Jazz Icon Cecil Taylor Wins $500,000 Kyoto Prize

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I’ve just learned that pianist Cecil Taylor, uncompromising avant garde jazz pianist, has won the coveted prestigious Kyoto Prize, awarded by the Inamori Foundation in Japan. Taylor, now 84,  is now a Kyoto laureate in the category of arts and philosophy.  Past laureates include French composer / conductor Pierre Boulez; this year’s laureates in science and technology include electronics engineer Dr. Robert H. Dennard and evolutionary biologist Dr. Masatoshi Nei.

Cecil Taylor’s music is not for the faint of heart.  It is a blast of radiant energy reminiscent of Jackson Pollock’s action paintings.  In his concerts, Taylor sometimes emerges from the wings dressed in atavistic clothing that looks like the original costumes of the 1913 premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.  He dances around the stage singing incantatory blessings before sitting down at the Bösendorfer Imperial Grand, then unleashing a flurry of notes that makes your head spin in both wonder and bewilderment.

Taylor’s assaultive style  has been compared to a volcano, a stampede, thunderclaps, a deluge.   It’s powerful and beguiling.  Club owners are loath to book him.  He makes people forget to order drinks, leaving the clubs in waves.  Not to mention the toll he extracts from the piano.

Whitney Balliet of the New Yorker compared him to another avant-garde icon, Ornette Coleman.  Whereas Coleman asks for huge fees, up to $100,000 back in the 1980s and rarely performs publicly probably for that reason, Taylor will play anywhere for pennies on a moment’s notice. Taylor’s sets are rarely less than an hour, also a club owner’s worry.  For this reason the pianist has done better in concert venues in Europe, where he plays to sizeable and more tolerant audiences.  Both artists are sufficiently iconic to be instantly recognizable by just their first names.

I interviewed Cecil on Morning Becomes Eclectic in November 1988.  He was playing at Catalina’s Bar & Grill in Hollywood.  I sat in the first-row suicide seats, eating a steak, and taking it all in.  Moments like this are treasures.  Steve Laufer took the picture of Cecil when he visited the station.

I’m happy to see Cecil get this wonderful award, just as I was when his fellow avant-gardist Steve Lacy when he won a MacArthur Genius Award years ago.  Now I hope other musical avatars like Wayne Shorter, Ahmad Jamal, and Steve Kuhn win similar awards.

Here’s a clip of a 1995 Italian concert with Taylor playing the big Bösendorfer Imperial Grand piano:

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