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Spooky Action At A Distance

Notes From a Season at the Center of the Universe: Cecil Taylor at the Take 3

By Robert Levin

Excerpted and adapted from a work-in-progress, Going Outside: A Memoir of Free Jazz & the ‘60s

In late 1962, Cecil lands a three-month, four-night-a-week gig at The Take 3, a coffee house on Bleecker Street. It's right next door to The Bitter End where Woody Allen had performed just weeks before. (Allen was second on the bill and I'd thrown him a quick couple of lines in the Village Voice column—something about how this new comic exploited his appearance to good advantage.)

For Cecil, pushing 33 now, The Take 3 experience will be important for the opportunity its extraordinary duration affords him to develop new ideas and to achieve deeper levels of interaction with the two musicians he brings with him, Jimmy Lyons, alto saxophone, and Sunny Murray, drums. (The trio will be joined on occasion by either Buell Neidlinger or Henry Grimes on bass, but most of the time there's no bass player.)

For me, 23, and never happier than when I'm in a jazz club and in the company of musicians I admire, it's a chance to hang in my element on a semi-regular basis. But it's something else as well. This is 1962 going on 1963. An increasing number of us live with the conviction that a seismic change in human consciousness is both possible and imminent. We also share a belief that the New Jazz, in its break with established forms and procedures, and with its resurrection of ancient black methodologies, is showing the way. "Man," the bassist Alan Silva (coming off an hour-long, 13-piece collective improvisation one night at another venue) can say to me, "in ten years we won't even need traffic lights we're gonna be so spiritually tuned to one another."

At The Take 3, I'll feel myself to be at the very center of the universe.

I mention Cecil's engagement in the column a few days before he opens and maybe six people a night show up in the first week. The following week, impervious to criticism that I'm functioning as Cecil's unofficial publicist, I write what amounts to a paean to him. I also discuss a simultaneous Monk date at the Five Spot. (Monk, of course, is one of Cecil's principle influences.) The Voice titles this column "The Monk and the Taylor" and gives it a banner front page headline. The next night I arrive at The Take 3 and see that the proprietors have hung a large sign over the entrance:

"CECIL TAYLOR! ‘STARTS WHERE MONK LEAVES OFF!'—VILLAGE VOICE"

Not exactly the way I had put it, but so what? The column and the sign serve their purpose. From this point on the room is sometimes filled to capacity.

Among the musicians who come on nights that I'm there (and who would have come without the hype) are John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy. When the last set ends they sit at a table with Cecil, Anne (my girlfriend then) and me, and a love fest breaks out. John says to Cecil that he's "awestruck" by him. Eric calls Cecil "the spaceman—the astronaut!" After Cecil tells Eric that Eric is "about to become great," I raise my hand and say, "So what about me?" Everybody laughs except Eric. I can see him thinking: Wait a minute. Should I know…? Does Bob play an instrument?

John and Cecil had recorded together in 1958 and a word on the album they made, and their musical relationship in general, is in order here. The album, Hard Driving Jazz, was originally a Cecil date and later reissued under Coltrane's name as Coltrane Time. It was certainly an interesting album but it turned out to be less than terrific.

Tom Wilson, an early champion of Cecil's and the producer of his first record, Jazz Advance, produced this one as well. He also chose the sidemen, all of whom— trumpeter Kenny Dorham, bassist Chuck Israels, drummer Louis Hayes and tenor saxophonist Coltrane, too—were serious beboppers and, with the exception of Coltrane, very much set in their ways.

Tom believed that he was putting something seminal together, something that would foreshadow where, following Cecil's lead, bebop might go from here. But surrounding Cecil with a group composed largely of intransigent beboppers was counterproductive, to say the least. While Coltrane acquitted himself decently, Dorham (a splendid bebop trumpet player) was incensed by Cecil's "eccentric" comping and he made no effort to conceal his feelings. For their parts, Israels and Hayes could only struggle with the rhythmic challenges Cecil posed.

