About twenty years ago, when I was in my fourth year as chair of the jazz studies program at New England Conservatory as NEC celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of its jazz program, NEC staff writer Rob Schmieder uncovered some interesting history in the archives that shed light on, among many other things, Cecil Taylor’s studies at NEC. He and NEC’s librarian Jean Morrow shared some documents with me at the time that added some tantalizing details, and those have now been filled out much more in the past few months by NEC archivist Maryalice Perrin-Mohr and letters donated by the estate of the late composer and NEC faculty member Robert Ceely, who was a fellow student and friend of Cecil Taylor’s when they studied together at NEC.
Anyone sharing these items should credit them as follows:
All: Courtesy of the New England Conservatory Archives
Article: Schmieder, Rob, “Caravan: 30 Years of Jazz at NEC,” Notes, v. 26 no. 1 (Winter 2000), Boston: New England Conservatory. (Individual photos are credited in the PDF.)
Program: Concert programs, 1950-1951. Boston: New England Conservatory. Courtesy of the New England Conservatory Archives
The headlines from this information, for those few who care about such details of jazz history and biography, are:
- He was a student in the mostly-forgotten NEC Popular Music program (at one time called the School of Popular Music, and later informally called the Pop School) and majored in Arranging. Most of his private lessons were in arranging, not piano. His course work included the sort of core classroom music theory that all music majors’ programs have in common: two years of basic harmony, introduction to counterpoint, survey of music history, etc.; plus courses specific to the Popular Music: Arranging major.
- Contrary to much (most?) writing about Cecil Taylor’s educational background, he was not admitted to NEC as a classical pianist and did not particularly study classical piano at a high level as a focus of his studies there. Also, he was not particularly engaged in the study of composition, 20th-century literature, or new music academically, although he was interested and probably well-informed, and was friends with Ceely and probably other composers.
- It seems likely he took one influential course in contemporary music, however, and he would have been aware of Messiaen’s music in particular due to that course and teacher, and an important Boston and NEC visit by Messiaen. On the other hand, similarities between Messiaen’s (or other contemporary composers’) and Taylor’s music have been exaggerated, and if they are significant at all, they are not overwhelming or deep. While self-analysis by artists is not always entirely reliable or complete, I see no reason to doubt Taylor’s own basic account of how he assimilated elements of jazz and contemporary classical music.
- While he was a student, he co-authored a series of columns called “Pop Notes” in a student publication. His interests were clearly in modern jazz piano. (I’ll share scans of those below, courtesy of the NEC archives.)
- Likewise, his letters to his classmate, composer Robert Ceely, are also full of discussion of current trends in jazz.
All of this lends credence to Cecil Taylor’s own version of his story, both about the nature of his studies at NEC and about his attitude toward and use of material and influences from jazz and contemporary composition, as quoted in the early extended discussions on him in Joe Goldberg’s Jazz Masters of the Fifties (1965) and A. B. Spellman’s Four Lives in the Bebop Business (1966). But it seems that many later writers, perhaps building upon one another’s assumptions, probably resulting from the combination of aspects of the surface of Taylor’s music with stereotypes about what early 1950s study in a conservatory like NEC must have meant, have constructed a narrative that results in statements like this:
“A graduate of the New England Conservatory, he was rigorously trained in classical composition and performance, and could fire off precise references to Webern, Xenakis, and, yes, Ligeti.” – Alex Ross, The New Yorker, April 10, 2018
Cecil Taylor at New England Conservatory, 1947-51, and The School of Popular Music
Taylor is frank about his Popular Music: Arranging study in Four Lives (and, although it includes less detail about NEC and Boston, in the even more often overlooked chapter in Jazz Masters of the Fifties). He said he inquired about changing majors to Composition and was rebuffed by the department chair. “The head of the Composition Department was such a bigot that he wouldn’t let me into the department….The Composition Department was the best…in the school, and one of the best among the East Coast schools…But that department head, he must have figured that he already had one Negro and that was enough…Even when he was trying to be nice, he was a racist” (Four Lives, p. 55). Robert Ceely, who arrived at NEC later but overlapped with Taylor and spent a lot of time with him, remembered Taylor’s version of this similarly. It’s not known (so far) what scores Cecil Taylor was able to present to support his application to change to the Composition major. He quotes the Composition chair as saying “’Your music is all right, but it’s mood music. That’s okay as long as it’s not “Mood Indigo.”’” The Composition Department chair during Cecil Taylor’s study at NEC was his Elementary Composition, Harmony IV, and Counterpoint III teacher Carl McKinley (1895-1966), an organist and composer who had had an award-winning tone poem, The Blue Flower, premiered by the New York Philharmonic in 1924.
