April 2015


Cecil Taylor

By Amiel Courtin-Wilson

An elderly black man with large, bright eyes sits in bed, his wiry frame hunched over as he writes. He lights a cigarette and barely inhales before blowing smoke into the air. Dawn is near.

I am sifting through old videos on the ground floor of the man’s four-storey Brooklyn brownstone. A glowing figure on a television screen writhes and convulses in extreme slow motion, the deteriorated VHS image rendering a form seemingly breaking apart. This is Cecil at the piano.

Cecil Taylor is one of the key founders of the avant-garde free jazz movement, alongside John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler. Some consider him to be the greatest musician of the 20th century. His radical improvisations have been testing and inspiring audiences for more than six decades. With a distinctively aggressive playing style likened to “88 tuned drums”, his music is its own language; once inside it never ceases its urgent scrawl.

I first saw Cecil play in 2007, and his sheer power rewrote what I thought possible in a live performance.

I returned to New York in April 2014 to make a film about him. I quickly learnt that the 85-year-old Cecil had no cell phone, email address or manager, and was renowned for being “difficult” with previous collaborators. With no leads whatsoever I began scouring every jazz club I could find, simply approaching the oldest people in the room and asking if they knew Cecil Taylor. In Alphabet City, at a tiny shopfront venue called The Stone, I finally found a poet who knew Cecil and had his address. He warned that many people had attempted to make a film about Cecil and nearly all of them had given up after finding him to be a little too “complicated”.

I borrowed a friend’s camera and travelled to Brooklyn to sit on Cecil’s doorstep. I waited there, ten hours a day, and on the seventh day Cecil opened his front door just a little and peered out. “I’ve been watching you. You seem very patient – come inside.”

It felt like I’d been admitted to the cave of some kind of reclusive shaman. Cecil’s large, open-plan house is adorned with myriad objects from around the world: African sculptures, Native American blankets, Buddhist gods, Hindu trinkets. On one wall there is a plethora of black-and-white photographs of African-American faces contorted in what could be either ecstasy or pain – singing, dancing and playing music. The blueprints for a grand piano are pinned to the opposite wall, intricate and organic, like the cells of a body.

I told him I’d travelled from Australia to make a film about him, and then suggested that I live with him so we could get to know each other. Cecil laughed. “You’re very forward, aren’t you?” A week later I moved in.

One night, amid the staggering record collection that consumes most of the ground floor, I fall asleep on some cushions Cecil brought back from Mexico. I wake up the next morning to a squat brown rat biting my hand. Cecil chortles when I tell him about the attack.

“It must be one of the ghosts coming back in rat form to nibble at your little Australian body. Ghosts get hungry, you know.”

I ask him what he means, and he smiles and lights a cigarette very slowly, laughing to himself.

“There have been six murders in this house since it was built in 1862, so that’s a lot of hungry dead mouths … Hah!”

Cecil’s stories unspool in monologues that last until dawn, and his world view is perpetually informed by new discoveries.

The weeks go by and I record dozens of hours of interview material. His memory is startling. He careens between tales about the Aztecs, Miles Davis, Egyptian mythology, Baryshnikov and playing for Jimmy Carter at the White House.

He tells me he never dreams, but when I bring him his favourite breakfast in bed – half a grapefruit, oatmeal with molasses, scrambled eggs and the New York Times – I see his fingers twitching feverishly in his sleep.

We visit the local doctor, who, like everyone else in the neighbourhood, refers to Cecil only as “The Maestro”, and then stroll back through the pristine leafy streets lined with heritage-listed brownstones. His house, finally paid off with the cash from a MacArthur Fellowship in 1991, is majestic, but decrepit in comparison with the rest of the properties on his block. One of the daughters of John Kerry, the US secretary of state, has just moved in across the road, and there are three Secret Service SUVs with black-tinted windows parked outside. “When I moved to this neighbourhood, it was filled with vacant lots and crack dens,” Cecil says. “Now look who they’re letting move in.”