But the album would still have failed to predict bebop's future even if these men had been more flexible. Although it wasn't entirely clear at the time, Cecil was in the process of creating a discrete system of his own; if anything, he was shedding bebop. (It would be Coltrane who'd deliver bebop to its outer limits.) Given this circumstance, what a Cecil Taylor record needed was musicians inclined and prepared to take his journey with him. Cecil had been opposed to Dorham's inclusion on the date. He'd wanted Ted Curson, a younger trumpet player who was very much in sync with him. And he hadn't been so sure about using Coltrane either. That John would be more capable than the others of taking Cecil on wasn't enough. (Jimmy Lyons, whom he didn't encounter until 1960, became Cecil's most congenial supporting player. When Jimmy died in 1986, it was months before Cecil could bring himself to go near a piano again.)

Probably the closest thing to a successful number from the Hard Driving Jazz recording session, Mel Tormé's "Christmas Song"&emdash;"For the Noël market," Cecil said—was left out of the album.

By 1962, of course, Coltrane was all but possessed by the Free Jazz players. He was both their patron (he gave them money and employed many of them in his band) and their student. "He loved us," Archie Shepp would say. But as far as Cecil's approach was concerned, there was only so much that John could use. "That's too complicated," he remarked about it once, and he derived a lot more from Archie, Eric, Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler, among others.

But Coltrane was always ready to honor Cecil. I'm thinking of a night at Birdland a year or so later. John is about to go on as Cecil and a small group of us come in. We walk past the bar where Pee Wee Marquette, the club's midget emcee, is saying to the bartender—and just loud enough for us to hear—"How much more of this ‘Greenwich Village' jazz am I supposed to take?" John sees Cecil and says something to McCoy Tyner who's already playing an intro. Tyner abruptly quits the number he's started and they open the set instead with "Out of This World."

Another musician who comes to The Take 3 doesn't stay very long.

It's between sets and the band is backstage when I hear something going on at the door. I turn to look and see Coleman Hawkins standing there. Coleman Hawkins! The "Bean" himself!

I can't make out what Hawkins is saying, but I hear the girl who collects the admission charge say: "Everybody pays a dollar, Sir."

I see what's happening and I want to rise from my chair and throw a dollar onto the girl's table, but I can't do anything. I'm frozen. Coleman Fucking Hawkins!

And it's over too fast. Hawkins glares at the girl, then turns and splits.

"Maybe ‘Bean' didn't have a bean," Cecil says when I tell him about it.

So what about me?

On the same night as Hawkins's abortive visit, Cecil and I leave The Take 3 together. Of course, no prolonged period in Cecil's company can pass for me without a certain issue erupting. I'm referring to my own unrealized, and maybe never to be realized, creative aspirations (literary in my case) and to the envy and resentment that will unfailingly be triggered at one point or another. Cecil is a genuine artist. The real thing. I'm chronically "blocked" and with no true sense of what I want to say or how to proceed—osmosis, which a part of me is counting on with him, isn't working. In Cecil's words (spoken without malice—to be candid about such matters, at whatever the cost, is central to the stance he's taken in the world), I'm a "person of artistic persuasion." It's a phrase that he's used more than once and it embarrasses and infuriates me. But anything that makes me too conscious of the glaring disparities between us can set me off. When that happens my pattern is to become aggrieved and petulant and then, in a paroxysm of indignation and vainglorious self-assertion, to withdraw from him—sometimes for months. In this particular instance, however, a separation at least is forestalled when my problem is mollified by Cecil in a way I couldn't have anticipated.

With the completion of an evening's last set, Cecil's usually eager to check out what's going on in clubs that are still open. But tonight, an almost balmy night for early December, he's not feeling well and he wants to go straight home. I need to get home as well—to finish a way overdue Blue Note liner. "You're killing me, Robert," Frank Wolff had said to me earlier on the phone. "Frank," I told him, "I'm suicidal myself. This is the fourth Jimmy Smith album you've assigned me. Didn't you get that I had nothing to say about him the first time? Why doesn't Joe Goldberg have to do these?"

I plan to accompany Cecil as far as Second Avenue.

