July 24, 2013

Jazz Pioneer Cecil Taylor Awarded $500,000 Kyoto Prize

The cover of Cecil Taylor's classic "Unit Structures" released by Blue Note in 1966. Other albums released that year include the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, Simon and Garfunkel's Sounds of Silence and Revolver by the Beatles.

The cover of Cecil Taylor’s classic Unit Structures released by Blue Note in 1966. Other albums released that year include the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Simon and Garfunkel’s Sounds of Silence, and Revolver by the Beatles.

Maybe you have never heard of Cecil Taylor, but clearly someone has—he was just awarded a half-million dollars for his art.

If you are curious, a good place to start is his Unit Structures from 1966, but play it on a stereo or through good speakers—this is really great music, and you will never really hear it if all you do is YouTube it. Trust me on this.

For those who listen deeply to music and approach jazz the way wine experts approach fine wine, Taylor is an American treasure, a supreme master of what he might call the jazz piano language.

At eighty-four, he is a living bridge connecting the tumultuous world of the 1960s jazz scene to our present day. He works in so many musical idioms it’s often difficult to pinpoint what he is doing or where he is going. The short answer, of course, is that he is leading.

So it’s in this capacity as a leader of the avant-garde free-jazz movement that his work has been studied and celebrated all over the world, even though he is relatively unknown outside of the jazz community in his own country.

Still, his work is hard to describe. One could say he uses beautiful classical flourishes right next to tight minimalist structures and that he brings to mind John Cage, Debussy, Charles Ives, Bela Bartok, and other piano legends like Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell. That hearing him play is like being with someone who can speak ten languages, someone who is in an effortless dialogue with practically everyone.

Yet, not only has Taylor been one of the country’s most complex and original musician/composers, he is also a poet. And he is a gay man. Unfortunately that fact was only made public when, in 1982, the hostile critic Stanley Crouch outed him. Years later in 1991, Taylor told Peter Watrous of the New York Times that “[s]omeone once asked me if I was gay. I said, ‘Do you think a three-letter word defines the complexity of my humanity?’ I avoid the trap of easy definition.”

Taylor is at home in a creative space that few musicians can get to; it’s a place where music is no longer about style or genre but just about language. Fortunately this prize means that somebody out there still values good work and understands that great art is not always popular art.

Description of Taylor by the Inamori Foundation: One of the most original pianists in the history of free jazz, Mr. Cecil Taylor has developed his innovative improvisation departing from conventional idioms through distinctive musical constructions and percussive renditions, thereby opening new possibilities in jazz. His unsurpassed virtuosity and strong will inject an intense, vital force into his music, which has exerted a profound influence on a broad range of musical genres.

From jazzcorner.com: Jazz pianist Cecil Taylor has won the Kyoto Prize awarded by the Inamori Foundation in Japan. Laureated in the category of arts and philosophy, Taylor will receive a diploma, a 20K gold Kyoto Prize medal and half a million dollars ($500,000). Well deserved prize for a jazz icon coming from a scene where it’s not infrequent to see world-class musicians vehemently rivaling for the privilege of playing pass-the-hat gig.

Chris Cobb is now on Twitter at @Brooklynonian

Comments (5)

  • I was glad to see this news about the Kyoto Prize being awarded to Mr. Cecil Taylor. I saw Cecil Taylor perform at Keystone Korner in San Francisco. In the 1960s, I saw Gary Burton, Yusaf Latif, and Mongo Santamaria at Fillmore Auditorium. During the 1970s, I went to several jazz concerts at Keystone Korner, and the performing artists that I saw included seeing Max Roach, Sonny Stitt, Sam Rivers, Dave Holland, Airto, Anthony Braxton, Ted Curson, Julian Priester, Billy Harper, Dizzy Gillespie, and Odean Pope. After that, in the 1980s, I attended jazz concerts in Madison, WI, where I saw Art Ensemble of Chicago, Arthur Blythe, Art Blakey, Winton Marsalis, Max Roach, Sonny Stitt, Dave Brubeck, Johnny Griffin, and Randy Weston. After that, in the 1990s, I saw Max Roach, Anthony Braxton, Dave Holland, Ivan Lins, McCoy Tyner, and more, at Yoshi’s in Oakland. I would be more proud of America, if Americans would do a better job at paying attention to their own music.

  • Well at least he’s gotten some kind of recognition again and much-needed money while he’s still here.

  • Hi Chris Cobb, I’m not sure about Cecil Taylor’s current domestic situation, but he also won a half-million-dollar MacArthur Genius Award in 1991.

    And there are whole lot of people outside San Francisco that feel being gay matters – some of them jazz musicians!

  • Hi Mood-Indigo, I find that all too often record collectors and jazz afficianados spout-out long lists of records and songs complete with recording dates, members of the band, and relative values of each album – but what does that tell about the person? I don’t care about all that. This column was meant to be an introduction to him because most people have never heard of him. Also – there are a whole lot of people in San Francisco that feel being gay matters. In a perfect world, it wouldn’t matter.

  • Mood_Indigo says:

    And it took the Japanese to award a lifetime award to Mr. Taylor?!

    He has been living in semi-poverty in a rundown condo building with peeling paint in Brooklyn. