“…calligraphy that really doesn’t say anything.”
Older man to younger man in San Francisco MoMA speaking about Clyfford Still or possibly Cy Twombly.
“I was baby sitting that night. The house is usually cleaner.”
Woman to man in San Francisco MoMA after seeing the exhibit “The Train – RFK’s Last Journey.”
One day while walking down St. Mark’s Place with a friend (a bit stoned) at the age of fifteen or so I heard this wild music coming out of a doorway, that I later learned was for the 5 Spot. I stuck my head through and saw this amazing pianist tearing up the keys. I was stunned. The music went right inside me and my addiction to free jazz deepened. The pianist, it turned out, was Cecil Taylor. I was told afterwards that he was banned from many clubs for having a rep for breaking pianos.
My next rather brief encounter was on Eighth Street and Sixth Avenue perhaps a year or two later. I had by then accumulated quite a few of Cecil’s albums so I knew what he looked like “up close.” As I was approaching the southwest corner of Eighth I noticed a rather beautiful looking man talking to two women. As I got closer I realized it was him. He was already more than a hero. He and his music had become a prime force in my life, creatively, emotionally, and intellectually.
I froze about two feet behind him, hearing his voice for the first time. “What a voice,” I thought. Beautiful. Magical. Musical. Dignified. Soft, special and individual, just like his music. I quickly turned and crossed to the other side, not daring to go up to him and tell him how much I admired him. Me all of maybe seventeen at that time.
I don’t recall the actual first time I got to hear him play but in a notebook from 1966, close to my nineteenth birthday, I do have a poem titled, “after the cecil taylor concert: 9/66 nyc”. Here it is:
sing not song but string tuned harp(ie)s-chords
lyric rhyme well constructed chaos nite –
now a room floats about us
enfolds & possibly loves us –
a completion to a still unfinished psalm.
let us lock the door & bar admission
but to the piano furious we shared with wet
let us remain locked to each other –
somewhere a heavy throated reed
wings above us & sings
not song but tight stringed well handled bass fiddle screech
let us remain in love lust & laughter
let us remain
My incredible connection to his music grew stronger and stronger. Every time a new record was released, I did my best to go out and get it. Every time he gigged somewhere in the city, I tried my best to be there. I was growing up. Growing old. Music kept growing inside me, as did poetry. The times got crazy. The ’60s turned into the ’70s, the ’70s into the ’80s.
And then something miraculous occurred. Though I don’t exactly remember how or when we began talking and forming our friendship, a crazy bond began, basically through our need for and mutual love of poetry, music, and storytelling. A no-holds-barred solidarity. He laughed at my jokes. When he’d see me he’d say “Oh, the poet.” He believed that and helped me believe it as well.
He was one of the first great men to allow me to talk to him without my feeling fear. Though I worshiped him, he treated me as his equal, as he did with so many others, and boy did he love to talk and drink and dance and do so many freedom-filled things. I still find it hard to believe that we became so close. We shared so many informative, jovial, maniacal, and at times downright silly conversations about virtually everything.
He was a crazy man who went off the track as fast as he went back on it over and over again. And man was that track fast. He never compromised his art, his soul, his at times precarious way of living. He’d try anything and always lived life to the fullest and on his own terms. A mentor. Inspiration. Friend. Composer. Poet. Dancer. Choreographer. Major improviser and above all, storyteller, be it with art or with conversation.
When Cecil held court I was one of the few people he allowed to interrupt him. I did it often, at times, to try to make him change course while he was telling stories which most times became endless loops. Repeating the same things about his mother and how harsh she was on him or about other musicians. When Cecil liked Ornette Coleman he called him Ornette. When he didn’t like him he called him “Ornetti-poo” or “that Coleman.” With Max Roach it was Max one minute and Maximilian the next. He had names for them all. He could mix Motown and Mozart in the same sentence. Bird with Xenakis. Talk about his breakfast and politics in the same breath.
Two of my favorite stories were about Billie Holiday and Jack Kerouac. He spoke about how his father took him to a bar to hear Billie Holiday when he was very young. They sat him on the bar counter, gave him a soda pop, and he listened. He always said how this experience was life changing. The other was when Yuko and I asked him if he ever met Jack Kerouac. He replied that he encountered Kerouac in a bar one night. He looked at Kerouac and asked him who he was, to which Kerouac replied, “I am the greatest writer in the world. Who are you?” To which Cecil replied, “I am the greatest piano player in the world.” Kerouac was so impressed by this response that he gave Cecil his walking stick. I can almost hear that sarcastic, wispy, yet warm voice in my head as I write.
His poetry, like his music and stories, was multilayered and went from the turbulent to the sublime. The poems were intense, visceral, biological, alchemical, metaphysical documents of the inside and outside of the body. Battles between the external and internal, mixing like some strange cocktail of histories / music / African Americans / Native Americans (his roots) / racism. Always entangling the personal with the universal. Always about struggle and survival.
Last time I saw the Maestro was in the fall of 2017. He had been in the hospital for quite a while. I and Yuko, whom he had grown to love, were planning a trip to Paris and, fearing the worst, went to see him whenever possible—but sadly not enough. When we got there he was half asleep and not in a very good mood. He had the blankets pulled up halfway over his face, covering his nose, only his eyes shown. “Hey Cecil where are you? You want to talk?” Not a word. I got nervous, “Cecil we can’t hang out all day.” Suddenly he lifted the blanket from his face, opened his eyes, raised his head slightly, and with a look of disgust said “Oh it’s you.” He then pulled the covers over his entire head and I knew that was that. We sat there for about another half hour and went home. Two days later we went to Paris. When we came back six weeks later I called him and we had several great chats. The last time we spoke was on his birthday. I called and wished him a happy birthday. He said thank you. He sounded very weak. I asked if he wanted to talk some, I could usually make him laugh. No answer. “Okay seems you’re not up for it. I’ll try to come by and see you pretty soon. Happy birthday again.” His last words to me were, “And many happy returns to you and your lady.” We hung up.
We planned to see him a few days later and I got word that he was near the end. The day came. The day went. That’s how it was. I got the news he was gone. Goodbye Salty Swift may your tongue never be silenced.
Addendum: Though I was in California when his funeral was held I was given a full account by friends. There were at least 200 people in attendance and some of those who spoke and played were: Fred Moten, Archie Rand, Gary Giddins, Nahum Chandler, Dave Burrell, Fay Victor, Lisa Sokoloff, Ben Young, Greg Tate, William Parker, Karen Borca, Jackson Krall, Bobby Zankel, and Elliott Levin, among many others.