(However, Taylor seems not to have been frank about the years of his study, which were 1947-51. It was and is common for performers and artists to misstate their years of birth and schooling, exaggerating their youth, and it appears that Taylor, in the 1950s and ‘60s, may have shaved four years off his age and dates of attendance at NEC. In Four Lives, he’s quoted as saying “I think it was 1951 when I went up to Boston….In 1952, I went to the New England Conservatory” [p. 54]. And the Feather and Feather/Gitler Encyclopedias of Jazz…, which relied significantly on questionnaires submitted by the subjects, listed his birthdate at 1933 when it was 1929.)
Cecil Taylor studied at NEC for eight semesters, from fall 1947 through his graduation on June 19, 1951 with the Diploma in Popular Music in Arranging. (Not a Bachelor of Music degree, but a diploma, which has fewer requirements.)
The Popular Music program at NEC persisted for something like 15 years from its start in 1942, although it is little remembered and has been overshadowed in memory and institutional history by NEC President Gunther Schuller’s historic creation of an accredited jazz degree program in 1969 with founding chair Dr. Carl Atkins (celebrating its 50th year this fall, including a tribute to Cecil Taylor) and the Third Stream (now Contemporary Improvisation) program with founding chair Ran Blake.
NEC writer Rob Schmieder wrote about the history of the Popular Music program here (see the sidebar on p. 9) as part of an overview of the NEC Jazz program’s 30th anniversary in 1999-2000:
Schmieder, Rob, “Caravan: 30 Years of Jazz at NEC,” Notes, v. 26 no. 1 (Winter 2000), Boston: New England Conservatory. (Individual photos are credited in the PDF.)
Twenty-three Popular Music faculty members were listed in the 1948 yearbook. https://archive.org/details/neume1948newe/page/36
Here are two brochures describing the program and faculty from Cecil Taylor’s first and last years in the program:
Around the same time, Lawrence Berk had founded Schillinger House (which was to become Berklee School of Music and later, Berklee College of Music) a few blocks away in 1945, also teaching jazz and popular music arranging. Both programs, and similar ones in other U.S. cities, were absorbing an influx of (suddenly, mostly male) students after World War 2 and with the help of the GI Bill. Students of the two institutions knew one another and intermingled in the Boston jazz and commercial music gig scenes. (Richard Vacca’s The Boston Jazz Chronicles is the best single source for information on the thriving jazz scene of the time.)
When Cecil Taylor began his studies at NEC, the chair of the Popular Music program was Ruby Newman, assisted by Sam Marcus and G. Wright Biggs. During Taylor’s last two years of study, the chair was G. Wright Biggs. (When the NEC Popular Music school closed, Sam Marcus went on to open the independent School of Contemporary Music in Kenmore Square, Boston. It continued until the early 1980s, I believe. My friend, ROVA saxophonist Steve Adams, is an alum. Their curriculum overlapped significantly with that of Berklee and other schools that teach standard arranging techniques and systematic approaches to jazz harmony.)
The 1947-48 NEC catalog shows his as a three-year program, but Taylor was enrolled for four years, although he only repeated one course (Orchestration 2) and had probably transferred some credits from his previous studies at New York Musical College, and/or tested out of some first-semester courses. (Taylor started at NEC in Harmony 2 and Counterpoint 2, but at the first level of other courses like Solfege, Keyboard Harmony, Orchestration, and History of Music.)
