Cecil Taylor brings the sweet thunder

Preparing for another epic gig, the iconoclastic pianist embodies the unlikeliest sort of jazz celebrity
Cecil Taylor
Photograph: Peter Gannushkin/Dow Cecil Taylor
By Hank Shteamer |
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“Mother dressed me in velvet,” the voice purrs dreamily. “In she came with her pearls… her favorite color was blood red. She taught me what a star is!” The speaker—traipsing around the living room of his Fort Greene brownstone, sipping a mimosa and dragging deeply off an unlit American Spirit—is also a star of sorts, but not the Botoxed madame you might envision. It is in fact Cecil Taylor, long known as the most formidably iconoclastic pianist in jazz.

Queens-born and Long Island–reared, Taylor, 79, has been gigging tirelessly around town since the ’50s. On Friday 29, he performs solo at Highline Ballroom, a space mostly known for rock shows. The conservatory-trained pianist has never been particularly picky when it comes to venues. He worked early on at Village folk clubs—reportedly backing Bob Dylan on at least one occasion—and later expanded to jazz haunts (Taylor and percussionist Tony Oxley played stunningly subtle duets at the Village Vanguard in July), elegant halls from Merkin to Carnegie, and even defunct hole-in-the-wall the Cooler, where Taylor collaborated with Thurston Moore in 1997.

Amid this half-century of diverse local performances, frequent engagements overseas and a steady stream of recordings, Taylor has gradually accrued acclaim. As a young musician, he supported himself by washing dishes after nascent forms of his sometimes literally key-busting style—marked by booming chords, prismatic flurries and a sustained density that can suggest an overdriven player piano—raised the hackles of critics, bookers and musicians alike. By 1979 he was playing the White House, where President Carter was so awed by what he heard that he chased down the diminutive pianist to personally congratulate him. In 1990 Taylor received an NEA Jazz Master award; the plaque is displayed on his bathroom floor, where it collects ash from a nearby incense holder.

Considering the staggering complexity of his playing, Taylor can be surprisingly earthy in conversation. He ignored questions about his own work, or responded with sphinxlike counterinquiries—“Does jazz exist?” But Taylor grew animated as the stymied interview segued into a free-associative monologue, in which he pondered countless forebears and associates. He comes off as a jazz-centric Perez Hilton, lighting on heroes (from Nat King Cole to Mary Lou Williams, with whom he once duetted) and nemeses, including Miles Davis (whom he refers to as “the mean devil”), who allegedly once spit at Taylor’s feet; traditionalist critic Stanley Crouch (“Crunchypoo”); and even contemporary R&B star John Legend (“You can’t sing, dummy!”).

But singers of a different age are his great love. “After Mother,” he explains—again citing the woman who rapped his hands with a ruler to instill proper piano technique—“I’m always interested in women that are fabulous.” Spicily perfumed, and clad in flowing pants, leather shoes and a cinched wifebeater, Taylor continues to pace as he recalls hearing Billie Holiday live. “When that magician started singing, I said, ‘Where the fuck am I?’ ” Pointing to his head, he continues, “The gardenias were in here. I thought, Whatever you’re doing to an audience, that’s what I’d like to do. And Lena Horne—when she walked onstage, she really was Erzulie”—a reference to the voodoo god of beauty and luxury. It seems appropriate that the room is adorned with African masks and portraits of jazz legends, along with an upside-down umbrella arrayed with vibrantly patterned scarves.

Even during his pervasively enigmatic performances, there is something of the diva about Taylor. Never addressing the audience, he often engages in an invocation of sorts, prancing around the stage and reciting oblique verse before sitting down to play. His formidable sets can consist of more than an hour of unbroken improvisation, but he frequently encores with delightful miniatures.

Unlike the other great avant-jazz titans—e.g., John Coltrane or Sun Ra—Taylor has rarely flaunted his jazz bona fides. He hasn’t recorded a standard tune since the early ’60s, and his work since then has borne only the most fleeting references to traditional jazz rhythm and harmony. But as the late Max Roach, a frequent duo partner, noted, it is precisely Taylor’s originality that makes him a worthy successor to earlier innovators: “Cecil to me is more like [bebop legend] Bud [Powell] than a person who imitates Bud.”

Taylor’s tempestuous fixation on jazz icons can suggest an outsider’s envy, but he seems to feed off these mixed emotions, much as in his complex relationship with the hometown that has met him with both scorn and rapture. “Before he fought Billy Conn, Joe Louis said, ‘He can run, but he can’t hide,’ ” Taylor notes. “That’s how I feel about New York: You can run from it but you can’t hide.”

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