Posts Tagged ‘Birdland

03
Jul
10

The War is Over: A Conversation About Jazz With Robert Levin

The following interview was originally published on the All About Jazz website.

by Eleanor Brietel, New York Editor of The Drill Press

(Most of this interview was conducted via email.)

BRIETEL: You’ve published fiction and you also write essays on a variety of subjects. I want, however, to confine this discussion to your thoughts about jazz, a special interest of yours that has resulted in a couple of books, a lot of liner notes and numerous articles in places like Down Beat, Rolling Stone, Metronome, Jazz and Pop Magazine (where you were the Jazz Editor) and The Village Voice (where you earned a reputation as an avid—some would say, zealous—supporter of the so-called “jazz revolution” in the ’60s). What got you into jazz in the first place? Who were your guides and teachers?

LEVIN:  Working at Sam Goody’s record store got me into it. My father, Abner Levin, a classical music critic—he wrote a much-praised book, The Disc Book, with David Hall—was Sam Goody’s partner from the early 1950s, when the Long Playing Record was introduced, into the mid-1960s. In 1954, when I was fifteen, I started working part-time at the main store (on West 49th Street, midway between the old Madison Square Garden on Eighth Avenue and the Brill Building on Broadway) and it was there that I met George Sprung and Joe Goldberg. George, who was the head jazz salesman, played a recording of Bix Beiderbecke’s for me on my very first day and, upon noting my enthusiastic response, suggested that I check out albums by Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Johnny Hodges and Errol Garner, among others. I did and I was fully hooked in a matter of weeks. Then Joe Goldberg, who came to work as a salesman at Goody’s a year or two later, expanded the field of what I was listening to by turning me on to people like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles, Monk, Sonny Rollins and Milt Jackson. Joe—who’d later write Jazz Masters of the Fifties—was six years older than me and a big influence. He was writing plays then and Frank Perry wanted to direct one of them—a marvelously poetic three-act play called “Mexican Blues.” It got as far as a backers’ audition, which Joe invited me to. Zero Mostel, who was still unknown then, read one of the parts. (Joe was rooming with Jerry Orbach around that time and I remember Orbach joining us for coffee next door to Goody’s just moments after he’d auditioned, unsuccessfully it turned out, for “West Side Story.”) Someone else who worked at Goody’s, a trumpet player named Dick Schwartz—under the moniker Dick Sutton, he’d recorded an album with Steve Lacy called “Progressive Dixieland”—also made valuable recommendations and he played an important role in how I listened.

Other guides and teachers were visitors to the store. Goody’s location and enormous inventory (it stocked virtually every LP in existence and sold them at deep discounts) made it a kind of mecca, and besides all of the celebrities who came in—I recall an entrance by Marilyn Monroe very vividly—a lot of musicians and people in the jazz business showed up. I met Sidney Finkelstein, who wrote Jazz, A People’s Music, Harry Lim, Harry Colomby (Monk’s manager), Martin Williams and Marshall Stearns there. And Nat Hentoff, as well. Steve Lacy, the guitarist, Ed Diehl, the saxophone player, Sahib Shihab, and the Farmer brothers, Art and Addison, were regulars and Tony Scott, known then as the “first bebop clarinetist,” would stop by often. He took a liking to me for some reason and brought me with him to a couple of his recording sessions. Lee Konitz had worked at Goody’s before I did and he’d come back to buy records from time to time.

And it was at Goody’s, where he was paying a call on Joe Goldberg, that I met Cecil Taylor.

BRIETEL: I want to ask you about Taylor, of course, but first: Are you musical yourself? Do you play an instrument?

LEVIN: No. I tried to play the saxophone when I was in my teens but I realized fairly quickly that I had no talent for it. I am on a record though. I was part of a vocal chorus on Ornette Coleman’s “Friends and Neighbors” album, which was recorded by Bob Thiele for his pre-Impulse Flying Dutchman label. On the title track, it was the chorus’s job to shout, “Friends and neighbors, that’s where it’s at!” That line (and my reading of it) notwithstanding, “Friends and Neighbors” is actually a pretty good album.

BRIETEL: Was it when you realized you weren’t going to be a musician that you decided to become a writer and critic instead?

LEVIN: Ha. Maybe that’s the way it worked. But I was never a “critic” in any true sense of the word. Martin Williams was a critic. I played at being one occasionally and—it’s been gnawing at me for forty years—I’d like to take this opportunity to publicly apologize to Shorty Rogers, Shirley Scott and Mal Waldron for the unconscionable bullshit I spouted about them in that capacity. Basically I thought of myself as an advocate, particularly when the “new music” came along.

BRIETEL: For the record: You’re talking about the emergence of “free jazz” in the late ’50s and early ’60s.

LEVIN: Yeah. And if we’re going to use that term—”free jazz”—let’s make sure we’re clear about what it was intended to convey. To play “free” didn’t mean to play anything that came into your head. What “free” meant was to be working within systems—many of them highly structured and complex—that were at a remove from traditional or conventional systems; systems that, in the parlance of the time, were “liberated” from the perceived constraints and limitations of established systems.

BRIETEL: Your tone, if I may say so, is a little bit defensive.

LEVIN: I suppose that I am defensive. Too many people have said to me: “But that’s just anarchy.”

BRIETEL: OK. But not questioning its legitimacy as music, wasn’t “free jazz” ultimately destructive? Didn’t it cost jazz its audience? It definitely turned a lot of people off.