"What's the matter with you?" I say once we're outside. "You don't have the clap again? I warned you not to sit on public piano stools."

Cecil who's looking a little gray, grimaces. "Ulcer attack," he says. "I have something to take at the apartment."

The stomach ulcer has been a persistent concern for Cecil (he's convinced it will soon become something worse) and waiting for traffic to pass on the corner of LaGuardia Place, I'm about to ask him if he's seen his doctor recently when this guy I'd noticed standing outside The Take 3 approaches us. "Excuse me, Mr. Taylor," he says—and to me, "Excuse me, Sir." He's black and around my age.

"Mr. Taylor," he says, "I just wanted to tell you how amazing I think you are and how much I love your music. No one can play the piano like you do."

Cecil smiles. "Thank you," he says.

"I wish I could be a musician," the guy goes on. "I've taken lessons, but I'm no good at it. I just don't have the aptitude for it, I guess."

Cecil looks at him and says gently, "Then be a good listener."

Not a bad answer, I think, and I'm instantly rankled by it.

"What empty shit," I say after the guy—nodding earnestly, then smiling broadly and vigorously shaking my hand as well as Cecil's—backs off. "‘Be a good listener.' Was that the best you could do?"

"I don't know what you mean," Cecil says as we resume walking. I see that his countenance has brightened considerably. Cecil responds well to adulation.

"I mean that's not what he wanted to hear," I say.

"He seemed satisfied to me, Bob," Cecil says. "But then you may be right. Since when do I give people what they want to hear?"

"He wanted you to tell him the secret." I say. "When he absorbs what you said he's going to sink into a profound depression."

Cecil gives me a sidelong glance. "Are you talking about him, Bob? You're not starting some shit here, are you?"

I ignore this. I'm remembering something I'd all but buried, but which is suddenly of great importance to me, and I say: "We go back to 1956 and, come to think of it, since when do you really give much of anything, even when you say you will?"

Cecil stares at me. He obviously has no idea what I'm talking about.

"Cecil," I say. "What the fuck happened to 'Bobt'?"

"What the fuck happened to who?" he says.

"To 'Bobt', I say. " Shit, man. Not ‘who'. What! 'Bobt'!"

"Bob," he says laughing at me. "Listen to you. Are you're having a fit of some kind? Should I take you to an emergency room?"

"You said you were composing a tune for me and that you were calling it 'Bobt,'" I say. "That was a year ago. I've waited long enough, don't you think? Where is it? I want it."

"You want it?" Cecil says. "Have you collapsed into an infantile state, Bob? Do I need to remind you of the vicissitudes of the creative process?"

"In other words you never wrote it," I say.

"‘In other words, please be kind'," Cecil sings. " ‘In other words…'"

"You were bullshitting me," I say. "Will you cut the crap and give me a straight…"

"It was absorbed by something else." Cecil nods to himself after he hears what he said. He bought a moment with the musical interlude and he's pleased with the answer he's come up with.

"'Absorbed by something else'?" I say. "That's beautiful. Well you know what, Cecil? I'm going to write a poem for you&emdash;a poem I'm going to finish—and I'm going to call it…"

"'The Magnificent One'?" He says. "'The Immortal…'?"

"I'm going to call it 'The Insufferable Self-Centered Prick'," I say.

"Bob," he says, his hand on his chest, "Are you saying that I'm self-centered? Me? The amazing Cecil?"

"I'll tell you what I'm saying," I say. "I've had it. I don't need this shit—that's what I'm saying. The one thing I do get back from knowing and touting the 'amazing Cecil' is reflected glory, and it definitely has some practical benefits—I can point to two occasions when it's actually gotten me laid. But is it worth the indignities I have to suffer? Will it make me immortal, too? No, reflected glory isn't nearly enough to justify the indignities I have to suffer. And I don't have to settle for it anyway—you can shove reflected glory, man. I'm making some moves. I'm going to be my own Cecil Taylor."

Cecil feigns a horrified expression "You…you…" he blusters. "You would dare take my name, the name of Cecil?"