A typed registration card is in the NEC archives, showing all of Cecil Taylor’s courses and teachers (but not grades) by semester.
Taylor took two years of private piano lessons (not four; piano performance was not his major, although piano was his principal instrument) with Barbara Ann Chambers for his first semester (Fall 1947; she had just graduated in Music Education the previous spring and was no longer listed as a faculty member in the Spring 1948 yearbook) and Alexandra V. Batylda for the next three semesters (Spring 1948, Fall 1948, Spring 1949). These may have been half-hour or half-time lessons; the registration code is not completely transparent but it suggests 38 hours over the academic year. The influential Margaret Chaloff, who taught several major jazz pianists in and outside of NEC, was on the faculty during this time, but was not Cecil’s NEC teacher. http://adobeairstream.com/art/the-last-time-i-saw-madame-chaloff/
He had three years of private (Popular Music) arranging lessons, years two and three with Loring Briggs (1919-2008), and year four with Loring’s brother, the Popular Music program chair G. Wright Biggs (Jr.; 1910-1994). There were also courses in English Composition and Physics, “Form & Acc.” (accompaniment? – not a course name I’d expect; something to look into further), Vocal Ensemble, Woodwind Class (it’s common for composer-arrangers as well as music educators to take basic instrumental technique classes), and Pop Choral Writing with chair G. Wright Biggs. (“One of the things a teacher did tell him was that no one could possibly sing his vocal arrangement of Why Was I Born, his choice for a graduation exercise.” [Goldberg, Jazz Masters of the Fifties, p. 218]. Taylor took Pop Choral Writing in his last year.)
Cecil Taylor did have at least one of his pieces played on a major annual concert of the Popular Music department. A few weeks before his graduation, on May 14, 1951, Taylor’s composition “The Game” was performed by the Cecil Taylor Sextet at Jordan Hall, between an arrangement of “Stella by Starlight” for orchestra and vocal quintet, and a Lerner & Lane song. (To my knowledge, this is the only NEC concert program from the time that shows Taylor’s name that has been located so far.)
Concert programs, 1950-1951. Boston: New England Conservatory. Courtesy of the New England Conservatory Archives
If he took a course that covered 20th-century composers’ work, it was probably “Cont. Mus. Cook.” (the period indicating the name is shortened) in 1950-51, which was probably a course in Contemporary (Classical) Music taught by Francis Judd Cooke (the only person I can find in faculty lists whose name includes or resembles Cook.), one of the most influential teachers on the faculty. (Taylor’s friend Bob Ceely recalls Cooke as “the best teacher I ever had.” http://www.ceelymusic.com/Biography.htm ) Cooke’s students included many future composers and teachers of music theory and composition, including current and recent Berklee and NEC faculty members. Long-time Berklee composition professor John Bavicchi described him as “much more esoteric in his musical tastes” as compared to Carl McKinley, who he describes as “a very conservative composer.” (https://libraries.mit.edu/music-oral-history/interviews/john-bavicchi-6302006/ ) Bavicchi says Cooke was particularly interested in contemporary music, especially Messiaen, and also mentions Irving Fine and Hill (?).
Prior to his taking this course, in the late fall of Taylor’s third year at NEC, November and December of 1949, Olivier Messiaen visited Boston. There were ten rehearsals of his Turangalîla-Symphonie for its December 2nd and 3rd premier with the BSO conducted by Leonard Bernstein at Symphony Hall, across the street from NEC, with pianist Yvonne Loriod, and Ginette Martenot playing the ondes Martenot. They visited Walter Piston’s class at Harvard, giving an analytical discussion of the new symphony commissioned by Serge Koussevitsky, then in his last season conducting the BSO. At Koussevitsky’s house, Loriod played Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l’Enfant Jésus (1944), a piece sometimes mentioned in connection with Cecil Taylor when people compare aspects of his style to Messiaen’s, because certain passages and movements have a surface resemblance to some of Taylor’s best-known gestures in texture and intervallic shape. (Some of this information comes from “Messiaen, Koussevitsky and the USA” by Nigel Simeone in The Musical Times, Vol. 149, No. 1905, Winter 2008.)
