Page One

a column by
Bill Shoemaker

The honeymoon had been over almost since the day he took office; but Jimmy Carter’s presidency was under increasing fire from all sides by Father’s Day in 1978. The Right had maintained a constant barrage since Carter signed the Panama Canal Treaty, acting as if Carter had given away the Erie Canal, while the festering discontent of Edward Kennedy and other key Congressional liberals was reaching critical mass. Carter’s earnestness was integral to his appeal as a candidate, but it was flopping as the centerpiece of his role as Motivator in Chief, his pedantic Moral Equivalent of War speech about energy conservation immediately crashing into the realities of stagflation, spiking interest rates and soaring prices at the gas pumps. Even though the signing of the historic Camp David Accords was only 100 days away, Carter was losing control of his Presidency; no longer the outsider who would change Washington, he was the sweater-wearing embodiment of an increasingly ineffective establishment.

In short, Carter needed good news cycles. He was in Panama the day before Father’s Day, leading a delegation of a dozen Senators to meet with General Omar Torijjos; but the photo ops were upstaged by widespread student demonstrations against Carter’s strongman treaty partner, images at odds with Carter’s image as human rights advocate. To the relief of his advisers, the peanut-farming Carter didn’t just get a good news cycle that Father’s Day 35 years ago; he got one of the best photo ops of his ill-fated presidency when he joined in an impromptu rendition of “Salt Peanuts” with Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach.

The occasion was a picnic on the South Lawn celebrating the Newport Jazz Festival, instigated by its producer George Wein, who understood the unique optics of Jazz at The White House, having attended the Richard Nixon-hosted 70th birthday party for Duke Ellington in 1969. With its Silver Anniversary on the horizon, Wein knew that a White House event honoring the NJF would be invaluable publicity. Wein worked official Washington like a veteran pol, coaxing the Rhode Island delegation on both sides of the Capitol dome to intercede on his behalf, a ballsy move given he had moved the NJF to New York City a half-dozen years before; but, Representative Freddy St. Germain and Senator John Chafee hooked Wein up with The White House in impressively short order. Still, Wein’s producer’s chops were put to a severe test; not only did he have to coordinate the participation of a festival’s worth of artists, as well as their travel and accommodations, in just a few weeks, but he also arranged for New Orleans-based caterers to work the event. Mounting a comparable production at The White House on such short notice would most likely be impossible in the post-9/11 security environment.

The real stroke of genius, however, was to turn the event into a picnic on the South Lawn, a decision made by The White House unprompted by Wein. The South Lawn accommodated hundreds of guests (in his autobiography, Myself Among Others (Da Capo), Wein put the number at 400, while Ira Gitler, reporting for Radio Free Jazz, the precursor of JazzTimes Magazine, estimated approximately 1,000, citing Vice President Walter Mondale and TV host Merv Griffin among the attendees), provided the media with greater access, and gave the event an added air of cultural authenticity. Although the event was covered by the television networks, broadcasted on NPR, and reviewed in a slew of newspapers and magazines (Ebony ran a 9-page spread, which, among its other virtues, gave a few column inches to quoting Billy Taylor’s incisive critique of the short-changing of jazz by the National Endowment for the Arts), the unspun flavor of the event is well represented by two sets of photographs. One set is now part of the University of the District of Columbia’s Felix E. Grant Jazz Archives. The DC-based Grant was then one of the nation’s more consequential jazz radio broadcasters – shortly after turning Charlie Byrd on to Brazilian music, the guitarist recorded Jazz Samba, igniting the still vital fusion that peaked commercially with Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto’s pop chart-topping “The Girl from Ipanema” in 1964. With an anonymous photographer in tow, Grant taped interviews throughout the afternoon with a wide swath of artists, including Clark Terry, Herbie Hancock and George Benson. Beyond the reminder that white suits were ubiquitous in the late ‘70s – Carter was a fashion contrarian that day, jacketless and string-tied – the photos show artists fully engaged in dialogue with Grant, a natural at giving an artist the floor in an interview. Their imploring body language alone conveyed their understanding of the importance of the event, that Carter’s picnic was an important step in jazz’s long march to take its rightful place among the pillars of American culture.

