The Masthead

I don’t have much to say about Cecil Taylor that hasn’t been said already, in places such as our recent tributes online, Val Wilmer’s feature in this issue, and especially AB Spellman’s crucial Four Lives In The Bebop Business. In that slim 1966 volume, he sets out in urgent bullet points where Cecil’s head was at: a fascination with the tough left arm jabs of Horace Silver; his one-man mission to refract the tonal spectrum of Stravinsky and Stockhausen; and the idea of musical freedom as an imperative to project all sides of the self. It underlines that free jazz, then as now, is a shifting puzzle, where conventional musical structures are discarded one moment, but the next embraced with the fondness of an absent heart. That chapter is largely structured around Cecil’s dynamite quotes, and anyway, what more can you say when someone says of music critics: “From afar, the uninformed egos, ever growing, arbitrarily attempt to give absolutes.” Or who righteously reps himself with lines such as “When I came out of school, the first thing I did was walk down 125th Street and listen to what was happening”.

Before The Wire cover story on Cecil Taylor, written by Phil Freeman for issue 386, we’d tried various ways to pin him down for a new interview. Echoing the experiences of Val Wilmer back in the day, there were phone calls, left messages, instructions to call back, circuitous negotiations, promises that crumbled away.

For any interview that takes place in a magazine, there is always a crucial subtext: why the subject might be talking, and why at this point in time. Sometimes commented on, but more often not, the motivation of your lead character can shape the narrative arc of the piece. So negotiations like these are sometimes like the interview before the interview – where the subject figures out if you’re someone they want to be in a room with. It can be the harbinger of a discussion thick with tension, or sharp with opinion, perhaps both; through negotiating the

defences of an interviewee, you get closer to what’s at their core.

Not that time, though. We chatted with him, via our writer, but Cecil likes to chat, and that was all it was. The pianist, who seems so self-contained, had nothing to gain from talking at that point in time.

A decade or so later in 2016, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York announced its latest Open Plan exhibition, a wide-ranging celebration of his life and work across music, art and poetry, featuring impromptu piano performances on the sundrenched fifth floor of the museum. With someone with such a long career, there is little sense trying to present a definitive account of their life, as once again spinning old stories turns to pomposity and hagiography, and locks in the kind of linear, remote histories we wish to challenge – so, we proposed to hang out with Cecil at the museum for a couple of afternoons to see where it led.

This time it was like pushing at an open door; maybe the gallery being somehow his space was what swung it. Because nothing was discussed as being specifically within the remit of the interview, nothing was outside it. As Phil wrote, Cecil was “friendly, funny, urbane in an almost aristocratic manner, generous with his time, and – surprisingly for someone who has so thoroughly constructed his own soundworld – attuned to the music of the moment.”

In a world where PR people push interview agendas towards new projects, where busy journalists default to elementary questions of influence and intention, and artists circle back to comfort zones of what they did and why, Cecil’s forthrightness was edifying. The context felt right because it was open, and it was his. When jazz musicians are frequently shunted from stage to stage, from festival to festival, the Whitney’s openended celebration of this one great life might provide a good model for future celebrations of others. Derek Walmsley


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Issue 412 June 2018 £4.95 ISSN 0952-0686

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Words Jennifer Lucy Allan, Steve Barker, Mike Barnes, Dan Barrow, Robert Barry, Tristan Bath, Clive Bell, Abi Bliss, Marcus Boon, Britt Brown, Nick Cain, Philip Clark, Byron Coley, Lara C Cory, Julian Cowley, Alan Cummings, Erik Davis, Laina Dawes, Geeta Dayal, Katrina Dixon, Phil England, Kodwo Eshun, Josh Feola, Phil Freeman, Rory Gibb, Francis Gooding, Kurt Gottschalk, Louise Gray, James Hadfield, Andy Hamilton, Adam Harper, Jim Haynes, Ken Hollings, Maya Kalev, David Keenan, Kek-W, Biba Kopf, Matt Krefting, Neil Kulkarni, Sam Lefebvre, Dave Mandl, Howard Mandel, Wayne Marshall, Marc Masters, Noel Meek, Bill Meyer, Aurora Mitchell, Keith Moliné, Brian Morton, Joe Muggs, Alex Neilson, Daniel Neofetou, Louis Pattison, Ian Penman, Emily Pothast, Edwin Pouncey, Nina Power, Chal Ravens, Tony Rettman, Simon Reynolds, Nick Richardson, Bruce Russell, Sukhdev Sandhu, Claire Sawers, Dave Segal, Peter Shapiro, Stewart Smith, Nick Southgate, Daniel Spicer, Richard Stacey, David Stubbs, Greg Tate, Richard Thomas, Dave Tompkins, David Toop, Rob Turner, Zakia Uddin, Val Wilmer, Matt Wuethrich

Images Emile Barret, Tine Bek, Nydia Blas, Guy Bolongaro, Benjamin Butcher, Tara Darby, Hick Duarte, Christian Ducasse, Amy Gwatkin, Dawid Laskowski, Savage Pencil, Gérard Rouy, Michael Schmelling, Rosaline Shahnavaz, Eva Vermandel, Jake Walters, Harley Weir, Val Wilmer