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Right now, jazz pianist Cecil Taylor doesn't feel much like talking. I know--because I found out the hard way.
It's easy to understand why I thought chatting with Taylor would be divine. Throughout his forty-year career in jazz, he's remained among the most challenging practitioners of avant-garde sounds, redefining song structure and improvisation while demonstrating to listeners just how far out a piano can go. From Jazz Advance, his breakthrough 1956 Blue Note debut, to releases such as 1990's In Florescence and Olu Iwa, a live recording of a mid-Eighties concert released last year on Soul Note, Taylor has fashioned his own rules and rituals.
Making a living from his work hasn't been easy for Taylor; for example, when the classically trained instrumentalist was named 1962's "New Star" by Down Beat magazine, he was washing dishes to make ends meet. Nevertheless, he has continued to follow his muse. Over the years he's written plays and poetry, released dozens of recordings on many labels, produced commissioned works for dancers Alvin Ailey and Mikhail Baryshnikov, incorporated spoken word and movement into his performances and earned a reputation as that rare jazz innovator who can hold an audience's attention for hours on nothing more than the strength of his improvisational genius. Additionally, he's never ceased to be controversial: Critics and audiences have debated for years as to whether Taylor's dense, intense, life-sustaining/life-sucking style is intellectual manna or pounding noise. In fact, the music he makes shares much in common with lovemaking: Something is given and something is gained in an atmosphere of heightened passion.
Because the New York-based Taylor seldom travels west of the Hudson River, his scheduled appearance at the Naropa Institute's tribute to Allen Ginsberg seemed a rare opportunity to gain insight into such a gifted artist. Unfortunately, representatives at Naropa were given to understand that Taylor would not cooperate in promoting the event. Taylor's agent was somewhat more positive about the prospect of inducing his client to chat, but he warned that Taylor was idiosyncratic. After passing along Taylor's telephone number, he suggested that I call it several times a day using a combination of rings and hangups known only by his friends. The only promise he gave me was that getting an interview wouldn't be easy. Good-bye and good luck.
I called Taylor that very evening and left a message on his machine. I left another the next morning, a third that evening. I was stunned the next day when Taylor actually answered the phone. He was as sweet and charming as a diva, with superb, Bette Davis-style enunciation, but his words were firm. He said he was exercising and asked me to call back at a specific time that evening. I did, and got the machine again. Forty-five minutes later Taylor answered the phone and we spoke for ninety seconds--the longest conversation we were to have. After briefly complaining about being scheduled to participate in a Naropa panel discussion about which he said he knew nothing, he told me that he was on his way out the door. "But in our first conversation," he reminded me, "you said you would be persistent." By way of reply, I told him I would call back around the same time the next night. "Fine," he said. "And then we'll see."
When I phoned the next evening at the appointed time, Taylor said he was resting. As requested, I phoned again the following morning and was told by Taylor that he was practicing: "Try me tonight, please." I did, at 10 p.m. New York time, but Taylor insisted he couldn't talk then, either--because he was in the middle of cleaning his house. He promised he would do the interview if I called back during the middle of the next week. I did so, and reached his answering machine. A call the next morning found him practicing, as did one that evening and the evening after. By this point, Taylor's voice was no longer as bright as it had been. I fought off the bad vibes and called again the following morning. Answering machine. That was it--I didn't want to call again. And no amount of Prozac could make me change my mind.
Even now, I don't think Taylor's refusal to simply tell me "no" was malicious. This is a man, after all, who has been the subject of literally hundreds of articles that said virtually nothing about him or his art. Unlike his persona, his playing can be angry and aggressive. Perhaps I should have taken the music's hint and simply stayed away.
Beats and Other Rebel Angels: A Tribute to Allen Ginsberg, featuring Cecil Taylor, Robert Creeley and Anne Waldman. 8 p.m. Friday, July 8, Boulder High School, 1604 Arapahoe Avenue, $15.75, 444-0202 or 786-7030; The Third Mind: Collaborations With Poetry, Music and Art, a panel discussion featuring Cecil Taylor, Philip Glass, Francesco Clemente, Dave Harrington, Hiro Yamagata and Steven Taylor. 3 p.m. Saturday, July 9, Boulder High School, $7.35.