A program in the NEC archives shows that Messiaen’s Quartet “For the End of Time” was played “in honor of the composer” by a quartet (including Francis Judd Cooke on cello) in an NEC recital hall (probably Williams Hall) on December 4, 1949. Presumably Messiaen was on campus for this, the day after the Turangalîla premieres.
All of this must have made quite an impression on any NEC students interested in new music. NEC was and is very close to the BSO, with the faculty including orchestra members.
Most of the comparisons of Cecil Taylor’s music with specific 20th-century composers’ music or musical languages seem facile – they are based on vague impressions of dissonance, atonality or harmonic ambiguity, use of clusters, pointillism, disjunct textures, and/or rhythmic complexity. (Interestingly, Henry Cowell and Charles Ives are rarely on the list, while Boulez, Stockhausen, Ligeti, Webern, Stravinsky, and Bartók are all often mentioned.)
Connections to Messiaen are somewhat better informed, but again, it’s at most a surface resemblance to certain gestures and pianistic textures, not to the actual pitch material or rhythms – and certainly not to the performance style and rhythm. Pieces that evoke that surface resemblance include some of the bird-call-inspired ones, like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=212_gddQRAU and the 6th movement of Vingt regards… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ovMnmIoZh74&t=1354s
Messiaen’s music employs certain techniques that are well documented and generally pretty easy to analyze and locate in his scores. He was as transparent as any composer in documenting and publishing his ideas (in French in 1944, translated to English in 1956). (https://monoskop.org/images/5/50/Messiaen_Olivier_The_Technique_of_My_Musical_Language.pdf ) Some of his materials are attractive and accessible to modern jazz musicians – partly for the simple reason that symmetrical scales like the whole-tone and octatonic diminished scales have been part of jazz vocabulary for decades (whole-tone since 1926 if not earlier) and the “modes of limited transposition” are a handy, effective way to introduce symmetry and ambiguity, and/or disrupt tonality’s asymmetry.
My own perception, informed by Taylor’s own accounts as well as knowledge of his music and the alleged sources, is that Taylor was aware of and interested in developments in composed music, as he was of jazz, as well as dance and other art forms. He was raised in New York by a mother who emphasized exposure to the arts, took classical piano lessons as a young person, knew an orchestral percussionist, attended two major music schools for at least five formative years, had at least one good friend who was a composer (and probably more), and later worked with Buell Neidlinger, a bassist who played both contemporary classical music and jazz (traditional and avant-garde). It would be impossible for him not to be aware of and affected by contemporary classical music – among many other things.
Cecil Taylor, quoted in 1965 in Joe Goldberg’s Jazz Masters of the Fifties, says “the problem… ‘is to utilize the energies of the European composers, their technique, so to speak, consciously and blend this with the traditional music of the American Negro, and to create a new energy. And was it unique? No. Historically not. This is what has always happened. Ellington did it’” (pp. 214-5). As Taylor points out here and elsewhere, there was a long dialogue between European and Euro-American 20th-century composers and African-American jazz (and other world musics), each adapting elements from the other to use to their own purposes.
At the same time, he was primarily identified with and interested in jazz. His columns and letters, shared below, are full of engagement with jazz. His extended interviews in print and in audio or film form all emphasize his feeling of inspiration, connection, and extension of the work of jazz musicians who interested him. He mentions an early interest in Dave Brubeck, particularly the density or dissonance of his chords (evident in early ‘50s recordings), Horace Silver (including his dissonant low-register left-hand playing), Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington (especially, as composer and pianist), Lennie Tristano (early on), Richard Twardzik, and Jaki Byard.