However, it is two photographs of Charles Mingus taken by Karl Esch – which can be viewed on JazzTimes Magazine’s web site – that capture the event’s mix of catharsis and photo op. Instead of his trademark grin, Carter has a tight smile in an affecting shot with a weeping, wheelchair-bound Mingus, then in the late rounds of his bout with Lou Gehrig’s disease. The pathos of the shot is somewhat skewed by Carter having one hand on Mingus’ shoulder and a drink in the other. (About this time in the proceedings, Wein was on the mic, beckoning “Charlie Mingus” to “stand up, will you?”) Esch’s other shot of Mingus is heart-piercingly poignant when seen in its entirety; cropped for the Radio Free Jazz spread, it lost much of its gut-punch. It was taken from behind the stage with an out of focus Mary Lou Williams playing piano in the foreground, her identity denied to RFJ readers as the top of the photo was severely chopped; in the uncut photograph, she almost completely envelopes Mingus, who is sitting in the front row, his face slack and mouth open from awe. Mingus’ is the look of a person who had lived to see the day – barely.

Mingus’ reaction was prompted by one of Williams’ stylistically panoramic medleys, encapsulations of jazz history and the music’s roots in the blues that, beginning with The History of Jazz, a 1970 Folkways album, comprised the centerpiece of her recorded output until she died in 1981. These solo performances can be likened to the concluding stanzas of an epic poem – certainly, Williams’ career had the contours of a heroic odyssey. A pioneering woman composer/arranger in jazz’s big leagues during the 1930s, Williams’ charts were performed and recorded by everyone from Benny Goodman to Andy Kirk. After World War II, Williams was poised to be a leader in jazz’s crusade for full enfranchisement in American culture when three movements of her Zodiac Suite were performed by a 70-piece New York Philharmonic-affiliated orchestra at Carnegie Hall in 1946. Additionally, she played a role in the then emergent modernist movement, writing for Gillespie’s forward-leaning orchestra and – more importantly, if much more subtly – availing her home as something of an incubator to Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell and other innovation-minded pianists. But, this momentum was suspended when Williams removed herself from the US jazz scene for several years during the 1950s, focusing on her faith as well as charitable projects; upon her return, she redoubled her efforts to elevate jazz’s cultural standing, penning large-scale, religiously inspired works throughout the 1960s that were performed in both concert halls and cathedrals. In her last years, solos such as her White House performance distilled this pioneering career into stirring summations about jazz, life and faith. Obviously, Mingus heard her message loud and clear.

Still, Esch’s photo caught just one of innumerable resonant moments that day, most of which came and went undocumented on tape or film, despite the plethora of cameras and recorders present. Ultimately, the aggregate power of the surviving photographs and recordings – even casual snaps like Esch’s of Dexter Gordon, Cecil Taylor and the Young Tuxedo Brass Band’s Grand Marshall Matthew “Fats” Houston relaxing next to each other on the sideline – does not stem from the venue per se, but the actuarial cusp jazz was then on, one that allowed Swing Era giants Roy Eldridge, Jo Jones and Teddy Wilson to perform on the same stage as Ornette and Denardo Coleman. Granted: Such mixed programming was not unheard of in the 1970s at festivals such as Wein’s; and the ability of a White House event to magnify this cannot be overstated. However, the historical resonance of a cross-generational mix is dependent upon who is alive on any given day. In this regard, just consider who had passed by Bill Clinton’s 1993 South Lawn jazz celebration, starting with Mingus, Williams, Gordon, Houston (and most of his YTBB colleagues), Eldridge, Jones and Wilson.

Still, Carter’s picnic was singular in its presentation of both jazz at its genesis and its furthest outpost, respectively personified by pianists Eubie Blake and Cecil Taylor. By the outbreak of World War I in Europe, Blake, inspired by hearing Scott Joplin play, had composed chestnuts like “Charleston Rag,” and played in James Reese Europe’s orchestra; by the time Taylor was born in 1929, Blake and his writing and performing partner Noble Sissle were among the most successful composers of Broadway musicals. Present-day purists may balk at the idea of Blake being a jazz pianist; but his role in articulating and popularizing syncopation, bright tempi and insouciant and romantic strains of lyricism that functioned like amino acids in pre-modern jazz is undeniable. Then 91 (Ebony relied on a widely circulated but incorrect birthdate to say he was 95), Blake reportedly played spiritedly; his time was spot-on and his keying was strong and sure.

