On April 5th, the great American musician and poet Cecil Taylor passed away at the age of 89. An appropriate lifespan, perhaps, for the legendary free jazz pianist, so willing to push the boundaries of his instrument’s 88 keys.
During his long and rich life spent trespassing on the outermost frontiers of coherence and meaning Cecil Taylor confounded as often as he astounded. And he would have had it no other way. For Cecil was a trickster of the highest order, endlessly provocative in person, wielding humour, scorn, insight, courage, drawling mockery and poetry in the moment; never failing to walk his talk, nor – it might be noted – to talk his walk, as those who tried and failed to get a word in edgewise often discovered. For Cecil could talk. He held court for hours, months, years and always had listeners, an eternal entourage. Not groupies but acolytes, skilled and serious devotees, students studying sacred spontaneity in sound and in spirit. For Cecil enjoyed companionship on his travels every bit as much as he enjoyed time alone at his home in Brooklyn.
The first time I saw Cecil in action was in the 1980s at a small music festival in rural Quebec, the type of festival that takes over a town and at which everybody – artists, attendees, journalists and locals – hangs out together. There I watched with amazement as Cecil, glass of champagne in hand (it was 11 am and he’d not been to bed yet!) turned a sluggish press conference on its head simply by categorically refusing to answer anything anyone asked him; provoking instead, with a few accusatory outbursts, an intense discussion between the festival organizer and the journalists present about the relationship between art and media. In the end he sat quietly for about 20 minutes sipping champagne and watching with a bemused eye as his happy pupils battled it out.
That evening his quartet played a concert that began with Cecil emerging from the darkness and gliding across the stage in his trademark slippers, long locks flowing as he intoned ecstatically, opening a door into another world and leading his band mates – and us – through it. I listened for maybe 45 minutes then fled, utterly saturated. It had been thrilling and brilliant but I couldn’t take any more. I was full to overflowing with sound and magic.
After the show I ran into the Cecil’s drummer at the local bar. I had been greatly impressed by both his stage presence and his immense musicality and told him so. But he only wanted to talk about Cecil. “Cecil doesn’t miss a thing.” he recounted intensely to me. “His way of being is so different. You think he’s not noticing, not paying attention, but Cecil sees everything.”
I got the impression that he wasn’t just talking about music.
Still later that night at the bar I found the courage to join Cecil’s entourage at a long table. There were maybe a dozen of us drinking and laughing, including his bandmates and a number of other musicians and hangers on. Cecil was overseeing the party from a high barstool more or less across from me, very much the lord of his demesne.
Now at the time I was a young cub, eager to learn, a seeker in my early 20s. And I understood that Cecil was more than a musician, that he was navigating deeper depths, waters into which I too wished to plunge. So I waited, waited, waited for my moment, until catching his eye and speaking loudly enough over the din for him to hear me but not – I very much hoped – enough for anyone else to, I said in an urgent half-whisper “Cecil, I want to know about shamanism.”
I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t what happened. Suddenly Cecil reared up on his stool and burst out in mock astonishment:
“Shamanism! You want me to tell you about shamanism?”
The table went absolutely dead. Every head turned my way. I gulped, appalled, as Cecil’s entourage waited expectantly for the wily master to bring the moment to its climax.
“I can’t tell you about shamanism,” Cecil carried on breathlessly in a voice dripping with playful sarcasm, “you have to find that out for yourself.”
A final pause, and then the winking punch line, “And when you find out… you’ll tell us all! aaaaahahahahah….”
At this Cecil cracked up with wild laughter, as did his entourage, and the party kicked back into gear. I shrank back in my seat, deeply embarrassed. And yet strangely satisfied too, for already I understood that in Cecil’s skewering lay a trickster’s truth, and a vital challenge.
Some minutes later Cecil suddenly turned to me, his gaze parting the party like a knife. Nobody was watching, nobody noticing this moment but us. From across the table Cecil eyed me and without any trace of mockery he spoke three piercing words: “Engage your desires.” Then he turned away, and as he did so the standing wave of intimacy fell, the wormhole of our connection collapsed, and once again conversation flowed freely across the table.
I connected with Cecil a few times after that, and he never failed to disappoint. He was a magician as well as a brilliant poet and musician, and above all he was a master of rare mysteries. He wasn’t easy. No trickster is. In fact I once heard someone frown darkly and call him evil. I never saw that side of Cecil, But whatever else he was, he was unquestionably marvelous like Marvin Gaye, his favorite musician.
His wisdom will be missed.
Engage your desires!