I believe Jaki Byard (1922-1999, 7 years older than Taylor) may have been a particularly visceral influence on Taylor’s playing as well as an intellectual and artistic influence on his ideas about modern jazz piano. People who remember that time say that Jaki “held court” and informally taught the young pianists, including Twardzik and Taylor. A rare, unreleased recording I heard (at a Byard festival, April 13, 2014 at WPI) of Jaki doing what seems to be a free improvisation for solo piano in the 1950s strongly suggests a connection, given that Taylor certainly heard Jaki live often. On more accessible recordings, there are occasional examples of Jaki doing things that suggest a possible connection. A live Boston recording with Jackie McLean from the 1970s (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rtH1HMqve30 ; Jaki’s solo begins at 4:15; thanks to Michael Weiss for this example), or the free improvisation by Jaki, Reggie Workman, and Alan Dawson on the 1965 Berlin Piano Workshop DVD (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mhBFk54qBNk ) give glimpses of what may have been elements of Jaki’s style as early as the late 1940s or early ‘50s, as suggested by the elusive tape. There are aspects of Jaki’s touch and articulation in pieces like this that remind me physically of Cecil Taylor: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aAmIkf-WYZ0 . [2.7.21 addition: Listen also to Jaki’s “Trendsition Zildjian” with David Izenzon and Elvin Jones from Sunshine of My Soul, 1967: https://youtu.be/BMQzjAm7YfY?t=2091. Thanks to Richard Serrambana for this note.] I hear elements of both Taylor’s and Twardzik’s approach to sound (attack, duration, release: touch) in Jaki’s playing in these and other examples, but this is hard to quantify and impossible to prove; it’s just an impression and a hypothesis that he may well have been a strong influence, perhaps even stronger than Cecil realized. Often, as musicians, hearing something, especially live and up close, can leave a lifelong ideokinetic impression that is manifested at a subconscious level and affects our sonic imagination and how we play physically.
Having read most of the controversy over Cecil Taylor’s music as it appeared in print from the 1950s up to the commentary after his death April 5, 2018, I see two or three ways that false impressions about his conservatory study and his relationship to contemporary classical composition have been used.
One argument is that his purportedly deep academic knowledge and classical technique made him more impressive, presumably as compared to Ornette Coleman, the other most discussed free jazz musician of the late 1950s. Certainly, he had more formal academic training than some members of the jazz avant-garde. But Cecil Taylor was far from the only jazz musician studying at NEC at the time, let alone an exception in the wider world of jazz. Many jazz musicians were pursuing some kind of formal study, and being in a Popular Music Arranging major in a post-WW2 program was quite typical of his generation. Andy McGhee (tenor saxophone soloist with Lionel Hampton), Rollins Griffith (pianist who recorded in Boston with Charlie Parker), and others were in the same NEC program with Taylor. Roger Kellaway, Dick Johnson, and probably Richard Twardzik were NEC students as well. Steve Kuhn was studying at Harvard. Alumni of Boston Conservatory, a few blocks away, included Don Redman (decades earlier), Slam Stewart, Gigi Gryce, Sam Rivers, Makanda Ken McIntyre, and in a summer program, Roy Haynes. Many jazz musicians were studying music theory a few blocks from NEC at Schillinger House, later Berklee. Similar programs existed in Chicago and other major cities. Miles Davis attended Juilliard for at least a year (1944-45), and Phil Woods graduated from Juilliard with a Bachelor of Music degree in 1952. Many more jazz musicians learned the same content of a standard college music education in the Army and Navy schools of music. Musicians who weren’t fully enrolled in a music college program were often taking lessons at music schools like Granoff in Philadelphia (where John Coltrane and Benny Golson studied with guitarist-arranger Dennis Sandole), or with private teachers. Many post-WW2 modern jazz arrangers studied with contemporary classical composers, including Schoenberg (see Ted Gioia’s West Coast Jazz for more on this). And Charlie Parker famously inquired about studying with Stefan Wolpe and Edgard Varèse — and told Cecil Taylor directly that he hoped to go to Europe to “learn music,” according to one of the letters below. In the world of avant-garde and free jazz, Sun Ra had studied a conventional college music curriculum at Alabama A&M in 1935-36 (possibly for two years); the music of Scriabin, then a fairly modern composer, was included. Don Cherry, Eric Dolphy, and members of the AACM took community college music theory and composition courses. Dewey Redman earned a master’s degree from North Texas, and Julius Hemphill studied there as well. Many members of the jazz avant-garde were comparably “conservatory-trained:” that is, taught the elements of traditional Western music theory, history, and instrumental technique through a conventional college curriculum.