It is difficult to say which was more unlikely; Wein including Cecil Taylor in the formal program, or Taylor holding to Wein’s 6-minute limit. The distance between Taylor and the jazz mainstream had never been greater, his barrier-breaking, if artistically confounding Carnegie Hall duo concert with Mary Lou Williams the previous year notwithstanding. (Rarely has two great jazz artists talked past each other so resolutely as they do on Embraced, the resulting 2-LP set issued on Pablo – the late-life label of another impactful producer, Norman Granz of Verve and Jazz at the Philharmonic fame.) Between his 1955 debut, Jazz Advance, and the 1966 album long considered to be Taylor’s masterpiece, Unit Structures (which included “Enter Evening,” which Martin Williams included in The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz), Taylor’s music had discernible moorings in Ellington, Monk and advanced jazz, traits all but atomized by subsequent small groups like his late-‘60s quartet with drummer Andrew Cyrille and saxophonists Jimmy Lyons and Sam Rivers (the latter was listed “in attendance” on the White House invitation). By 1978, extreme durations were a hallmark of Taylor’s concerts; across 17th Street at the Corcoran Gallery of Art a few months after the Newport celebration, Taylor’s Unit played continuously for an unrelentingly withering 90 minutes.

While it was then represented by few recordings, it was already apparent that Taylor’s solo music was evolving on its own trajectory. In a sidebar to his The Nation report, Nat Hentoff cited Taylor’s then most recent solo record, Air Above Mountains (‘buildings within’), as “unyieldingly absorbing – in terms of inexorable logic of its structures, the kaleidoscopic swiftness of his melodic inventions, leaps through pulsing time, and the oversize feeling with which all these elements are fused [Hentoff’s italics].” Taylor had also begun ending his solo concerts with short, agonizingly beautiful pieces. Taylor poured all of this into his short solo at The White House, which Hentoff described as “simultaneously lyrical, complexly percussive and so full of ideas that each one barely got out of the way of its successor.”

Taylor never basked in applause, always leaving the stage immediately upon finishing a concert. The White House picnic was no exception. An overwhelmed Carter leapt up and ran after Taylor, a Secret Service agent stumbling behind him. Upon reaching Taylor, Ebony reported that the President was “bubbling with references to the virtuosity of Vladimir Horowitz.” Carter had opened the program with an impromptu speech in which he, as reported by Ebony, cited “‘an element of racism’ as the reason jazz had not been accorded the respect it is due, noting that ‘most of the great players were Black.’” Yet, Carter praises the most startlingly original African American pianist of the day for meeting a European standard – typical of newcomers to Taylor’s music, who hear his technique long before they hear the content of his music, let alone its oversize feeling.

For Taylor, this was nothing new; since the late 1950s, critics explained Taylor largely through the metrics of European concert music, a thread traced back to an early 1959 review by Gunther Schuller in The Jazz Review, the bar-raising magazine founded by Hentoff and Williams. The exceptionally credentialed Schuller played French horn in Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool Nonet; his compositions and pedagogical skills helped spearhead the Third Stream, which sought to fuse jazz and other musical traditions. (Even though the label has been long shed, Third Stream aesthetics remain alive and well in jazz.) Subsequently, Schuller’s erudite ideas about Taylor’s approach to structure and tonality became embedded in the critical and scholarly literature about Taylor.

Schuller’s review of the pianist’s first LPs – Jazz Advance (1956; Transition, reissued on Blue Note) and At Newport (1957; Verve), a LP shared by Taylor’s quartet and the Gigi Gryce-Donald Byrd Jazz Laboratory – was clearly written as a defining text, one that dovetails with Schuller’s multi-front campaign to legitimize jazz as contemporary concert music. To this end, Schuller immediately places Taylor in the unwieldy context of the historically central role of tonality in European concert music, name-checking Claude Debussy, Alexander Scriabin, Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Anton Webern, and Darius Milhaud before mentioning Taylor by name. For Schuller, these composers represented steps taken away from tonality, through bitonality and polytonality, to atonality. Schuller cites a small minority of jazz composers-performers who had “reached that borderline where their music often spills over into areas so far removed from any center of tonal gravity, that it can be thought of as ‘atonal.’ Foremost among these is Cecil Taylor.”

The problem with this pronouncement is that, even though Taylor was in the vanguard of jazz artists, his music was not primarily atonal, requiring Schuller to become something of a polemical contortionist. On the one hand, Taylor “does think tonally [Schuller’s italics], but the result of his thinking most of the time cannot be analyzed on tonal terms.” The bulk of his improvisations “is either purely atonal or is so close to the borderline between tonality and atonality, that identification and syntactical analysis via tonal centers becomes complicated out of all proportions – a kind of academic game – and meaningless.” Schuller therefore places atonality within a greater governing context: structure. To this end, Schuller breaks down Taylor’s “Tune 2” from the Newport set, the most elaborately structured Taylor composition on the two albums. Schuller details the composition’s 88-bar structure, its motivic variants and their horizontal and vertical treatments, tossing in a reference to Monk in the process – Schuller had previously heralded Monk’s “Criss Cross” as a compositional break-through in jazz because it had no relationship to popular song form. The problem Schuller encounters, however, is that “Tune 2” is also Taylor’s most conventional in terms of tonality and swing.

