|Cecil Taylor in 2012. Photo by Peter Gannushkin.|
By Stuart Broomer
We’re all the products and prisoners of our specificities, our cultures, our biologies, inevitably, and we are not diminished by our consciousness of those contributory openings and closings, not diminished by them, that is, until we insist on the closings as definition and the openings as illusion. Cecil Taylor was the best kind of creator, artist, thinker, the kind whose work insisted on the closings as illusions and the openings as tickets, licenses to a larger (and common) and richer and more meaning-full space than we have previously occupied, tickets that might explode, licenses that might expire, but that also might leave “the rose pattern driven into the dead iron-filings by the magnet” (Pound) or perhaps an aperture through which one might see the world in another way. Taylor was the kind of artist who made self-opening structures that made it possible to grow within the work, to see unglimpsed connections and possibilities, works as practical as can-openers and works that went on long enough to insist that they were themselves models of world, of mind, of space, of possibility.
In a culture in which we’re increasingly required to give trigger warnings about art lest someone be offended (this will go on for hours, it will include shocking and abrasive noises, things will get so dense that you might grow irritated and confused; in fact, why bother, we just won’t look, listen at all, and you can leave now unchanged; you’re too good for this; your participation mark awaits you), we risk the loss of art, the loss of self, and the loss of freedom, not just the freedom to know the past or the world, but also who we are, who we might be and become, who is in there and what is out there, and vice versa.
My crucial experience of Cecil Taylor’s music began 55 years ago with a brand-new record that began with Bob Haggart’s swing era standard “What’s New?” It was an appropriate question then, and now, and hopefully always, or at least the foreseeable future. My most recent experience of Cecil Taylor has arisen in the web of feelings, memories, obits and Facebook posts that I’ve read in the past five days. Among the most shocking of those for me was the apparently very old news (but news to me, I don’t follow the little reactionaries closely, just the big, orange, heavily armed ones) that Stanley Crouch’s biggest complaint about Taylor was his absorption of the music of Olivier Messiaen, as if there were something wrong with that.
It seems to me that if you were going to absorb anybody’s music it might be a good idea to work on a composer whose music synthesized complex polyrhythms, myriad scales, serialism, the sounds of nature and the sounds of electricity, a composer whose vision and calling were so intense that he managed to compose the Quatuor pour la fin du temps as an inmate in a Nazi concentration camp.
Taylor’s Messiaen connection reminds me of another work, one closely related to that idea of synthesis. Cubana Be, Cubana Bop was recorded four days before I was born, though I didn’t get around to hearing it until maybe 15 years later, around the time I heard that particular “What’s New?” The thing about Cubana Be, Cubana Bop is that it’s music that says you can use anything, and that it might be a more authentic, more accomplished, more meaningful work than what you’re supposed to use (which in 1947 big band terms might have meant Goodman, Basie or Herman). George Russell, the composer, was clearly conscious of the polyrhythmic and polytonal language that Stravinsky modelled to create the ersatz primal but nonetheless brilliant complexities of Rite of Spring, and he and Dizzy Gillespie must have known that the Cuban conguero Chano Pozo was the embodiment of the authentic, an essential building block in their own identities, but any more than Stravinsky was?
Charlie Parker had similar needs, like his idol Art Tatum who clearly relished playing Dvorak and Chopin, or his closest musical coeval Bud Powell, who recorded “Bud on Bach.” According to the great modernist composer Edgard Varèse, Parker “stopped by my place a number of times…He’d come in and exclaim, ‘Take me as you would a baby and teach me music. I only write in one voice. I want to have structure. I want to write orchestra scores.’…He spoke of being tired of the environment his work relegated him to, ‘I’m so steeped in this and can’t get out,’ he said.” (quoted by Robert Reisner, cited by Graham Lock in Forces in Motion, p.93) So Cecil Taylor pursued, with maximum vigor and creativity, a project he had inherited from Tatum, Parker, Powell, Gillespie, Russell and Ellington before them.
There’s a long history of big art, the kind in which an individual constructs a frame in which to assemble and stretch the known world—works like Dante’s Divine Comedy, fabricating a stratified cosmos in order to see Florence. They take a while to get, and if they ever seem easy, it’s an illusion; they might involve tremendous acts of surrender or absorption, but the effort is worth it. The Velasquez of Las Meninas, the Joyce of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, artists who subsume the world into their art, like Bach, Sterne, Gertrude Stein, Duchamp, Picasso, John Cage, Thomas Pynchon, Stan Brakhage, Pauline Oliveiros, ultimately stretch us and they leave works around that can continue to stretch us, their form feeding their content, their content feeding their form, as much as thinkers like Buckminster Fuller or Stephen Hawking do.
Cecil Taylor did that many times, he did it spontaneously, sometimes collectively, creating models in which conception and realization blurred, confounded, stretched and consecrated time and space and ideas of time and space. His work continues to warrant our attention. We owe the same attention whenever we encounter his like.
The last time I talked to Cecil Taylor was at a Jazz Journalists Association Awards Ceremony in 2003, where Stanley Crouch rushed over to engage him. It was also the last time I talked to Andrew Hill. So “What’s New?” Cecil Taylor and Andrew Hill and Olivier Messiaen (and all those other related folks from Dante to Oliveiros) are still alive, just in a different format. Crouch and the others in the brotherhood of blinders? “Who Knows?”