I stifle a laugh. "And I'm not exactly beginning at zero either…"

"Listen," he says, "there's something…"

"…Maybe it isn't really 'writing'," I continue, "but…"

"The column?" he says. "The column? I appreciate what you've done with it but no, you know it isn't 'writing'."

Ready, in the wake of this remark, to take permanent leave of him, to never even listen to a record of his again, I say: "I just conceded as much. But fuck you, Cecil. No one's ever told me their three-year-old daughter could do it."

Cecil stops walking and grabs my shoulder. "Robert," he says, "I haven't mentioned this…"

"What?" I say, pushing his hand off me.

"Awhile back," he says. "That poem you wrote…the one you gave me…"

"That poem?" I say. "That poem sucked. It was awful."

He shakes his head. "Something about that poem…it made me want to write poems myself. I started writing poetry the next day."

"I didn't know you were writing poetry," I say. "Motherfucker!"

He laughs. "I haven't been able to stop. Not since I read that poem. No one's seen any of it yet. I guess I'll have to show it to you now."

I take this in. I'm still only a "person of artistic persuasion"—at best I'm destined to be a footnote in his biography. But I'm also something more than Cecil's flack now. I've managed to have an impact in a way that really matters to me. "Bobt?" Who needs "Bobt?" I regard what Cecil's imparted to me as an extraordinary gift.

"I'm glad to see that you're feeling better," I say a moment later when we arrive at Second Avenue. "So Coleman Hawkins came to check you out. Too bad he didn't want to pay for the privilege."

Cecil shrugs. "We could have used his dollar," he says. Then he says: "I'm thinking about going to Slug's. Come with me."

"Sure. Yeah." I say.

If Frank Wolff dies I'll find a way to live with the guilt.

Several weeks later, on a night I'd have regretted missing, a heavy presence causes me to turn my head in the middle of a set and I see this dude with an odd patch of white on his goatee and wearing a green leather suit. He's holding a gleaming tenor saxophone. (Sunny will tell me that he polishes it every day.) I know who he is. Sunny and Jimmy had both spoken about Albert Ayler, the "new bitch on tenor" they'd met and played with in Copenhagen on the recent tour. Before they left Denmark, Cecil had invited him to "say hello" when he returned to the States.

But Albert isn't wasting time with formalities. The cap is already off his mouthpiece and he's edging his way between the tables toward the bandstand. Sunny says to Cecil, "Albert's here," and though Cecil barely raises his head that's enough for Albert to mount the stage.

I write this half a century after the fact, but the first sounds Albert makes remain as vivid and immediate to me as if I'd heard them only moments ago.

It's his vibrato. The breadth, the amplitude, of his vibrato is astonishing. (It will redefine the scope of the tenor saxophone and Coltrane will admit to having dreams about trying to duplicate it.) If it succeeds in chasing a portion of the room into the street, the rest of us are riveted by it. And we are no less transfixed by what follows. Coming from an evident rhythm and blues matrix, and reminiscent of the shouters and honkers of the ‘40s and ‘50s, what Albert proceeds to play—with suddenly shifting meters and no regard for tonal centers—isn't a sequence of notes so much as an amalgam of sounds. Primal sounds. Ecstatic sounds. Achingly mournful sounds. Grotesque and funny sounds.

Albert's intention, he'll explain to me, is to reassert black music's original function, to "conjure up holy spirits." I can't vouch for his success in that regard, but I can say that for me what he's doing is equal in its emotional impact to the first time I heard Cecil.

And Cecil. When Albert begins to play, Cecil laughs and his posture changes noticeably. He's recalibrating to accommodate Albert. Sunny and Jimmy respond in the same fashion. They embrace Albert and unite with him. A half-hour passes before the number he cut in on is completed.

Of the many gifted musicians who belonged to the New Thing's second wave, Albert, an astronaut and an archeologist all at once, was the monster. The full range of his unique vision wasn't revealed the night he sat in with Cecil, of course. But later, in bands of his own and with the pre-Louis Armstrong-through-Ornette Coleman spectrum of material he would utilize, Albert created a fascinating body of innovative work. Many of us took for granted that he'd be the next major force in the music.