LEVIN: Yes, it did turn a lot of people off. The intention of the “free” players wasn’t to entertain but to enlighten. Animated as they were by the Black Cultural Nationalism and Civil Rights movements, a goal of many of those men, in addition to reaffirming the hegemony of jazz’s African strain, was to restore black music to its original function as a music of spiritual utility. Resurrecting, in some instances, ancient African methodologies, they wanted, in the high fevers of their self-assertion—with the sense of infinite possibility that accompanied those fevers—to affect a spiritual awakening, a spiritual revolution that would transform nothing less than the way that we lived. Those who were conservatory trained (a relatively new phenomenon) and with an intellectual bent, were also employing elements of the European avant garde, concepts and systems they felt they owned now as much as whites did. (Their avowed purpose was, of course, to incorporate them into a black aesthetic.) So if you looked to “free jazz” for familiar and agreeable harmonies and melodies you were missing the point. At its inception there was a moment, at least in certain quarters, when “free jazz” was very much welcomed. But finally the broader audience didn’t want to go where it had gone. As Eldridge Cleaver, taking stock of developments in his province, the social and political sphere, put it later in that period, “America didn’t want a revolution.” Did you know, by the way, that Cleaver went on to become a designer of mens pants? They were pants that, to more comfortably accommodate the natural inclination of one’s genitals, offered a choice of extra material on the left or right sides of the crotch. But apparently America didn’t want his pants either.

BRIETEL: I didn’t know that. Thanks for sharing.

LEVIN: But there’s more to say about this—no, not about the pants. If “free jazz” cost jazz a large portion of its audience, support for jazz was also diminished by the advent of rock—the first hip white popular music. Those young and counter-cultural white people who’d always been drawn to jazz because they identified with the outsider image of blacks, gravitated to rock instead.

BRIETEL: So where has this left jazz as a music? It’s hard for me to get a handle on what’s happening right now. Is jazz finished as an evolving music? Has it become the museum music that Wynton Marsalis seems to think it is? There’ve been no major movements or innovations in almost fifty years—seventy years if you don’t count “free jazz,” which Marsalis and the Lincoln Center people apparently don’t regard as jazz.

LEVIN: Wynton Marsalis? You mean Wynton Marsalis the “jazz great,” as I heard him introduced recently? Yeah, he’s right up there with Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker, isn’t he?

Look, it’s entirely possible that Marsalis is right and that jazz is indeed finished as an evolving music. What I’d emphatically disagree with is the judgment that jazz culminated with bebop and that the “new thing” wasn’t really jazz. If jazz and the changes within it can be said to have served as a document of the African-American’s evolution—if that’s, in fact, one definition of jazz—then “free jazz,” as a reflection of where African-American musicians had arrived in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, was no less a part of the jazz continuum than bebop was. Actually, coming from this definition, and from the assumption that jazz is no longer an advancing art, you could say that “free jazz,” implicitly—and appropriately—completed jazz.

BRIETEL: Then what now?

LEVIN: We can’t know with any certainty. In the future, the underlying dynamics of American art music will be different. Changing ethnic demographics figure to engender all manner of new musics. Will jazz systems have their place in them? I can’t see how they wouldn’t. But frankly, Eleanor, I’m not as interested in issues like that as I once was—no more than I’m interested in participating in the war between jazz factions or arguments about whether or not black jazz musicians are innately superior to white jazz musicians. After years of listening to and occasionally writing about only one species of jazz, I find that I’m refocused now on musicianship and artistry on their own terms and that it makes no difference what style a musician is playing in or what color he is. If a talented musician is emotionally connecting to the discipline he’s chosen to work within, I can be moved by what he’s doing.

BRIETEL: Wait. Are you saying that, contrary to some very strong opinions you came to hold, you believe now that white jazz musicians can be the equal of black jazz musicians?

LEVIN: Yes, of course white jazz musicians can be the equal of black jazz musicians. And yes, they can be great jazz musicians. In the past, white musicians who wanted to play jazz had to break with certain of their own cultural precepts in order to open themselves to black perspectives and methodologies. They had to be rebels of sorts. At this point in time, given the sweep and depth of the Afro-American’s influence on American culture and the fact that most everyone has assimilated that influence, the African-derived elements of jazz have become as ingrained in white musicians as they are in black musicians. I think that any white musician who’s disposed to play jazz is now as innately qualified to play it as a black musician is.

But again, issues like that no longer preoccupy me. I’m into jazz now purely for the music. At the moment there are still a lot of people playing what we call “jazz,” and in literally every idiom, and I’m listening to as much of what’s going on as I can. In New York, representations of the entire spectrum of jazz, from Ragtime to Dixieland to swing to bebop and beyond—or in various combinations—can, on a given night, all be found within a several-mile radius. Most of these idioms are still attracting new recruits and can still claim a following. If it’s true that some of the musicians playing these musics are essentially mimics and functioning largely as custodians, others are infusing the genres they’re choosing to play in with new energy and ideas and are actually expanding those genres.

In the case of “free jazz,” the musics of a number of people have not only survived the passing of the movement in which they originated but are also wielding an influence on a significant percentage of the younger musicians. I’m thinking, for just a few examples, of the work of the recently deceased Bill Dixon (who I regarded as a great American composer), Ornette, Anthony Braxton and Cecil, of course.

BRIETEL: Taylor. You go back a long way with him.

LEVIN: Yeah. More than half a century, since right after he made his first album, “Jazz Advance.” He’s ten years ahead of me, but, it’s amazing, we both got to be senior citizens.

BRIETEL: Fifty-plus years later, how would you assess him?

LEVIN: Cecil hasn’t realized all of his ambitions. He’d wanted at one time to achieve the stature and influence of an Ellington. But I think enough people would agree that if he’s fallen short on that count he’s still taken his place alongside the masters. Certainly as a pianist.

Robert Levin and Cecil Taylor after Ornette Coleman’s funeral service at Riverside Church, June 27, 2015.

I admire Cecil for all kinds of reasons, not the least of them being his belief in himself. He had his ambivalent periods and he made his mistakes, but he held to his vision. George Wein, who’d wanted to exploit Cecil’s enormous talent for its potential commercial possibilities and whose ideas about how to do it Cecil steadfastly resisted, actually said to Cecil not too long ago: “Well, you did it, and you did it your way.” Cecil did do it his way and, initially, with very little support. But if Cecil didn’t require approval to pursue and accomplish what he has, he certainly wanted it. Wein’s remark was a source of immense satisfaction to him.