It’s understandable that a vanguard American composer like Schuller would primarily assess Taylor on compositional criteria. Unfortunately, his emphasis on tonality and structure obscured his comments about Taylor’s approach to rhythm when soloing and accompanying soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, who plays on both sessions. Still, his description of the quartet’s push-pull approach to rhythm, particularly on Taylor’s “Charge ‘Em Blues” on Jazz Advance, comes close to describing Taylor’s then-emerging concept of fluctuating rhythm. Additionally, Schuller made this assessment without the benefit of Robert Levin’s liner notes for the then soon-to-be-released Hard Driving Jazz (a United Artists LP reissued on CD by Blue Note), which included these germane comments by Taylor: “I think in terms of space. Space is the rate of speed at which the harmony changes. Be-bop killed the idea of space by using a lot of chords and the soloist had to think more rapidly and become cramped. I want to use as few chords as possible, say one chord for every two measures instead of four [chords], so that is more time to find possibilities in the chords and to develop and intensify these possibilities.” Taylor’s equation of space and speed is the cornerstone of his conception of rhythm as fluctuating and kinetic. To realize it, he had to remove himself from recording projects that confronted him with antagonistic beboppers like trumpeter Kenny Dorham, who taunted him during the Hard Driving Jazz session. Taylor eventually found the necessary latitude to realize his budding ideas in the studio during the 1960-61 sessions for the Hentoff-produced Candid album, The World of Cecil Taylor, where he had the time to record 29 takes of his composition “Air.”

In his 1988 annotations for the Mosaic boxed set of the pianist’s Candid recordings, bassist Buell Neidlinger, who played on the Transition, Verve and Candid albums, described Taylor’s innovation in rhythm as “compression and release;” compression being the acceleration of the tempo, and release the establishment of a new tempo from which another compression would begin. This “produced a very forward leaning groove, whereas with a lot of jazz, the rhythm is very straight up and down as it goes along. In CT’s music, the lines lean more and more forward ... until they release, at which point they stand straight up again at a new plateau, but reproducing the same feeling.” Later in his notes he extends the idea of compression to link rhythm and harmonic movement: “the Taylorian tempo dynamic [is] compression and relaxation of rhythm (tempo against tempo, constantly shifting) and compression of harmony (chromaticism related to the fixed blue roots).”

Granted, there are no examples of mature compression and release on the albums Schuller reviewed – the rousing “Rick Kick Shaw” on Jazz Advance being the most prototypical – but the weight Schuller placed on tonality and structure shaped the commentary about Taylor’s music for years, despite piling evidence that compression and release was his major methodological breakthrough. Several pages of the chapter on Taylor in A.B. Spellman’s 1966 Four Lives in the Bebop Business (Pantheon) are devoted to a repudiation of Schuller’s review; Spellman even quotes a Taylor complaint about critics emphasizing what by then had become their fixation with the pianist’s “classical” influences that first appeared in Joe Goldberg’s 1965 Jazz Masters of the Fifties (MacMillan). However, both Spellman and Goldberg failed to seize on Taylor’s remarks to the latter about a compositional philosophy based on a “compression of energy,” a phrase that gets by both authors without query or challenge. Taylor states that modern composition is characterized by short forms, where composers are “trying to get to the kernel ... When they come to the point where everything happens, where the development, the climax is, that’s good. Why not just give me that?” With neither Spellman nor Goldberg pursuing this important, if not central aspect of Taylor’s art, Schuller’s metric remained undented.

The earliest comprehensive discussion of Taylor’s approach to rhythm appears in Ekkehard Jost’s Free Jazz (published in German in 1975, an English translation issued by Da Capo did not appear until ‘81). Taking a long, twisting route, Jost arrives at something close to Taylor’s equation of space and speed. While Taylor played emphatically on or behind the beat more than his contemporaries in the ‘50s, Jost notes that Taylor changed his approach in the ‘60s, “combining the parameters of time, intensity and pitch, thereby creating a new musical quality, energy [Jost’s italics].” Jost is quick to point out that he does not equate energy with power or intensity: “Energy is, more than anything else, a variable of time.” This dovetails elegantly with a conclusive statement Taylor makes in his fecund notes for Unit Structures: “Rhythm then is existence and existence time, content offers time quantity to shape: color, mental physical participation.” The kinesiology of Taylor’s music, then, is rooted in the rise and fall of energy and how it activates the circuitry connecting existence, time and the creative act. Whether you call it space, energy or a hybrid of the two, Taylor’s approach to rhythm is a far cry from the traditional idea of swing as the tension between the fundamental rhythm of a piece and the rhythm of its melody through off-beat phrasing.

