Remembering Cecil Taylor

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Every time I walk down the hallway of KCRW’s basement studios and see Steve Laufer’s on-the-fly portrait of the late pianist Cecil Taylor on the wall, I say to myself, “I can’t believe I ever interviewed this firebrand of an avant garde pianist!” And yet I did, on November 2, 1988, on Morning Becomes Eclectic. I still have my cassette recording of that interview.

Taylor, a longtime resident of Brooklyn, was in Los Angeles at the time for a gig at Catalina’s, then in its former haunts on Cahuenga Boulevard. I sat in the first row—the so-called “suicide seats”—and ate a steak while Taylor danced along the keyboard. Bassist William Parker and drummer Tony Oxley accompanied Taylor, and the trio took the audience on a wild ride to the edges of space and time.

Photographs by Steve Laufer (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Cecil Taylor died on April 5, 2018, at the age of 89. I happened to be listening to a new Debussy solo piano CD when I read Ben Ratliff’s excellent obituary in the New York Times, and it struck me that, like Debussy a hundred years ago, Taylor’s music defied orthodoxy in similar ways. Like Debussy, Taylor blended European and non-European elements. He used odd scales and incorporated influences from other cultures such as Balinese gamelan, shamanism, cultural anthropology, and Butoh dance. Like the avant garde music of Edgar Varèse and György Ligeti, Cecil Taylor’s music can be described as challenging and perhaps not for everybody. In some respects, it’s akin to the public reception to Jackson Pollock’s art or Pina Bausch’s dance.

Photograph by Steve Laufer (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Taylor had the poise and confidence of a classically-trained pianist, but as an improvising artist he burned with a white heat that listeners either loved or hated. Listeners would be more likely to encounter Taylor’s challenging music late at night, when radio hosts take greater chances on what they spin. If a station played Taylor’s music during the day, listeners would flee, turning off their radios or changing stations. Morning Becomes Eclectic, however, has always aired from 9 a.m. until noon. I wonder how many listeners tuned away from our interview that early November day almost 30 years ago.

I’ve pulled together some highlights from our interview for this remembrance. For many fans around the world, as well as the NEA Jazz Masters, MacArthur Foundation, and the Kyoto Prize organizations, Taylor remains a unique musician whose powerful art is admired and appreciated.

I would like to give my thanks to Mario Diaz for his excellent editing, David Greene for rescuing my old cassette from a broken cassette deck, Steve Laufer for generously sharing his archival photographs, and Ariana Morgenstern, who was my producer for this and many other interviews during my tenure on MBE.

Here is the live version of a track featured in this November 2, 1988 interview. The video shows the physicality of Taylor’s style, like a sort of ecstatic dance.

Banner image of Cecil Taylor and Tom Schnabel is courtesy of and © Steve Laufer. Carousel c/o nomo/michael hoefner)