Of course the man whose approval Cecil really wanted but never got was Miles Davis. Miles had exclaimed in a Down Beat “Blindfold Test”: “Who’s that motherfucker? He can’t play shit!” And Cecil was deeply wounded by that. Cecil and Miles were on several concert bills together and they would get into verbal exchanges backstage. But Miles refused to acknowledge that what Cecil was doing had merit. I would try to cool Cecil out by telling him that it was precisely because Miles “got it” that he was so hostile to it, and that if Cecil’s aesthetic took hold it would, in Miles’s mind, diminish his accomplishment. But Cecil wouldn’t accept my argument. Achieving Miles’s validation became a minor obsession for him and when he answered Miles’s “So What” with “D Trad, That’s What,” I think he really believed that Miles would come around.

BRIETEL: I know that Miles reacted in a similar fashion to Ornette Coleman.

LEVIN: Yes, that’s true, he did. “[Coleman] must be screwed up inside to play like that,” he said. But I’ve just now reminded myself of another of Cecil’s disappointments. This one involved a nasty reaction to his music at a black bebop club on a summer night back in the early ‘60s. Don’t ask me to remember the name of the club—it was somewhere deep in the bowels of Brooklyn—or how Cecil got booked there. Cecil, [alto saxophonist] Jimmy Lyons and [drummer] Sunny Murray, none of whom had played this place before, were scheduled to do a weekend and Jeanne Phillips, a long-time friend of Cecil’s, and I went with them on opening night. Cecil was excited about working at this club. The people there were precisely the people he wanted to reach. He wanted to demonstrate to them what was possible in the music now. Well, it was a Friday night and the place was jammed—every table was occupied and people were standing three-deep at the bar. It was also very hot; what passed for air-conditioning was thoroughly neutralized by the quantity of bodies in the room. The band was assigned to a small pit behind a railing opposite the bar and things started to get seriously tense just a couple of minutes into the opening number.

If Cecil still had one leg in bebop, the other was dangling well outside of it, and what the band was playing wasn’t exactly what the folks there were expecting or ready to hear. Men at the tables began standing up, shouting obscenities and making threatening gestures. Women, too. It was quite a scene. But the band, lost in the music, was oblivious to what was going on. If they heard the noise at all they probably assumed they were being cheered. A year before a drunk had waved a gun at me in a bar, but I wasn’t nearly as alarmed by that as I was when two men approached the pit and, with their arms folded, stared at the band in a very menacing way. It didn’t help that the bartender, a giant of a man—I thought of him years later when I heard the Billy Crystal joke, “The guy was so big his crucifix had a real person on it”—looked so panicked himself. I was standing near the door with Jeanne (who, every bit as fearful as I was at that point, had grabbed my arm and wouldn’t let go), when I saw him frantically motioning to us. I managed to get over to him and he said, “You need to take them out of here. And right now!” So while Jeanne was focusing on Cecil and Jimmy, I was leaning into the pit trying to get Sunny’s attention. But neither of us was having any success. Sunny, who was dripping with sweat, had his head way back and his eyes tight shut and all he was hearing was the music. Finally the bartender came out from behind the bar and yelled at the band: “That’s enough! Goddamnit, that’s enough!” That worked—or maybe it was the long and heavy shadow he’d cast over the pit that did the trick. Shortly thereafter we were on the sidewalk. Jimmy’s alto was still hanging from his neck. He’d left the case inside and no way was he going back to get it. I’d never seen Cecil quite so crestfallen.

BRIETEL: Wow! How did he handle that?

LEVIN: He absorbed the experience and went forward. And in a more determined way. Adversity doesn’t defeat Cecil, it energizes and extends him. He makes creative fuel out of adversity—adversity and the experience of an affront, real or perceived. I think he sometimes goes out of his way to place himself in situations that will result in making him angry. Being pissed off focuses and centers him. In this respect I take personal credit for a couple of his best sets.

BRIETEL: Am I correct about this? Didn’t he approach you at one point about writing his biography?

LEVIN: Where did you hear that?

BRIETEL: I don’t remember now.

LEVIN: Yeah, in 2005. I did mention it to a couple of people. I wasn’t sure that I’d made the right decision. We’d gone to hear [pianist] John Hicks at Sweet Rhythm when that came up. (John was dying—he had just months to live—and he played one of the most exquisitely beautiful sets I’ve ever heard.) I don’t want to dwell too much on why I declined to do the book. It’s still something of a sensitive issue for me that involves a lot of stuff I’d rather not get into here. What I will say is that I thought such a book needed a first-rate musicologist and that I didn’t feel qualified to do it justice. (I told Cecil this and he said he’d “take care of that part.” I said, “Yeah, you’ll write a hermetic poem that’ll only turn more people off.”) But that’s as far as I want to go about the biography.

BRIETEL: Okay. Let’s bring this into the present. Who exactly have you been listening to these days?

LEVIN: As I said, I’ve been listening to a lot of different people. I had a chance to hear the Trio 3 plus Geri Allen band, with Oliver Lake, Andrew Cyrille and Reggie Workman at Birdland a while back and I was blown away by it. Of course any band that has Andrew Cyrille playing drums is automatically elevated. I’ve also been making all the gigs I can by two reed players, Peter and Will Anderson. Identical twins, they’re still in their early twenties and I can’t say enough about them.

