It was the night Garth Brooks played Central Park: August 7, 1997. While a throng of 750,000 crowded into the North Meadow, and who knows how many others watched live on HBO, I crammed myself into the claustrophobic basement of the Village Vanguard along with a hundred or so other contrarians to see Cecil Taylor.
The pianist, then 68, began with the kindest, most delicate of notes, about three or four, with his right hand, and then commenced his assault on — or rather, exploration of — the piano, not only its eighty-eight keys and three pedals, but its guts and frame itself. Bassist Dominic Duval and drummer Jackson Krall joined in, and for the next hour they unleashed a torrent of sound: confrontational but sensitive, free-form but collaborative, turbulent but rhapsodic. It all washed over you. Taylor ended, solo, with those same three or four genteel notes, and without saying a word, left the stage. It was the equivalent of a mic drop, and the audience erupted. It was an experience, conceptually stimulating with an inherent drama, and even though he didn’t read his poetry or engage in one of his modernist dance maneuvers, it was as much performance art as it was a simple concert or a gig. There was a second set, but I was spent, and anyway there was another group of like-minded souls lined up the narrow staircase waiting to get in.
By then, Taylor, who passed away on Thursday at his Brooklyn home at age 89, had begun to receive his due. He was the recipient of a Jazz Masters Fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts in 1990, and won a MacArthur grant the following year. But it wasn’t always like that. It rarely is for those who go their own way.
Taylor was a native New Yorker, born in Long Island City in 1929, and by the early 1950s he was studying Stravinsky and Bartók at the New England Conservatory. In 1956, he recorded his first album, Jazz Advance, a relatively conventional recording compared to what was to come, but even then his take on Thelonious Monk’s “Bemsha Swing” is mind-bending.
By the early 1960s, he’d begun a run of fabulous albums — The World of Cecil Taylor, for one — for the visionary label Candid, where Nat Hentoff, the longtime Village Voice writer, served as the a&r director. “I am not afraid of European influences,” he once told Hentoff. “The point is to use them, as Ellington did, as part of my life as an American Negro.”
Taylor’s marriage of a certain European aesthetic with an African-American one put off large portions of both audiences as well as its gatekeepers. He was an abstract artist when black music was seen as entertainment, something either dangerous or merely fun. As Val Wilmer wrote in her 1977 book As Serious as Your Life, recently republished in a new U.K. edition, “The music of Cecil Taylor is not a particularly encouraging backdrop for sexual overtures.” At a certain point in the 1960s, he was forced to wash dishes and do odd jobs to pay the bills.
“The epicurean aristocrat of the piano,” as the critic Howard Mandel called Taylor, in Miles, Ornette, Cecil: Jazz Beyond Jazz, “reviled by jazz’s canon-makers as if he were the Marquis De Sade.”
Taylor and Ornette Coleman were the twin spires of the free jazz movement — Taylor played at Coleman’s memorial three years ago at Riverside Church — or, as A.B. Spellman wrote in Four Lives in the Bebop Business, “They were the first two musicians to appear on the scene who placed themselves totally outside the mainstream and had the temerity to suggest that all the assumptions of hard and cool bop would have to be overhauled before the individual voice could once again replace the cliché in jazz.”
And as the saxophonist Jimmy Lyons told Wilmer, “Playing with Cecil made me think differently about what music’s about. It’s not about any cycle of fifths, it’s about sound.”
In a career that touched on seven different decades and that included poetry and dance — he often collaborated with the dancer Min Tanaka, the subject of the documentary The Silent Eye, by Amiel Courtin-Wilson — his mark has been profound. Virtually any musician who played free is indebted to Taylor. He’s influenced too many pianists to list.
In 2016, not long after the new Whitney Museum opened in the Meatpacking District, it made one of its boldest moves by featuring Cecil Taylor. But the octogenarian pianist was not only featured in concert — the entire fifth-floor gallery was given over to exhibiting his life’s work: album art, poetry, documentary clips projected on a large screen in the center of the space, archival texts, and listening stations with headphones for museumgoers to take in his world of sound.
When friends pose the question, “What was the best live show you ever saw?” I don’t hesitate. For me, it is unquestionably that August night in 1997. It doesn’t exist in photographs or on YouTube. It’s only a memory. And a beautiful one.