A classic Cecil Taylor moment occurred at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in 1978. That summer, the iconoclastic pianist – who died Thursday at the age of 89 – performed for Jimmy Carter at the White House Jazz Festival. The commander-in-chief was so taken with what he heard that he chased Taylor down afterward and cornered him. "The first thing the president said to me," Taylor recalled to The Washington Post's Hollie I. West a few years later, "was whether [classical virtuoso Vladimir] Horowitz had heard me. I said, 'No, I don't suppose he has.' He said, 'You know he was here. He should hear you. How did you learn to do that?' I said, 'Hell, I've been doing it for 35 years.'"
Jazz history is filled with once-revolutionary statements that now seem perfectly accessible: Ornette Coleman's song-form–exploding The Shape of Jazz to Come, John Coltrane's exploratory early-Sixties performances with Eric Dolphy (at the time labeled by one critic as "anti-jazz") or Miles Davis' murky jazz-rock opus Bitches Brew – all now undisputed canon. But the shock inherent in the work of Cecil Taylor, who reigned as a titan of the American avant-garde for more than 60 years, never seemed to lessen. There's no digest version of his greatness, no easy chain of influence to follow into the greater world of popular music. You simply had to deal.
For some, Taylor's mature performances, often featuring uninterrupted hour-long blocks of breathtakingly intense, almost supernaturally dynamic piano playing, were more endurance test than artistic feat. "Cecil Taylor once said that since he prepared for his concerts, the audience should prepare too," noted the narrator in Ken Burns' 2000 Jazz documentary, to which eminent saxophonist Branford Marsalis replied, "That's total self-indulgent bullshit, as far as I'm concerned." But considered on their own terms, as immersive creative events that had as much to do with dance and poetry as they did with music, these displays rank among the most riveting and radical art of the 20th century.
There are many ways into Cecil Taylor's world. You could follow his discography chronologically, through his Fifties work, which still bore recognizable traces of conventional swing rhythm and featured American Songbook standards mixed in with the pianist's own originals. (As alien as his own output could sometimes sound, Taylor was both a proud exponent and a die-hard fan of the African-American jazz tradition: "When that magician started singing, I said, 'Where the fuck am I?' " he told me in 2008 of hearing Billie Holiday live. "I thought, 'Whatever you're doing to an audience, that's what I'd like to do.'") Or you could start with perhaps his best-known album, Unit Structures, a Blue Note septet date from 1966 that was excerpted near the end of The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz following a hearty helping of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk. But the purest hits of his art can be heard on solo recordings like 1974's Silent Tongues, recorded live at the Montreaux Jazz Festival – a performance partly viewable here:
Taylor's hands tumble like twin acrobats, sometimes leaping balletically over one another or making sudden violent lunges at the keys. While tempestuous, his energy is the opposite of haphazard, his technique as precisely honed for its purpose as that of any concert virtuoso. His phrases are in constant dialogue: percussive left-hand rumbles, answered by scampering, sometimes disarmingly playful high-register responses. And all this musical information just seems to pour out of him: When you're fully immersed in a Cecil Taylor performance, all sense of musical scale distorts; it can be hard to remember where he began, hard to predict where he might be headed, but the sensation of the ecstatic, hyper-engaged and, yes, often gleeful now is unmistakable. (As is the immense technical skill that underlies his flights: "There's nothing 'free' about any of this; it's the construction of cantilevers and inclined pylons," he told writer Jason Gross in 2000, before citing Spanish architect and engineer Santiago Calatrava as a key influence.) It's not hard to see what, in the mind of the great critic Gary Giddins, Taylor "reinvented the piano recital."
Maybe unsurprisingly, given the amount of flak he often got from critics and fellow musicians, Taylor could come off as defiant or openly vindictive. When I spoke with him, he repeatedly referred to Miles Davis, whom he claimed once spit on the ground in front of him, as "the mean devil." And the plaque commemorating his NEA Jazz Master award, considered by some to be the highest honor in jazz, could, at the time of our interview, be found not on the wall of his Brooklyn brownstone but on the bathroom floor, collecting incense ash.
But Cecil Taylor also had a softer side. In a 1994 appearance on NPR's Piano Jazz, Taylor gamely discussed his craft and influences, and even chivalrously dedicated a piece to his genial British host Marian McPartland. And in his second-to-last public concert, at the Whitney Museum in April 2016, he reminded listeners why he could never be pigeonholed as a mere sonic daredevil: Duetting with the Japanese dancer Min Tanaka, he fixated on sparse, crystalline phrases. Eventually, as the performance wound down, the dancer actually rested his head on Taylor's shoulder as he played – a reminder of the many strong artistic partnerships the seemingly intractable pianist had forged over the years, with everyone from the saxophonist Jimmy Lyons to the drummer Max Roach.
Roach, the master bebop drummer and one of the most most highly regarded percussionists in all of jazz, first worked with Taylor in 1979 and continued to duet with him into the 2000s. In 2001, he spoke to Howard Mandel about Taylor, an interview excerpted in the author's book Miles Ornette Cecil: Jazz Beyond Jazz. "Cecil is one of the most challenging musicians I've ever worked with," Roach said. "To put it in lay terms, it's like being in the ring with Joe Louis, Jack Johnson or Mike Tyson.
"It's like being on a battlefield," he continued. "But it's warm music."