They’re Julliard graduates and continuing to do postgraduate work at Julliard, but there’s nothing studied about the way that, as instrumentalists, arrangers and composers, they make music. They’re naturals and while essentially into bebop—which they play with a passion, unpredictability and sense of discovery that can make you feel like you’re back at the beginning of it at Minton’s or Monroe’s Uptown House—they can claim an astonishing affinity for the full range of jazz forms and styles, at least up to the “new thing.” I’ve listened to them play all kinds of jazz now and have yet to hear an inauthentic note. They easily hold their own with the best of the Dixieland players. They interpret Monk compositions in a way that I’m sure Monk would have appreciated. They have a solid grip not only on what Miles and Gil Evans were after in the “Birth of the Cool” period but on the work of a John Kirby as well. Along with the depth of knowledge they demonstrate about saxophone players as diverse as Johnny Hodges, Stan Getz, Hank Mobley and Gigi Gryce, to name just a few, they understand Ellington and—they play ballads with an emotional sophistication that’s way beyond their years—they know what to do with a Billy Strayhorn song. Have I mentioned that they also command their principal instruments, the clarinet and alto and tenor saxophones, with a stunning authority? I could go on and on about the Andersons. Right now the distinctions between them as musicians are as subtle as the differences in their appearances. It will be fascinating to see how they progress, how they diverge from one another and what they make of their prodigious talents, once they’ve become centered in their individual identities. But what they’re presenting at this point in their development is already substantial and compelling enough to be worthy of preservation. I’m surprised that there’s no big-label album yet. I should think that their marketing potential—the twin thing, their age—would be considerable.

BRIETEL: I’ve got to check them out.

LEVIN: Yeah, you do.

BRIETEL: Who else?

LEVIN: Actually, a lot of traditionalists. For the past year or so I’ve been hanging a lot with traditionalists.

BRIETEL: You’ve been hanging with Republicans?!

LEVIN: I don’t think they’re all Republicans. Most of them give the appearance of being highly evolved human beings. No, what happened was that my wife, Marianne Mangan, was into this music and she got me to pay attention to it.

BRIETEL: Marianne Mangan. I’ve read some of her stuff. She’s good. I knew there was a relationship. I didn’t realize you were married.

LEVIN: Much to my irritation, Marianne chose not to take my last name. I’ve been trying to persuade her to at least take my first name, which I think is a perfectly reasonable compromise.

In any event, Marianne, who’s frighteningly knowledgeable about this music, got me to listen to it. Yeah, like a lot of people, I regarded modern manifestations of traditional and swing era jazz as reactionary and pretty much ignored them. But stripped of that extra-musical baggage there’s some extraordinary music being played in these categories by a body of serious, dedicated and very good musicians, and I regret that long-held biases prevented me from finding that out sooner.

BRIETEL: Anybody in particular you want to mention?

LEVIN: I’ve been especially impressed by the trumpeter, cornetist and flugelhornist Peter Ecklund. As we used to put it, he’s “saying something” when he plays. I’ve heard Ecklund now in a number of different contexts. He can remind you, at times, of a host of people from Armstrong to Beiderbecke to Harry James to Harry Edison to Art Farmer, but his approach, including a sound that’s multi-textured and rich with contrasts, is totally individuated. Just a few notes and you know that it’s him. His solos, consistently crafted with wit and intelligence—unerringly musical—can be powerfully dynamic and emotive, and his presence in an ensemble always serves to extend the musicians he’s working with. In his own group, Blue Suitcase, which has been playing occasionally at the Greenwich Village Bistro on Carmine Street, he draws not only on jazz but on a classical training, extensive experience with rock and pop bands, outstanding song writing and arranging skills, computer technology and a droll sense of humor, to produce music that’s inventive, edgy and immediately seductive. He’s a genuine artist. The real thing.

BRIETEL: OK! Go on.

LEVIN: I haven’t heard everyone, not nearly, but of the players and bands I’ve caught thus far I’ve been consistently dazzled by The Louis Armstrong Centennial Band, a group of shifting, but invariably first-rate personnel (the estimable trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso is frequently featured), that David Ostwald, who plays tuba, leads at Birdland on Wednesday evenings. I heard Will Anderson, on clarinet, get into an electrifying exchange with Ed Polcer, a magnificent Chicago-school cornetist, there. And the pianist Bill Dunham runs an always stirring group, the Grove Street Stompers, at Arthur’s Tavern on Monday nights with Peter Ballance on trombone, Skip Muller on bass, Giampaola Biagi on drums, revolving and stellar trumpet or cornet players like Ecklund, Polcer and John Bucher (a wonderfully subtle and lyrical musician), and Joe Licari on clarinet. Joe Licari. There are a lot of excellent clarinetists playing classic jazz—the brilliant Dan Block, of course, and Joe Muranyi and Ken Peplowski—but, and I’m talking about his unfailing exuberance, his touch with a ballad and the marvelous symmetry of his solos, no one reaches me quite the way Licari does.

Someone else I’ve come to admire is Herb Gardner. He’s an exceptional trombonist, accomplished pianist and terrific bandleader—he leads the Stan Rubin big band at Swing 46 on Wednesday nights in addition to small groups at venues like Charley O’s—and I always get a major lift when I go to hear him.

And each of them owning his own particular strengths and virtues, there are others that I’m glad I’ve gotten to hear. I’m thinking of pianists like Peter Socolow, Terry Waldo, John Halsey, Ehud Asherie, Steve Elmer, Don Edmonds, Jesse Gelber and Dick Voigt; saxophonists like Jim Perry, Tom Olin, Chuck Wilson and Bob Curtis; trumpeters like Gordon Au, John Eckert and Barry Bryson; the trombonists Dan Barrett, Vincent Gardner and Dick Dreiwitz, the guitarist/banjoist Howard Alden and the multi-instrumentalist John Gill. I’ve also discovered that along with a lot of stand-out percussionists like Biagi, Jackie Williams, Fred Stoll, Arnie Kinsella, Steve Little, Ed Bonoff and Kevin Dorn (who’s an especially bright and gifted younger drummer), more than a few superb bassists—Brian Nalepka, Mike Weatherly, Murray Wall, Steve Alcott, Dave Winograd, Muller and Andrew Hall among them—are devoting themselves to this music.

BRIETEL: Your thinking about jazz has clearly undergone a significant transformation, Robert.

LEVIN: Well, I do continue to play the hell out of my John Coltrane CDs.

BRIETEL: Still, what happened that enabled you to expand the range of what you listen to?

LEVIN: You mean besides Marianne? I got older.

BRIETEL: You got older.

