In 1966, the pianist Cecil Taylor appeared in Les Grandes Répétitions, a series of Nouvelle Vague-influenced documentaries for French television about Olivier Messiaen, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and other modern composers. Taylor, who died at eighty-nine in April, was the only jazz musician featured. The avant-garde jazz movement was young, brash, and commanding increasing respect from a classical establishment that had been, at best, indifferent to black music, and Taylor, a conservatory-trained pianist who was creating a radical synthesis of jazz improvisation and European modernism, had emerged as one of its most militant and sophisticated leaders. That same year, he had ended a four-year recording silence with two extraordinary albums, Unit Structures and Conquistador! He was also profiled in A.B. Spellman’s classic book on the avant-garde, Four Lives in the Bebop Business. After more than a decade working menial jobs to pay his bills, he was finally living off his art, and being noticed. Far from being grateful for the attention, though, he insisted that mere recognition was not enough; he wanted to change the very terms of the discussion about musical creation and musical value.
“It’s all music,” he declares in Les Grandes Répétitions, wandering through a vast and elegant Parisian hôtel particulier in a black turtleneck and sunglasses, cigarette in hand, confidently expounding his aesthetic philosophy as if he were a character in a Godard film. “The way one prepares bread, cooks dishes that we eat, can be something that causes the sense to create that which we color by calling emotion… The instrument is just an object. The music comes from inside.” And what music it is, percussive, jangling, and hypnotic, as Taylor pounds the keys and plucks the strings of his piano, provoking impassioned responses from the alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, the drummer Andrew Cyrille, and the bassist Alan Silva—one of the best bands, or “units,” he ever assembled.
Where, the off-camera interviewer asks Taylor, did he study music? “Well, the study would have to be divided into two categories, those of the academy and those of the areas usually located across the railroad tracks. In this case, the railroad tracks were located outside of Boston in a town called West Medford, and there I heard other musics.” What Taylor means is that in the clubs of black West Medford, he was listening to jazz, which had a far deeper impact on him than the classical music he was studying at the New England Conservatory; but the interviewer is puzzled, and asks for clarification.