"The piano is many, many things and one of the things is a drum with 88 notes," explains eclectic, percussive pianist Cecil Taylor. "In order to strike the note, one must beat it. Now how you beat it, that is what you learn by playing it for a long time. You could play or beat it as Oscar Peterson or Hilton Ruiz or you could beat it the way Thelonius Monk struck it. Or it could be the fine way of Teddy Wilson. Art Tatum was huge. There are many different ways."
You can feel Taylor's mind racing ahead. He speaks with immense intelligence, gentle mannerisms, a hearty laugh, and with no boundaries. Born in Long Island City [in New York City's borough of Queens] in March of 1929, Taylor marches to the beat of a different drum.
"Duke Ellington played all of the notes, from the very top to the bottom," Taylor reports. "He and Mary Lou Williams are really extraordinarily important because of their command of the instrument. Mary is important, not only because she chose me to work with her — boy, that was a trip that I will someday write about! Mary Williams could play stride piano, boogie-woogie. She understood the emotion that was motivating men 25 years younger — that when you play "Night in Tunisia" with the feeling of a Bud Powell, that is quite a thing to achieve. I think of Mary as the Queen of Pittsburgh. My God, look who came out of Pittsburgh: Billy Strayhorn, Billy Eckstine, the great Art Blakey, Erroll Garner — and Mary."
Taylor attended the New England Conservatory from 1951 to 1955, but his musical training is rooted in his childhood home. "Mother gave me my first piano lessons when I was five years old — that was 72 years ago," Taylor recalls. He asked her for lessons, to which she replied, "I'll think about it." Finally, he was allowed into her special living room (although only when he was appropriately dressed). "The furniture in her living room was deep maroon," says Taylor. "As I went to sit down, she said, 'You do not sit. You will be one of three things: a dentist, a lawyer, or a doctor.' And then she pointed to the piano and said, 'That will be your avocation. Now sit.'"
Taylor's abiding respect for his mother is clear as he explains her teaching method seven decades later: "You placed the fingers of both hands in a fashion in which your fingers were curved, much the way Hilton Ruiz's fingers were curved, or Oscar Peterson's. And when I relaxed and they approached the magnificence of Monk's fingers, which were spread outward, she came down with a ruler on both hands and said, 'Raise them!' What she was really saying was, 'If you want to do this particular playing, you will first understand what is the discipline and the order. I will supervise your practicing, and then on Sunday you may do what you like.' Which meant, you must know what it is, at least technically — the spirituality comes from other sources."
From an early age, Taylor brought his own unique style to the forefront with bravado. He remembers a life-changing experience, seeing Billie Holiday perform when he was 13 years old. "I approached this club on 52nd Street — this is in the day when they had doormen with uniforms on," he says. "And I got my foot into one of these clubs and the doorman said, 'Kid, where do you think you're going?' I made a wisecrack to him. He must've been six-foot-something. He looked at me and he laughed and said, 'Young man, follow me.' He took me to the end of the bar, called over the bartender and said, 'You give this young gentleman any soda he wants.' Then Ms. Holiday walked out on that stage, wrapped all in white, with a gardenia on the left side of her head. She started to sing. Her right arm would bend and her left leg would dip. And I said to myself, 'Where am I? And what is this mystery I am a part of? If I ever grow up, what she has done to me is what I would one day like to do to an audience.'"
Later on, Taylor made his own mark, playing with everyone from Max Roach to John Coltrane. He remembers his early days on the bandstand. "When we went into the Five Spot in 1956, we began something," he declares. That was three years before Ornette Coleman's breakthrough there. Taylor was laying the groundwork for avant-garde jazz, but he brushes that off, saying, "Ellington used to say, 'Well, who is the king this year?' It's never about one individual, it's about the flow of the magic and which way it's going at any given time.
"The piano in the hands of the great men and woman that I've heard is multi-dimensional," Taylor continues. His admiration extends to jazz legends of all kinds. "In my days, I heard Sidney Bechet, Fats Navarro, the great Dizzy Gillespie Band," the pianist says. "My mother took me to the Apollo when I was five years old, so I heard Chick Webb and his new singing star, Ella Fitzgerald. I have heard the masters and hope to maintain the integrity that was dropped upon me when I saw Billie Holiday for the first time. There are certain things in your life that you can never forget."
The ever-alert mind of Taylor leaps from the past into the present. "I am working on some new pieces now," he says. "I would like to submit a poem as an indication of what I'm thinking of, as verbal forms that in their duration determine the nature of the syntactical structure of music."
Expect the unexpected when Cecil Taylor takes the stage next month at the home of Jazz at Lincoln Center. The performances will be on March 9 and 10 at 8 p.m., at Rose Theater in Frederick P. Rose Hall. Also appearing will be John Zorn and his acoustic band Masada. For reservations, call CenterCharge at 212-721-6500 or visit www.jalc.org.
Scott H. Thompson is Assistant Director for Public Relations at Jazz at Lincoln Center.