LEVIN: As you get older a lot of the illusions you’ve lived with become transparent and they evaporate. You’re left with reality. I believed, back in the ‘60s, in the possibility of a fundamental change in human consciousness and behavior. Hanging tight with like-minded musicians and others, I was convinced that the “new black music” was the embodiment of that possibility. I may have smiled at the hyperbole of a remark [the “free jazz” bassist and composer] Alan Silva made to me after coming off a high energy set—“Man, in another ten years we won’t even need traffic lights we’re gonna be so spiritually tuned to one another”—but I have to confess that I didn’t think the remark was entirely off the wall. So I developed an agenda when I wrote about jazz that limited what I could appreciate and made me less than objective. I wanted to promote the revolution the “new black music” was leading. I didn’t understand yet that the black musicians I revered weren’t necessarily in possession of a special wisdom, or that even some of the more modest changes I envisioned were, for reasons I’ve tried to explain elsewhere, beyond the realm of the possible. [Ed. Note: See Free Jazz: The Jazz Revolution of the ‘60s]

BRIETEL: But what you said about being “left with reality.” That does sound almost…grim.

LEVIN: It’s deflating, but it’s hardly all that grim. Not when I can still be mesmerized by the interactions within a finely-tuned group, or thrilled by hearing a superior improviser challenge himself and then rise to the challenge. Not when what’s left is the gift that, each in his way, George Sprung and Joe Goldberg gave me. The treasure that jazz is in all of its expressions.

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18
Sep
09

Notes from a Season at the Center of the Universe: Cecil Taylor at The Take 3

(Excerpted and adapted from a work-in-progress, Going Outside: A Memoir of Free Jazz & the ‘60s.)

Originally published on the All About Jazz website.

photo

Robert Levin and Cecil Taylor, June 2015.

In the summer of 1962, Cecil lands a three-month, four-night-a-week gig at The Take 3 coffee house on Bleecker Street. A large, nondescript room with a stage at the back end and several dozen tables of various shapes and sizes, The Take 3 is right next door to the glittering Bitter End where Woody Allen had performed just weeks before. (Allen was second on the bill and I’d thrown him a quick couple of lines in the Village Voice column—something about how this new comic exploited his appearance to good advantage.)

For Cecil, 33 now, The Take 3 experience will be important for the opportunity its extraordinary duration affords him to develop new ideas and achieve deeper levels of interaction with the two musicians he brings with him, Jimmy Lyons, alto saxophone, and Sunny Murray, drums. (The trio will be joined on occasion by either Buell Neidlinger or Henry Grimes on bass, but most of the time there’s no bass player.)

For me, 23, and never happier than when I’m in a jazz club and in the company of musicians I admire, it’s a chance to hang in my element on a semi-regular basis. But it’s something else as well. This is 1962. An increasing number of us live with the conviction that a seismic change in human consciousness is both possible and imminent. We also share a belief that the New Jazz, in its break with established forms and procedures, and with its resurrection of ancient black methodologies, is showing the way. “Man,” the bassist Alan Silva (coming off an hour-long, 13-piece collective improvisation one night at another venue) can say to me, “in ten years we won’t even need traffic lights we’re gonna be so spiritually tuned to one another.”

At The Take 3, I’ll feel myself to be at the very center of the universe.

I mention Cecil’s engagement in the column a few days before he opens and maybe six people a night show up in the first week. The following week, impervious to criticism that I’m functioning as Cecil’s unofficial publicist, I write what amounts to a paean to him. I also discuss a simultaneous Monk date at the Five Spot. (Monk, of course, is one of Cecil’s principle influences.) The Voice titles this column “The Monk and the Taylor” and gives it a banner front page headline. The next night I arrive at The Take 3 and see that the proprietors have hung an enormous sign over the entrance:

“CECIL TAYLOR! ‘STARTS WHERE MONK LEAVES OFF!’—VILLAGE VOICE

Not exactly the way I had put it, but so what? The column and the sign serve their purpose. From this point on the room is sometimes filled to capacity.

Among the musicians who come on a night that I’m there (and who would have come without the hype) are John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy. When the last set ends they sit at a table with Cecil, Anne (my girlfriend then) and me, and a love fest breaks out. John says to Cecil that he’s “awestruck” by him. Eric calls Cecil “the spaceman—the astronaut!” After Cecil tells Eric that Eric is “about to become great,” I raise my hand and say, “So what about me?” Everybody laughs except Eric. I can see him thinking: Wait a minute. Should I know…? Does Bob play an instrument?

John and Cecil had recorded together in 1958 and a word on the album they made, and their musical relationship in general, is in order here. The album, Hard Driving Jazz, was originally a Cecil date and later reissued under Coltrane’s name as Coltrane Time. It was certainly an interesting album but it turned out to be less than terrific.

John Coltrane

John Coltrane

Tom Wilson, an early champion of Cecil’s and the producer of his first record, Jazz Advance, produced this one as well. He also chose the sidemen, all of whom—trumpeter Kenny Dorham, bassist Chuck Israels, drummer Louis Hayes and tenor saxophonist Coltrane—were serious beboppers and, with the exception of Coltrane, very much set in their ways.

Tom believed that he was putting something seminal together, something that would foreshadow where, following Cecil’s lead, bebop might go from here. But surrounding Cecil with a group composed largely of intransigent beboppers was counterproductive to say the least. While Coltrane acquitted himself decently, Dorham (a splendid bebop trumpet player) was incensed by Cecil’s “eccentric” comping and he made no effort to conceal his feelings. For their parts, Israels and Hayes could only struggle with the rhythmic challenges Cecil posed.

But the album would still have failed to predict bebop’s future even if these men had been more flexible. Although it wasn’t entirely clear at the time, Cecil was in the process of creating a discrete system of his own; if anything, he was shedding bebop. (It would be Coltrane who’d deliver bebop to its outer limits.) Given this circumstance, what a Cecil Taylor record needed was musicians inclined and prepared to take his journey with him. Cecil had been opposed to Dorham’s inclusion on the date—he’d wanted Ted Curson, a younger trumpet player who was very much in sync with him. And he hadn’t been so sure about using Coltrane either. That John would be more capable than the others of taking Cecil on wasn’t enough. (Jimmy Lyons, whom he didn’t encounter until 1960, became Cecil’s most congenial supporting player. Jimmy survived for years on odd jobs in order to be available if Cecil had work, and when Jimmy needed a new saxophone Cecil rewarded his loyalty by buying him one. “It had to be a Selmer, so that’s what he got,” Cecil told me. When Jimmy died in 1986, it was months before Cecil could bring himself to go near a piano again.)