Another way that Cecil Taylor’s “conservatory training” is deployed in arguments is to mark him as an outsider in the jazz tradition, someone who lost or never had a connection with the traditional elements of African-American culture. His classical background is exaggerated (without acknowledgement of what he actually studied at NEC, or the context in which many other jazz musicians had similar educational backgrounds), and used to purportedly explain why his music is unacceptably different, and dismiss it as not an authentic part of jazz.
A third version of this is to exaggerate his classical training, then use it against him, arguing some version of “If he’s a rigorously conservatory-trained composer and classical pianist, then why doesn’t he conform to these expectations?”
Of course, there are also many sympathetic and nuanced discussions of Cecil Taylor in print as well, but an accurate discussion of his academic background has often (not always) been lost in the discussion there as well, even though he describes it fairly clearly in Four Lives.
One thing I’m not disputing is Cecil Taylor’s prodigious piano technique. Whether or not he was “trained” (a strange word for learning to play music) as a classical pianist via a full conservatory program, he had a complete mastery of the piano for his purposes. I had the opportunity to listen to Cecil Taylor practice when I visited my friend Tom Cora’s loft at 96 Chambers Street in New York City, where I often stayed when visiting the city in the 1980s. Cecil Taylor lived upstairs in the early ‘80s and I could hear him practicing: relentless arpeggios over the range of the piano is mainly what I remember, and for a long time. Endurance, speed, fluency, hands that know where every note is, subtle dynamic control of sound: all are relevant to Cecil Taylor’s music and he was very, very good at playing it.
This is also true of many other jazz and improvising pianists, of course. Most (though not quite all) of the major pianists in jazz have had substantial exposure to classical technique and repertoire through private lessons, adapted it to their own ends, practiced a great deal, and played their music very well from both in terms of physical skill and musicality.
Sidebar: Conservatory ≠ Conservative
The word “conservatory” seems to play into this biographical trope, taking the implication that the word itself is apparently connected to the conservation of old music, and thus making Cecil Taylor’s NEC study ironic or setting up an image of exceptional rebellion. While Cecil Taylor would probably have been an exceptional rebel in any context or institution, that has nothing to do with “conservatory.” The word conservatorio for a performing arts school dates to 16th-century Italy, and what was being conserved was the safety and “virtue” of the students, not the music, and certainly not old music. Early conservatories (ospedali, cori, conservatori), were institutions in which foundlings — abandoned, orphaned, or illegitimate children, often girls, at risk of being drawn into lives of prostitution and exploitation — were taught to be “cultured,” perhaps marriageable members of mainstream society, with a focus on gaining skills in music and other arts. Conservatories then spread through European cities. (Musicologist Dr. Robert Labaree, an NEC faculty member, was the first to tell me this in the mid-1990s.)
In 1843, at the Leipzig Conservatory, Mendelssohn formulated a curriculum to produce educated performers who understood the music they were playing, balancing private instrumental instruction with group classes. There were good educational and economic reasons for replacing purely individual study and apprenticeship with a balanced program of private lessons plus master classes and group study. The Leipzig model was imitated around the world and was influential on American conservatories, eight of which opened in the three years after the Civil War (1865-8: Oberlin, Boston, Cincinnati, New England, Chicago Musical College, Peabody). The Boston and New England Conservatories, among others, admitted African-American students much earlier than many U.S. colleges, and taught men and women together from the beginning. The basic curriculum of conservatories is much the same today in schools of Western classical (and, with modifications, popular and jazz) music around the world, with necessary updates in areas like contemporary musical styles and technology.