The atomizing effect of this energy is fully realized on Conquistador!, Taylor’s other ‘66 Blue Note album. After these two LP side-long performances, there is little point in talking about structure in Taylor’s music, if “structure” resembles John Cage’s definition – structure being the division of the whole into parts. Even when Taylor employed structural devices like codettas in early pieces like “E.B.” from The World of Cecil Taylor, their impact is obscured by the incredible energy of quarter notes clocked by Neidlinger at the rate of 344 per minute. As loaded with structural features recordings by Taylor’s subsequent Units may have been, they all but ceased to be discernible. An early case in point is The Great Concert of Cecil Taylor, a 1969 marathon by the quartet with Cyrille, Lyons and Rivers, its continuous concussive force conjuring images of buildings being obliterated in early A-bomb tests. Still, the influence of Schuller remains such that Gary Giddins proclaimed in his 1977 liner notes for the Prestige boxed set reissue of the original Shandar LPs: “Cecil Taylor is fundamentally a composer.”

Taylor publicly disputed the idea that he is primarily a composer as early as the 1964 Bennington College conference, “The Shape of Jazz to Come,” where he dismissed the use of notation because “the symbol doesn’t make the sound.” By then, Taylor’s conception of his role of the composer had ceased to be top-down and became facilitating. He was already primarily teaching materials to his musicians by singing the parts instead of distributing scores; when “scores” were referenced, they were little more than notes and sketches on blank paper – not staved paper – which the musicians could, but were not required to copy from Taylor’s oral presentation. Taylor’s methods entailed a considerable learning curve for even sympathetic musicians – tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp requiring most of the 29 takes of “Air” to fully command the material is an early case in point. Otherwise, the music of Taylor’s Units after 1966 is all but completely improvised. Throughout Tristan Honsinger’s tenure with Taylor’s quintet in the late 1990s, the cellist never saw a score and never made eye contact with Taylor in performance. The only instructions he received were basically those Taylor gave to drummer Sunny Murray in the early 1960s: Keep playing. Even when Taylor has committed ideas to paper in recent decades, they cannot be deciphered by anyone who did not go through the rehearsal process for that particular piece. When presented with the score for the almost hour-long “Algonquin,” a requirement for their 1999 grant to Taylor, the Library of Congress was incredulous that it consisted of two pieces of paper scrawled with text fragments, a few stacks of letters presumably representing pitches, and sundry arrows and shapes. (Performed as a duet with violinist Mat Maneri, the piece was issued by Bridge Records in 2004 as Algonquin.)

The changes Taylor’s music has undergone since his White House performance are immense; while his ensemble music continued to be propelled by centrifugal force, his solo music took a strikingly inward direction, beginning with recordings like Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly! (1980; MPS) and Garden (1981; hat ART). Central to the evolution of Taylor’s solo music is his discovery of the Bosendorfer Imperial grand piano; in addition to nine keys extending the bass clef, ending with the contrabass C (which Taylor exploits on the 1986 Soul Note album, For Olim), the instrument has both rich overtones (best heard in heavily pedaled passages on Garden) and great expressive range. Yet, it is the consistency of every Imperial’s almost resistant action that is most essential to Taylor’s solo music, which is dependent upon the equal articulation of every note. To achieve this, Taylor developed his own version of the locked hands technique associated with Horace Silver, one of Taylor’s early idols. This impacted Taylor’s physical approach to keyboarding. Neidlinger likened Taylor to a pendulum, his torso swinging the length of the keyboard to allow him to produce octaves-spanning cascades of arpeggios and percussive lines. His locked hands technique requires Taylor to keep his hands more directly in front of him; otherwise his ability to articulate every note equally could be jeopardized.