Probably the closest thing to a successful number from the Hard Driving Jazz recording sessions, Mel Tormé’s “Christmas Song”— “For the Noël market,” Cecil said—was left out of the album.

By 1962, of course, Coltrane was all but possessed by the Free Jazz players. He was both their patron (he gave them money and employed many of them in his band) and their student. “He loved us,” Archie Shepp would say. But as far as Cecil’s approach was concerned, there was only so much that John could use. “That’s too complicated,” he remarked about it once, and he derived a lot more from Archie, Eric, Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler, among others.

But Coltrane was always prepared to honor Cecil. I’m thinking of a night at Birdland a year or so later. John is about to go on as Cecil and a small group of us come in. We walk past the bar where Pee Wee Marquette, the club’s midget and famously nasty emcee, is saying to the bartender—and just loud enough for us to hear—“How much more of this ‘Greenwich Village’ jazz am I supposed to take?” John sees Cecil and says something to McCoy Tyner who’s already playing an intro. Tyner abruptly quits the number he’s started and they open the set instead with “Out of This World.”

.

Another musician who comes to The Take 3 doesn’t stay very long.

It’s between sets and the band is backstage when I hear something going on at the door. I turn to look and see Coleman Hawkins standing there. Coleman Hawkins! The “Bean” himself!

I can’t make out what Hawkins is saying, but I hear the girl who collects the admission charge say: “Everybody pays a dollar, Sir.”

I see what’s happening and I want to rise from my chair and drop a dollar onto the girl’s table, but I can’t do anything. I’m frozen. Coleman Hawkins!

And it’s over too fast. Hawkins glares at the girl, then turns and splits.

“Maybe ‘Bean’ didn’t have a bean,” Cecil says when I tell him about it.

.

So what about me?

On the same night as Hawkins’s abortive visit, Cecil and I leave The Take 3 together. In the years ahead I’ll grow up a little and how I relate to Cecil, who I met in 1956 and who quickly assumed the role of an older brother, will change.  But as I’ve made evident elsewhere, in this period of my life I’m not someone you’d describe as perfectly centered and no serious time spent in Cecil’s company can pass for me without a certain issue erupting. I refer to my unrealized and maybe never to be realized, creative writing aspirations and to the envy and resentment that will unfailingly be triggered in me at one point or another.  Cecil is a genuine artist. The real thing. I’m chronically “blocked” and without any clear sense of what I want to say or how to proceed. (If a part of me is counting on osmosis with him, it isn’t working.) In Cecil’s words, spoken without malice—to be straightforward about such matters, at whatever the cost, is central to the stance he’s taken in the world—I’m a “person of artistic persuasion.” It’s a phrase that he’s used more than once and it embarrasses and infuriates me. But anything that makes me too conscious of the contrasts between us can set me off. When that happens my pattern is to become aggrieved and petulant and then, in a paroxysm of indignation and vainglorious self-assertion, to withdraw from him, sometimes for months. In this particular instance, however, a separation at least is forestalled by Cecil in a way I could not have anticipated.

With the completion of an evening’s last set, Cecil’s usually eager to check out what’s going on in clubs that are still open. But on this night, a sultry night in late August, he’s not feeling well and he wants to go home. I need to get home as well—to finish an overdue Blue Note liner. “You’re killing me, Robert,” Frank Wolff had said to me earlier on the phone. “Frank,” I told him, “I’m suicidal myself. This is the fourth Jimmy Smith album you’ve assigned me. Didn’t you get that I had nothing to say about him the first time? Why doesn’t Joe Goldberg have to do these?”

I plan to accompany Cecil as far as Second Avenue.

“What’s the matter with you?” I say once we’re outside. “You don’t have the clap again? I warned you not to sit on public piano stools.”

Cecil, who’s looking a little gray, grimaces. “Ulcer attack,” he says. “I have something to take at the apartment.”

The stomach ulcer has been a persistent concern for Cecil (he’s convinced it will soon become something lethal) and waiting for traffic to pass on the corner of LaGuardia Place, I’m about to ask him if he’s seen his doctor recently when this guy I’d noticed standing outside The Take 3 approaches us. “Excuse me, Mr. Taylor,” he says—and to me, “Excuse me, Sir.” He’s black and around my age.

“Mr. Taylor,” he says, “I just wanted to tell you how amazing I think you are and how much I love your music. No one can play the piano like you do.”

Cecil smiles. “Thank you,” he says.

“I wish I could be a musician,” the guy goes on. “I’ve taken lessons, but I’m no good at it. I just don’t have the aptitude for it, I guess.”

Cecil looks at him and says gently, “Then be a good listener.”

Not a bad answer, I think, and I’m instantly rankled by it.

“What empty shit,” I say after the guy—nodding earnestly, then smiling broadly and vigorously shaking my hand as well as Cecil’s—backs off. “‘Be a good listener.’ Was that the best you could do?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Cecil says as we resume walking. I see that his countenance has brightened considerably. Cecil responds well to adulation.

“I mean that’s not what he wanted to hear,” I say.

“He seemed satisfied to me, Bob,” Cecil says. “But then you may be right. Since when do I give people what they want to hear?”

“He wanted you to tell him the secret,” I say. “When he digests what you said he’s going to sink into a profound depression.”

Cecil gives me a sidelong glance. “Are you talking about him, Bob? You’re not starting some shit here, are you?”

I ignore this. I’m remembering something I’d all but buried, but which is suddenly of great importance to me, and I say: “Come to think of it, since when do you really give much of anything, even when you say you will?”

Cecil stares at me. He obviously has no idea what I’m talking about.