In 1964, when I'd be living with "Pretty," Albert came to the apartment several times to hang out and also to do an interview. The tape of that interview (and a tape of an interview with Betty Carter) was inside the Wollensak case when I was burglarized. I never got the chance to transcribe it.

Albert would die in 1970, apparently by his own hand. A year after that, in the process of moving to the West Village, I discovered a leather tie on the floor of the bedroom closet. It was caked in plaster dust, but I was able to make out the letters "AA" written in ink on the label. My first thought was, how the hell did this get here? Had Albert removed his tie while we talked and forgotten about it? Had "Pretty" found it and, for safekeeping, hung it in the closet where, forgotten by her as well, it had eventually been jostled from its hook? After a moment I realized that the circumstances behind the tie's appearance in my closet were probably not so innocent—and I could smile about it now. When I met her, "Pretty" had already "balled" every living entry in the Encyclopedia of Jazz and cohabiting with me had in no way discouraged her from moving on to the supplementary volume. Why not Albert?

Speaking of girl singers, I should note that during Cecil's run two remarkable vocalists, Jeanne Lee and Sheila Jordan, work opposite him from time to time. Another performer who makes an appearance (his debut, as I remember it) is Tiny Tim. "What the fuck is this?" two people at separate tables exclaim in unison when he launches into "Tiptoe Through the Tulips."

I should also add that someone who doesn't show is Ornette. Eventually Ornette and Cecil will be acknowledged as the dual progenitors of the New Music, but they've been competing for sole ownership of this distinction from the start and, declarations of mutual respect aside, they aren't especially supportive of one another. Ornette, who's the better known of the two, clearly wants to protect his advantage. A few days after the "Monk and Taylor" column I'm walking on 8th Street, head down against a driving rain, when my path is suddenly blocked. I look up and it's Ornette.

"You must make a lot of money writing for that paper," he says and brushes past me.

So much for the parties at Ornette's loft.

(There'd been talk about Ornette and Cecil recording together since the late '50s, but nothing ever materialized. Around 2003, preparations for an album by them were actually underway when Ornette decided not to go ahead with the project.)

Just days before the gig will come to its conclusion, and determined to savor every last moment, I'm seated at a table right near the stage. The band has been "exchanging energies" for forty minutes. Each time the torrent of sound begins to ebb and you think, that's it, they're spent, they can't possibly have anything left, an apparently tossed-off phrase, a single note, reignites the process and the music builds to even greater levels of intensity than it had reached before. (Buell Neidlinger, who's here tonight, isn't going along at this point. He's stopped playing and he looks to be exhausted—or worse. Eyes closed, his glasses askew, his head is hanging over his bass at an alarmingly strange angle. Is he resting? Has he broken his neck?)

I'm facing straight ahead and totally absorbed in what's taking place, when Jack Kerouac bounds onto the bandstand in front of me. Appearing to be in a… well…beatified condition, he twice, and very slowly, makes a circle around the entire group. Then he walks between and around each of the individual players. Finally he bends down and slides under the piano where, lying on his back, he folds his arms across his chest. At the end of the piece (some twenty minutes later), he emerges from beneath the piano and extends his hand to Cecil.

"I'm Jack Kerouac," he says, "and I'm the greatest writer in the world." A startled Cecil (who at first isn't sure who this cat is and who'd apparently been unaware of his presence) recovers quickly. Accepting Kerouac's hand he says: "I'm Cecil Taylor and I'm the greatest pianist in the world."

Me, I'm thinking, Jesus, this is too much—it's beyond too much. And though it occurs to me to say to them: "I'm Robert Levin and I'm the greatest listener in the world," that's just a reflex. I've got, right now, no need to say anything—certainly nothing bitter. No. If reflected glory turns out to be the best kind I'll get I'll take it. Right now my simple proximity to this is enough to make me feel like I'll live forever.

© Robert Levin 2009