Innovation, Improvisation: An Interview with Cecil Taylor

San Francisco Bay Guardian
by Miya Masaoka
October 25, 2000

Pianist Cecil Taylor talks about music, magic, and finding his own way.

PIANIST CECIL TAYLOR reigns as one of the great innovators of American contemporary music. His performances are uniquely imaginative — visceral experiences for any listener fortunate enough to be in attendance. A master of the solo format, Taylor reveals creative powers that wed the physicality of the body with an unparalleled intellectual rigor. Taylor is a shaman, unleashing pianistic terror, torrential fury, and jagged deconstructed melodies. He is, in a word, irreplaceable.

Bay Guardian: Your piano technique has a certain physicality, like a martial art; it’s highly refined and imbued with a sense of choreography. The crossover arms, the jabbing, then lightning-fast, precise runs. You once remarked, “I try to imitate on the piano the leaps in space a dancer makes.” The jumps from the extreme low to the high registers of the piano evoke the gestural ideas of a dancer. Can you talk about the development of your methodology, the language in your solo piano work?

Cecil Taylor: To build a language is to find out what makes you feel good. And if you are interested in different art forms, if you work in these art forms long enough, they become involved in the molding, they begin to assist in this language. But I’m more interested in the building of bridges right now. The idea of space, duration, and time can be found to be more intriguing in the making of a bridge. What is a bridge? it’s an analysis of the construction techniques. We are using time, structure, sight; the senses are all used. To look at a plan of a bridge is far more interesting to me than using a musical score. I do think the Golden Gate is a beautiful bridge and has a certain elegance. What the engineer had in his mind, there must be an imaginative force that conceived of the length, the work that must be done in order to realize the project.

Today I’m working on a piece; I think of it as a parapatilla: there are four sections, and each section is quite different. Each uses different techniques in order to make it go; I spent a lot of time on each section. The last section goes really fast, then stops, and has this melody that is bewitching, haunting, catchy. I’m working on how to play it and make it really sing, how to work through it, and I work through it by playing through it lots of times over. And by playing it lots of times over — if I’m lucky — I make a mistake, and in doing so it leads me to places I never imagined.

BG: That’s like an abandonment of personal volition, as in the making of certain forms of Japanese art. Do you mean the notion that the performer is a vessel through which the creative force is mediated?

CT: I work with those forces that create the music, yet I don’t have much to do with it. The more you do it — trying to find the magic — you have much less ego, and you genuflect to the magic. And you work at it because that’s your responsibility.

BG: To play your music, you never let anything stop you. When you worked as a dishwasher, were you tempted to play music strictly as a commodity exchange? Were you ever a “musician for hire”? The trajectory of most musicians is that in order to survive, they work in other people’s bands, play weddings. Your vision was clearly much grander.

CT: Well, it’s not all that. Believe me. My first working experience was in a club in Harlem. Another club, on 145th Street, called Club Harlem had a bandstand that was at least 6 feet high. They had an upright piano, and you had to keep looking behind you to avoid falling off the stage, because the stool of that piano would move within inches from the edge of the stage. There were usually eight notes that didn’t work. You began playing standards at 9 p.m.; you had 15 minutes off every hour and you worked until 4 o’clock in the morning. You made $8, and if I never hear “Stardust” again in my life it will be too soon.

BG: What is the basis, the logic of, on the one hand, the evolution of the music, and on the other, how the public and media perceive and shape what is happening? For example, with Ornette Coleman’s arrival in New York in 1959 and the attention that received. Other innovators, including yourself, had been performing in this — for lack of a better term — free jazz for several years and being ignored by the press. Why was that?

CT: I know why. Part of it was my own doing because I never play ball with people who were “ersatz.”

BG: Ersatz?

CT: People who are full of shit. Because I was told by people that they wanted to meet me, (names three music industry impresarios of the time) but I didn’t want to meet them. But they found Ornette.

BG: There are stories about Trane’s hair falling out because of hostility that sometimes occurred in response to his music. What mechanisms have you developed over the years to shield yourself from negative sentiment by the critics, the public, etc.?

CT: You have to have one or two friends. The belief in yourself is not ego-drenched — you begin to understand that belief comes from under the ground, that it is in the air. If you make a commitment to it, it enfolds itself around you. Then all you have to do is achieve your solitude. Then the others can do whatever they want to, because, what are they doing?

BG: You worked in a duet with Elvin Jones this year at the Village Vanguard. Can you comment on Elvin’s playing, his use of mallets and brushes through the entire set, the fact that you hadn’t played together for 30 years?

CT: This has been a year of playing with drummers. Max [Roach], Elvin. I played with Andrew Cyrille, who is incredible. Elvin is just astounding.

BG: Improvisation has increasingly become more accepted in broader, mainstream music institutions. For example, two years ago a rule was passed that a music institution cannot become accredited unless it offers at least one course in improvisation. For a conservatory musician, some basic background in improvising is expected, and more frequently scores require some improvising. This seems to be especially true for the contemporary ensembles in Europe. What is the future of improvisation now that it has entered the mainstream?

CT: (Laughing) I fear for its longevity. One of things about the establishment is they like to enervate, weaken, dilute.

BG: Lincoln Center Jazz Foundation, Museum — rehashing the music and playing it exactly as it was improvised 30 years ago. They specifically said that Cecil Taylor would never be in their program.

CT: Wynton has received $100 million. They are building a place for him to play his music to be performed in. it’s important to be bemused rather than agitated; it’s important to keep floating on your own energy, your own investigations, because that will all pass. (His music) is rather dull to say the most, and it is deceiving, and to my knowledge here is a man who has not invented anything at all. But it’s not even about money. Let them have all the money, and see how far it takes them.

BG: In reading some of the new biographies on Monk, I’m surprised to read quotes from him expressing an intentional, self-conscious desire to be an innovator, separate from his colleagues. He expressed frustration that Ellington and Parker were getting all the attention, all the gigs. What is your view on personal, artistic voice?

CT: Without an Ella Fitzgerald, a Monk, a Fats Waller, there would have been no Cecil Taylor. it’s a line; it comes from someplace. Nature infuses these great men and women, and it gets passed down. When I was five years old, my mother took me to hear Chick Web at the Apollo; his new, unknown singer was Ella Fitzgerald. I’ve seen Teddy Wilson. I’ve seen the beauty of Min Tanaka, of Kabuki, of Marvin Gaye. I’ve seen the Indonesian, the Balinese companies. No one culture has all the answers, but each culture has its own magic. And you bow down to each culture, and you try to sit there and open yourself so you can see. And once you see, you’re never the same.

Cecil Taylor. Sat/28, 8 p.m., Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness, S.F. $5-$25. (415) 776-1999,