“Cecil,” I say. “What the fuck happened to ‘Bobt’?”

“What the fuck happened to who?” He says.

“To ‘Bobt’, I say. “ Shit, man. Not ‘who’. What! ‘Bobt’!”

“Bob,” he says laughing at me.  “Listen to you. Are you’re having a fit of some sort? Should I take you to an emergency room?”

“You said you were composing a tune for me and that you were calling it ‘Bobt,’” I say. “That was a year ago. I’ve waited long enough, don’t you think? Where is it? I want it.”

“You want it?” Cecil says.  “Have you collapsed into an infantile state, man? Do I need to remind you of the vicissitudes of the creative process?”

“In other words you never wrote it,” I say.

In other words, please be kind’,” Cecil sings. “ In other words…’”

“You were bullshitting me,” I say. “Will you cut the crap and give me a straight…”

“It was absorbed by something else.” Cecil nods to himself after he hears what he said. He bought a moment with the musical interlude and he’s pleased with the answer he’s come up with.

“‘Absorbed by something else’?” I say. “That’s beautiful. Well you know what, Cecil? I’m going to write a poem for you—a poem I’m going to finish—and I’m going to call it…”

“‘The Magnificent One’?” He says. “‘The Immortal…’?”

“I’m going to call it ‘The Insufferable Self-Centered Prick’,” I say.

“Bob,” he says, his hand on his chest, “Are you saying that I’m self-centered? Me? The amazing Cecil?

“I’ll tell you what I’m saying,” I say. “I don’t need this shit—that’s what I’m saying. The one thing I do get back from knowing and touting the ‘amazing Cecil’ is reflected glory, and it definitely has some practical benefits—I can point to two occasions when it’s actually gotten me laid. [For some reason, Cecil finds this little joke hilarious.] But is it worth the indignities I have to suffer? Will it make me immortal, too? No, you can shove reflected glory, man. I don’t have to settle for it anyway. I’m making some moves. I’m going to be my own Cecil Taylor.”

Cecil feigns a horrified expression “You…you…” he blusters. “You would dare take my name, the name of Cecil?”

I stifle a laugh. “And I’m not exactly beginning at zero either…”

“Listen,” he says, “there’s something I haven’t told…”

“…Maybe it isn’t really ‘writing’,” I continue, “but…”

“…The column?” He says. “You’re talking about the column? I appreciate what you’ve done with it but no, you know it isn’t ‘writing’.

Ready, in the wake of this remark, to take permanent leave of him, to never even listen to a record of his again, I say: “I just conceded as much. But fuck you, Cecil. No one’s ever told me their three-year-old daughter could do it.”

Cecil stops walking and grabs my shoulder. “Robert,” he says, “I haven’t mentioned this.”

What?” I snarl, pushing his hand off me.

“Awhile back,” he says, “that poem you wrote…the one you gave me …”

That poem?” I say. “That poem sucked. It was awful.”

He shakes his head. “Something about that poem…it made me want to write poems myself. I started writing poetry the next day.”

“I didn’t know you were writing poetry,” I say. “How fucking dare you.”

He laughs. “I haven’t been able to stop. Not since I read that poem. No one’s seen any of it yet. I guess I’ll have to show it to you now.”

I take this in. I’m still only a “person of artistic persuasion”—at best I’m destined to be a footnote in his biography. But I’m also something more than Cecil’s flack now. I’ve managed to have an impact in a way that really matters to me. “Bobt”? Who needs “Bobt”? I regard what Cecil’s imparted as a gift beyond measure.

“I’m glad to see that you’re feeling better,” I say a moment later when we arrive at Second Avenue. “So Coleman Hawkins came to check you out. Too bad he didn’t want to pay for the privilege.”

Cecil shrugs. “We could have used his dollar,” he says. Then he says: “I’m thinking about going to Slug’s. Come with me.”

“Sure. Yeah.” I say.

If Frank Wolff dies I’ll find a way to live with the guilt.

.

[Following a trip to Scandinavia in the fall of 1962, Cecil, Sunny and Jimmy played The Take 3 again in 1963. It was during the second engagement that Albert Ayler made an impromptu appearance. Since, at this point in time, I tend to recall both gigs as one, I’m taking the liberty of reporting on the event here.]

On a night I’d have regretted missing, a heavy presence causes me to turn my head in the middle of a set and I see this dude with an odd patch of white on his goatee and wearing a green leather suit. He’s holding a gleaming tenor saxophone. (Sunny will tell me that he polishes it every day.) I know who he is. Sunny and Jimmy had both spoken about Albert Ayler, the “new bitch on tenor” they’d met and played with in Copenhagen on the recent tour. Before they left Denmark, Cecil had invited him to “say hello” when he returned to the States.

But Albert isn’t wasting time with any formalities. The cap is already off his mouthpiece and he’s edging his way between the tables toward the bandstand. Sunny says to Cecil, “Albert’s here,” and though Cecil barely raises his head that’s enough for Albert to mount the stage.

I write this half a century after the fact, but the first sounds Albert makes remain as vivid and immediate to me as if I’d heard them only moments ago.

Albert Ayler

Albert Ayler

It’s his vibrato. The breadth, the amplitude, of his vibrato is astonishing. (It will redefine the scope of the tenor saxophone and Coltrane will admit to having dreams about trying to duplicate it.) If it succeeds in chasing a portion of the room into the street, the rest of us are riveted by it. And we are no less transfixed by what follows. Coming from an obvious rhythm and blues matrix, and reminiscent of the shouters and honkers of the ‘40s and ‘50s, what Albert proceeds to play—with suddenly shifting meters and no regard for tonal centers—isn’t a sequence of notes so much as an amalgam of sounds. Primal sounds. Ecstatic sounds. Achingly mournful sounds. Grotesque and funny sounds.

Albert’s intention, he’ll explain to me, is to reassert black music’s original function, to “conjure up holy spirits.” I can’t vouch for his success in that regard, but I can say that for me what he’s doing is equal in its emotional impact to the first time I heard Cecil.