Taylor’s articulation is particularly crucial to the type of materials he first introduced into his solo music in the early ‘80s and their subsequent development. Chief among these materials are ballad-like passages that have three prominent features: intervals of a minor third and smaller; obvious chord progressions; and an approach to rhythm describable as quasi-rubato. It is Taylor’s rigorous attention to articulation that makes performances like “Pemmican” on Garden resolutely unsentimental even while projecting lyrical warmth. Taylor also increasingly used mirrored fingerings to create harmonized motives, often adding segments to create longer and longer lines; in the process, they produce rich harmonic movement to refine a core device Taylor had employed since his earliest solo recordings: stating a phrase, following it with a short rest, and then either repeating the phrase or slightly varying it in another octave to create a call and response effect. With his singular keyboarding speed, Taylor can compress this gambit to the point where the call and the response are all but simultaneous. This form of compression can heard on his 1974 solo concert recording Silent Tongues (Arista-Freedom), but the resulting music became even more stunning with the introduction of the Imperial.

However far from the jazz mainstream Taylor’s music was in 1978 – and, conversely, how fascinating it was to a minimally qualified listener like Carter – the kernels of an even farther-reaching multi-discipline form of performance were germinating. Shortly after his White House performance, Taylor began integrating dance and poetry into his concerts, elements routinely and facilely placed by critics within an implicitly Afrocentric context of ritual. Perhaps it is a measure of progress that these sorts of loose comparisons have been applied to Taylor, but they are as ill-fitting as mentions of Scriabin et al. “Ritual” accurately describes how Art Ensemble of Chicago opened each concert with the musicians facing east in silence until a gong is struck – a prescribed act fulfilling a specific function at the same point of each performance. While Taylor’s movements and recitations meet some of these criteria – they generally preface or postscript Taylor playing the piano – they are materials generated as integrated components for a specific concert.

Taylor’s movements combine aspects of what Arthur Todd called dancer/choreographer Katherine Dunham’s “polyrhythmic strategy of moving” (Taylor was a child when he first saw Dunham perform); Taylor was also deeply inspired by what he called flamenco dancer Carmen Amaya’s ability to stop time and any sense of existence outside of the performance. Read from the page, Taylor’s poems rival those of projectivist poets like Charles Olson for their densities of syntax, images and arcane references; more importantly, Taylor’s recitations suggest that, like Olson, he considers poetry to be a transfer of energy delivered in breath-long units. In performance, these traits present much differently than their antecedents would suggest. For starters, Taylor’s age indicated restraint in movement, and he often used the piano like a ballet bar for his most extended positions; yet, his vocabulary of movements are as tightly meshed as his piano motives. Recently, Taylor has gone to a microphone with written texts; but, for decades, his texts were spoken as he moved; employing everything from nasal whines to heaving bellows, Taylor created a primal music of clipped syllables and elongated vowel sounds.

One wonders in which direction Jimmy Carter would have run if Taylor had come on stage with bells strapped above his ankles, alternately crouching and springing up, arms extended, his voice morphing as he uttered lines like “… hearin’ salt in parabolic thrusts / swollen to light travelling moon outsized / which grand rises full flush to flourish / sea swum closely watch’d on unexpected / Blood in holler sweat real to become / unknown trance where the Abyss lives ... ” (These lines are from a 1973 poem that appeared on the cover of Spring of Two Blue-Js, a concert recording of Taylor produced for his short-lived Unit Core imprint. The poem was dedicated to the then recently passed tenor saxophonist Ben Webster.) Regardless, Carter in all likelihood would not have thought of Horowitz as he ran.

As it turned out, Carter sat transfixed, connecting Taylor to Horowitz, which, at some level, should be chalked up to successful messaging. By 1978, the mantra that jazz was America’s classical music was at least beginning to ring in the ears of the American cultural elite. Arguably, the chorus of influentials was then louder, as jazz had little more than a beachhead in its long march to the agencies of government and the boardrooms of corporations and foundations that have to date poured tens of millions of dollars into the preservation and proliferation of jazz in its myriad forms. That march mirrors Taylor’s; entailing long detours through Europe and Japan, it ultimately led to his anointment as a MacArthur Genius and NEA Jazz Master in the early 1990s (in June 2013, Taylor received the Kyoto Prize of $500,000). Mostly reflexive comparisons to composers spanning Scriabin to Charles Ives have lingered in books and articles about Taylor; like the human appendix, they no longer serve their original function of signifying high art and can only inflame. However, like 19th Century engravings of the dodo, they are useful markers of a bygone era, one where classical music was the paradigm of complexity and layered meaning in music. These qualities now have no better standard-bearer in American music than Cecil Taylor, whose music truly is, to use Ellington’s phrase, beyond category.

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