He stops to caress the tree outside his house. His half–Native American father once told him to appreciate the trees in Manhattan, and Cecil has written hundreds of poems about this one tree. Its roots have erupted onto the sidewalk, refusing to stay underground, leaving pieces of concrete strewn around its trunk.

He rummages through his bag filled with books, finds his keys, and we ascend the flights of musty, rotting wooden stairs.

I cook him crab cakes for dinner, with lemon sorbet and champagne for dessert. He reads me his latest poem – an ode to the snake heat of Etta James – and announces that tonight he feels like drinking brandy at his favourite Italian restaurant. I help him shave and bring him his outfit of choice for the evening – a tight-fitting tan suede jacket, black leather pants and the orange Converse high-tops he bought in Japan after winning the $500,000 Kyoto Leaf prize in 2013. In Japan, Cecil is a god.

Later that night he sits at his piano, a nine-foot grand. The black surface of the instrument is covered in Cecil’s music, scrawled in ink and pencil – clusters of letters, figurative forms and vaguely algebraic equations.

After living with Cecil for more than two months, I finally broach the way I want to portray him in this film.

“So, Cecil, this film is going to be about your career as a jazz icon, but it’s also about you as a time traveller. In the film, your music enables you to travel through time …”


“So, what do you think of that as an approach?”

“Well, I am a fucking time traveller, so I don’t see what there is to talk about. I’ve been a time traveller for as long as I can remember.”

In the evenings we watch YouTube clips of Lena Horne and Ella Fitzgerald. Someone recently bought him a huge Mac computer and he refers to it as the “infernal machine”. He can’t believe that, no matter what he requests, I can play it for him instantly. We stay up until dawn together most nights, talking and listening to music or watching CNN’s endless footage of American police killing young black men. I film Cecil as he listens to music he loves. His body shudders with each phrase or key change – as if he is being electrocuted.

One night, Cecil launches into his most-repeated story.

“I know I’ve told you this before, but I’m going to tell you again … When I asked my mother for piano lessons, I was five years old. Mommy dearest sat me down at the piano and said, ‘Put your fingers on the keys.’ As I laid my hands on the keyboard, she suddenly came down on both hands with a cane and said, with heat, ‘Raise them! You will be one of three things: dentist, doctor or lawyer, and if you really want to play the piano, this will be secondary to your main career. Now if you want this, you must practise six days a week, and on Sunday you can play what you wish!’ … Thank you, Mommy. I owe it all to you.”

His stories become like mantras – meditations on either trauma or the ecstasies of inspiration.

“Rhythm is life … the space of time danced through. The root of rhythm is its central unit of change.”

Afterwards, he stands over his stove, making a cup of tea. He drops his black earthenware mug and it shatters into dozens of pieces on the tiled kitchen floor. “As Ellington said, ‘Things ain’t what they used to be, mama.’”

It’s about 2 am when I bring him a copy of an opera he wrote in the late 1970s that I’ve just found in a waterlogged suitcase in the recently flooded basement. Cecil’s entire legacy feels as though it is about to be swallowed up at any moment in this house. He gleefully dismisses the discovery and requests butter pecan ice-cream. This was his mother’s favourite flavour. She ate it while she was dying of cancer, when Cecil was only 13 years old.

“The purpose of our lives is to prepare our lives in a manner that is as noble as the forces that created us … We prepare with a devotion to the truth – so that we may, upon that moment when the composition of our body changes … be worthy of the next stage of the continuum.”

Cecil sits in his bath, steam gently rising around him. A large candle burns. He washes himself gently and closes his eyes. The light in the room changes; his body is silhouetted, and the surface of the water creates strange patterns on the walls around him. His tiny frame becomes a spectral void in the steam.

“I gave you all the notes – that’s the form – now invent.”

Amiel Courtin-Wilson

Amiel Courtin-Wilson is a filmmaker and artist. His films include Bastardy, Hail and Chasing Buddha

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