The word “conservatory” in a school’s name tells us nothing about conservatism, tradition, or a historical atmosphere. The schools called “conservatory” are not in a different category from other colleges of music. What is more significant is whether they are independent schools of music or performing arts, or part of a university, especially a state university, and therefore subject to its rules and budget. In either case, though, all U.S. colleges of music are subject to regional accreditation agency policies which enforce certain curricular standards. Music schools, whether they’re called “School” (Julliard, Eastman, Colburn, Arizona State, etc.), “Institute of Music” (Peabody, Cleveland, Curtis), “Conservatory” (Boston, New England, Oberlin), or “College of Music” (Berklee, University of North Texas) all teach many of the same things in roughly the same ways. In fact, conservatories, or private music schools, are places where artist-teachers can be hired without necessarily having advanced (or any) degrees, and where aural and oral traditions are at the center of education, through the private lesson and ensemble. If there’s a type of Western academic institution that is antithetical to oral cultural traditions, embodied knowledge, and artistic freedom, it would be the university on the (former) Ivy League model, where performance is or was relegated to a non-curricular, non-credit “student activity” and taught by adjunct instructors or even people in non-academic staff positions. Universities are in a process of change, often led by ethnomusicology professors or those in other social sciences who question Eurocentric value systems and discrimination against other musics and forms of expertise, so that tracks for “professors of practice” allow, for example, jazz musicians or non-Western traditional musicians (and other artists) to teach on an equal footing with other professors.
After a few years of intermittent gigs, including some with well-known musicians as described in Four Lives and Jazz Masters of the Fifties, Cecil Taylor began his recording career with an album produced by Tom Wilson for Wilson’s Transition label, based in Cambridge, and interest in his music grew. There were some notable highlights to his recording career and public recognition between 1956 and ’66, but also some difficult years. By 1969, Taylor was beginning to be recognized as a great innovator and musician and to reap some of the benefits of that recognition: college teaching positions, more and better concert opportunities and working conditions, more recording opportunities, and eventually high-profile collaborations, a White House performance, a MacArthur fellowship, etc.
Cecil Taylor’s “Pop Notes” Columns
While he was a student at NEC, Cecil Taylor co-authored the “Pop Notes” column in the student paper, The Melodic Line, taking over the column from classmate and fellow jazz pianist Rollins Griffith (who had called the column “Calling All Cats.”) The columns are signed “The Two C’s.” It’s not clear who the other C is. I suspected it might be Taylor’s friend, the composition student Robert Ceely, but Ceely’s widow, the novelist Jonatha Ceely, said it wasn’t him, and Ceely’s dates of attendance at NEC don’t correspond with the dates of the column (1949-50). Looking over the student body at the time, no obvious answer jumps out.
Taylor and his co-author devote all of the columns to jazz. The four columns I’ve seen discuss recent performances by modern jazz figures who Taylor later acknowledged as important: Mary Lou Williams and Lennie Tristano. The first two are from 1949, the last two from 1950.
Courtesy of the New England Conservatory Archives
Courtesy of the New England Conservatory Archives
Courtesy of the New England Conservatory Archives
Courtesy of the New England Conservatory Archives
Cecil Taylor’s letters to Bob Ceely
Taylor’s friend Robert (Bob) Ceely was later an influential and prominent member of the New England Conservatory faculty from 1966 to 2003, serving as a Composition teacher and founder of the electronic music studio, which he ran alone for decades. (The studio has been run by Ceely’s former student, electronic composer John Mallia, since about 2004.) Ceely discussed his relationship with Taylor and their listening in a brief autobiography on his website: http://www.ceelymusic.com/Biography.html
NEC’s obituary for Robert Ceely, 2015: https://necmusic.edu/news/death-robert-ceely
Seven of Cecil Taylor’s letters to Bob Ceely were donated to the NEC archives. To the extent I can read the handwriting, which I found difficult, I’ve transcribed four and attached them here. They give some insight into his interests, early work as a jazz pianist, and thoughts on developing his own style.
