touch. “We beat the keyboard, we get inside the instrument. Europeans admire Bill Evans for his touch. But the physical force going into the making of black music - if that’s misunderstood, it leads to screaming“, he once said.

In the 1960s Taylor released spectacular albums with his unit, Unit Structures and Conquistador, for example, both for Blue Note. In the 1970s there were solo albums like Air Above Mountains < Buildings Within > or the three marvelous Nuits de la Fondation Maeght releases with Jimmy Lyons, Sam Rivers and Andrew Cyrille. But still his music wasn’t appreciated they way it deserved it. He was a real revolutionary in the history of jazz, yet his fate was to be shut away in one of the obscure corners of music. When he played the Liederhalle Stuttgart in 1978 with his band (the gig was later released as One Too Many Salty Swift And Not Goodbye), he wasn’t allowed to use the well-tuned grand piano there, the authorities said it was reserved for classical pianists. He had to use one which was out of tune. Taylor then decided to do the gig in his undershirt in order to show how disrespectfully he was treated - and played incredible music.

However, the 1980s weren’t his best years although he still released wonderful albums. After his long-time-collaborator Jimmy Lyons had died 1986 he was looking for new challenges and found them in Europe. In 1988 FMP’s Jost Gebers invited him to Berlin for four weeks to play the “Workshop Freie Musik“ where he was able to join the crème de la crème of European improvisers. The result, the 11-CD-box set Cecil Taylor in Berlin ’88, is one of the most magnificent albums in free jazz history, it received the prestigious “Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik“, it was album of the year in the 1990 Downbeat poll and Taylor was elected “best pianist“. Consequently, he returned to Berlin for another six months in 1990, equipped with a DAAD scholarship, which gave him and FMP the possibility to record even more beautiful music.

But finally, Cecil Taylor is more than his music. His charisma, his generosity, his vulnerability and his unpredictability were famous and notorious. There are great, memorable anecdotes about him:

After having some Himbeergeist shots after his gig at the 1989 festival in Wels/Austria he was dancing to Snap's "The Power" - in his typical white long socks and sneakers. Or just imagine the scene during his four-week-residency in Berlin when he was regularly holding court in a club called “Abraxas“ after the concerts, entertaining his listeners by criticizing icons like Miles Davis or Igor Stravinsky and dancing to hard funk with “plaited braids aswirl as he shook a tail feather“ (as Steve Lake recalled in the liner notes for the Cecil Taylor in Berlin ’88 box set). The story that the prize sum for the Kyoto Prize he received in 2013 (nearly half a million dollars) was stolen from him by a general contractor who befriended him while working next to his house in New York City even hit international media.

I’ve listened to Cecil Taylor’s music since I was 18, I was 29 when I heard Alms/Tiergarten (my all-time favorite recording) for the first time, a friend gave it to me. Immediately, I’ve felt the energy, the ease, the power, the precision, the profusion. And I’ve felt the pure beauty of his music.

I was lucky to watch Cecil Taylor live several times, with his European quintet (Harri Sjöström, Tristan Honsinger, Teppa Hauta-Aho and Paul Lovens, which is unfortunately unrecorded), with Thurman Barker, and with Tony Oxley. The last show I saw was at a small jazz club in Bavaria in 2011, I was sitting right in front of him. He was 82, and he had the hands of a 40-year-old. He was focused and energetic, read some of his poetry, it was unforgettable.

Goodbye, Cecil. Thanks for all the love, the dedication, the passion. I already miss you.

Watch him playing a solo concert in Perugia/Italy in 2009:


  1. Thank you Cecil Taylor, RIP.

    Nice goodbye text, Martin.


  2. A true genius of modern music. Leaving a legacy that will be investigated and embraced, by some but not all for years to come.

  3. Thank you for the lovely tribute.

  4. CT's music has had a deep and lasting impact on me, and I will miss him very much. I kept hoping he would make one more visit to Europe, but it was not to be.

    I saw him once, in London, with Tony Oxley, William Parker and Anthony Braxton - perhaps I will listen to that again this evening.

  5. Beautifully written Martin. A pioneer and master. We are all in his debt.

  6. Excellent tribute.

    My favorite Cecil story was told to me by some kid at a college radio station who'd attended a workshop at Bennington iirc. CT had mentioned at some point that he liked to be surprised by unexpected questions from people. Subsequently there was a reception with a lot of donors and benefactors. Cecil was surrounded by people and looking pretty bored when this kid walked up and said, "Hey Cecil, who do you like in the Super Bowl?" CT gave him a complicit smile and answered him.

  7. Thank you for this informative & tender remembrance of Cecil Taylor. Your words echo many experiences of my times with Cecil Taylor, thanks to my life with the AACM.

  8. Cecil sculpted a vast sound-scape. Thank you Cecil for so much. RIP

  9. Great tribute to a great man, Martin. Thank you for your words about Cecil Taylor, a man whose life and work are so important to music, especially American music. We can only hope that, one day, he and his contributions will be better understood.

  10. He leaves us an endless legacy!
    ...somewhere I read that Taylor's mother encouraged him to play music at an early age: in fact the mother, passionate of music, chose the name CECIL in honor of the Patroness of musicians, Santa Cecilia (Latin: Sancta Caecilia - b. Roma, 2nd century AD)

  11. Really excellent and thoughtful tribute, Martin. Thanks for this.

  12. Cecil Taylor lived and musically played in his own stratosphere where dark energies powered it all. I loved it although in my learning and music career learned Cecil's atmosphere was a bit much to absorb. I had to ingest it in small blocks of data and not the whole enchilada. Now it's second nature to follow his keyboard dance and this is his muse..the dance. Forever Cecil Taylor RIP.

  13. A true icon -TMM

  14. Beautiful, sad, a punch in the face of reality that he's gone. Thank you Martin. Cecil's music is such that it makes everything else possible; he swung his ass off when he was young ("Love For Sale" with Buell-R.I.P.) and made the most 'intense' recording I've ever heard ("Akisakila"-trio Live in Japan) .Lyons was a true musical mate: I don't think anyone besides Cyrille came into the sape like lyons. It also seemed like he was immortal; I never gave it a thought that he'd be gone someday.He was the Voodoo Chile, and we'll see him in the next one.

  15. The first time I heard your music:
    Umbria Jazz 1975 and then many other concerts.
    It was a pleasure to listen to your music and on some occasions
    dialogue with you.
    RIP Cecil

  16. Great article, Martin. And a great loss to music. If anybody's interested, Kaja Draksler wrote her master's thesis on the music of Cecil Taylor : you can download her thesis here :

  17. Thank You Cecil Taylor for your music...Iv'e listened to your music for many year's but only heard you play live once at Symphony Space in the late 70's...a show I will never forget!

  18. quoted from an interview with Diamanda Galas: "Cecil Taylor! That motherfucker! I said you’re the biggest pederast in New York and you are calling me a fucking Satanist? You pig! What happened is that I was in this gay restaurant the other day with my friends, and I said to myself, I have had tremendous respect for this man’s music for 20 years, so I thought, I’m going to buy him a drink. So I bought him a drink. The next thing I know, he’s sitting at my table, and he’s looking at me, and he’s talking to his friends and he’s saying (in a low croaky voice) “She’s a Satanist”

  19. ...gone, but music lives here, with us. Still plays...


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