And Cecil. When Albert begins to play, Cecil laughs and his posture changes noticeably. He’s recalibrating to accommodate Albert. Sunny and Jimmy respond in the same fashion. They embrace Albert and unite with him. Half an hour passes before the number he cut in on is completed.

Of the many gifted musicians who belonged to the New Thing’s second wave, Albert, an astronaut and an archeologist all at once, was the monster. The full range of his unique vision wasn’t revealed the night he sat in with Cecil, of course. But later, in bands of his own and with the pre-Louis Armstrong-through-Ornette Coleman spectrum of material he would utilize, Albert created a fascinating body of innovative work. Many of us took for granted that he’d be the next major force in the music.

In 1964, when I’d be living with “Pretty,” Albert came to the apartment several times to hang out and also to do an interview. The tape of that interview (and a tape of an interview with Betty Carter) was inside the Wollensak case when I was burglarized. I never got the chance to transcribe it.

Albert would die in 1970, apparently by his own hand. A year after that, in the process of moving to the West Village with Carolyn, I discovered a leather tie on the floor of the bedroom closet. It was caked in plaster dust, but I was able to make out the letters “AA” written in ink on the label. My first thought was, how the hell did this get here? Had Albert removed his tie while we talked and forgotten about it? Had “Pretty” found it and, for safekeeping, hung it in the closet where, forgotten by her as well, it had eventually been jostled from its hook? After a moment I realized that the circumstances behind the tie’s appearance in my closet were probably not so innocent—and I could smile about it now. When I met her, “Pretty” had already “balled” every living entry in the Encyclopedia of Jazz and cohabiting with me had in no way discouraged her from moving on to the supplementary volume. Why not Albert?

Speaking of girl singers, I should note that in the course of Cecil’s run a couple of remarkable vocalists, Jeanne Lee and Sheila Jordan, work opposite him from time to time. Another performer who turns up (making his debut, as I remember it) is Tiny Tim. “What the fuck is this?” two people at separate tables exclaim in unison when he launches into “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.”

I should also add that someone who doesn’t show is Ornette. Eventually Ornette and Cecil will be acknowledged as the dual progenitors of the New Music, but they’ve been competing for sole ownership of this distinction from the start and, declarations of mutual respect aside, they aren’t especially supportive of one another. Ornette, who’s the better known of the two, clearly wants to protect his advantage. A few days after the “Monk and Taylor” column I’m walking on 8th Street, head down against a driving rain, when my path is suddenly blocked. I look up and it’s Ornette.

“You must make a lot of money writing for that paper,” he says and brushes past me.

So much for the parties at Ornette’s loft.

(There’d been talk about Ornette and Cecil recording together since the late ‘50s, but nothing ever materialized. Around 2003, preparations for an album by them were actually underway when Ornette decided not to go ahead with the project.)

.

Just days before the gig will come to its conclusion, and determined to savor every last moment, I’m seated at a table right near the stage. The band has been “exchanging energies” for forty minutes. Each time the torrent of sound begins to ebb and you think, that’s it, they’re spent, they can’t possibly have anything left, an apparently tossed-off phrase, a single note, reignites the process and the music builds to even greater levels of intensity than it had reached before. (Buell Neidlinger, who’s here tonight, isn’t going along at this point. He’s stopped playing and he looks to be exhausted—or worse. Eyes closed, his glasses askew, his head is hanging over his bass at an alarmingly strange angle. Has he broken his neck?)

I’m facing straight ahead and totally absorbed in what’s taking place, when Jack Kerouac bounds onto the bandstand in front of me. Appearing to be in a…well…beatified condition, he twice, and very slowly, makes a circle around the entire group. Then he walks between and around each of the individual players. Finally he bends down and slides under the piano where, lying on his back, he folds his arms across his chest. At the end of the piece (some twenty minutes later), he emerges from beneath the piano and extends his hand to Cecil.

“I’m Jack Kerouac,” he says, “and I’m the greatest writer in the world.” A startled Cecil (who at first isn’t sure who this cat is and who’d apparently been unaware of his presence) recovers quickly. Accepting Kerouac’s hand he says: “I’m Cecil Taylor and I’m the greatest pianist in the world.”

Me, I’m thinking, Jesus, this is too much—it’s way past too much. And though it occurs to me to say to them: “I’m Robert Levin and I’m the greatest ‘person of artistic persuasion’ in the world,” that’s just a reflex. I’ve got, right now, no need to say anything—certainly nothing bitter. No. If reflected glory turns out to be the best kind I’ll get I’ll take it. Right now my simple proximity to this is enough to make me feel like I’ll live forever.




Books by Robert Levin

When Pacino’s Hot, I’m Hot
The Drill Press LLC
Reviews

109415877-0-m31
Music & Politics
by John Sinclair and Robert Levin
World Publishing

“Robert Levin’s articles…make up the second half of Music and Politics, and they’re something else again. He’s a quietly briliant writer (not flashy but subtly dazzling) who knows jazz extremely well and who knows how to let us know what he knows. His piece on Sunny Murray says more about the birth of the New Jazz than most writers could say in a volume; the Anthony Braxton interview is one of the freshest, most reassuring articles on the future of music (of the arts in general) that I’ve read; his ‘found critique’ of ‘Space’ by the MJQ, which contrasts Murray’s thoughts on music at the White House with President Nixon’s introduction of the MJQ in that very place, is brilliant; his piece on the unfortunate evolution of Willis Jackson…is a minor masterpiece; and he’s lucid and painful and thoroughly correct when he writes that ‘What is meant by ‘every man has his price’ is that every man has his uncertainty about the validity and sanity of his perception of the truth. To ‘sell out’ is to capitulate to that uncertainty.'”
—Colman Andrews, Creem

giants
Giants of Black Music
Edited by Pauline Rivelli and Robert Levin, with a foreword by Nat Hentoff
Da Capo Press

Music & Politics and Giants of Black Music are no longer in print, but remain available from Amazon.com and other outlets.
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