Courtesy of the New England Conservatory Archives
Suggestions for further study and documentation of Cecil Taylor’s music
After having listened to most of the recordings, watched the videos, and read the interviews, what more can we learn about Cecil Taylor’s music? I think the most important thing for both current understanding and posterity is to record oral histories with the musicians Cecil worked with and taught. The best sources of information for what is not yet fully understood about Taylor’s music are the musicians who worked with him.
It’s getting late for this, but it would be very interesting to hear from anyone who remembers Cecil Taylor’s student arrangements or early compositions like “The Game,” or any of his music before his first recordings in 1956, and to find scores if any are preserved.
Three of the accounts I’ve found most informative are descriptions of his teaching, including two from musicians who worked with him as students.
• John Litweiler, “Needs and Acts: Cecil Taylor in Wisconsin,” Downbeat, October 14, 1971
• Peter Rothbart, “Cecil Taylor at the Creative Music Studio: Orchestrating the Collective Consciousness,” Downbeat, April 1980
• Karen Borca interview, Jazz Inside magazine, January-February 2018: http://www.jazzinsidemagazine.com/LIBERTY/JazzInsideMagazine-2018-01-Web.pdf
On the other hand, Taylor’s great long-time collaborator, drummer Andrew Cyrille, reports that Taylor said little or nothing to him about what to play (https://nmbx.newmusicusa.org/a-lot-of-energy-remembering-cecil-taylor-1929-2018/ ), which is important information, too.
Of course, the revelations here have limited usefulness and can’t explain all of Taylor’s musical ideas. His work with larger ensembles using his note letter-name graphic notation is just one aspect of his bandleading and composition or structured improvisation work, one that was obviously experienced by more people with shorter and looser connections to his work. But working with students and other musicians who were new to his music required him to articulate things that perhaps didn’t need to be said in the same way to his usual musicians, allowing some insight into his goals and values about what to play when and how. These are things that are not always transparent from the recorded or performed result, or in notated transcriptions that involve a selective process of what to represent and how, given the practical limitations of notation and its tendency to privilege fundamental pitches and metric rhythms over other aspects of sound and music. It’s very possible to make connections and find patterns in the analysis of transcriptions that were not intentional, conscious, or communicated among musicians, while missing other aspects that are intentional. Unintended or unconscious patterns may still be significant to the listener and contribute to the effect of the music. But it’s also musically and historically interesting to know how the music was thought about, planned, described, rehearsed, and intentionally made, even if it’s not essential to know those things in order to receive feelings and ideas through the music itself. The time to document those things, in Cecil Taylor’s music as well as many others of his generation and the next one, is running out.
This upcoming conference, which I just learned about ten days before it begins while writing this, sounds like a big, important step in the right direction. Work prevents me from attending, but I look forward to hearing about it and reading the papers. https://unitstructures.commons.gc.cuny.edu/
Since posting this, I’ve learned of a few things I’d like to share:
Christopher Meeder’s M.A. thesis, “Cecil Taylor: His Early Life and Music, 1929-66” (Rutgers Graduate Program in Jazz History and Research, May 2003) is recommended and contains the results of the some of the same research I’ve presented here, plus, of course, much additional information.
Ben Young is writing a biography of Cecil Taylor and has also done independent research using the NEC archival material I referenced here, plus additional interviews with subjects including Cecil Taylor’s college roommate Henry Duckham. Others, including Professor Eric Charry of Wesleyan University (CT), have interviewed Duckham on the subject as well.
Another source of insight into Cecil Taylor’s work with students, about a 1985 Banff workshop, is an essay by Mark Miller, collected in his book A Certain Respect for Tradition (2006) and previously printed in The Banff Letters and Coda magazine.
Dr. Lewis Porter pointed out that the June 1951 NEC Commencement program shows a fellow graduate with “C” initials, Clement V. Charbonneau, who could possibly be the co-author of the “Pop Notes” columns (one of “The Two C’s”), although no additional information about him seems to suggest (or contradict) this, so far.
I’m looking forward to learning more of what is shared in this week’s CUNY conference, “Unit Structures: The Art of Cecil Taylor” (October 23, 2019; see link above).
I will try to transcribe the remaining letters and will post them here when I do.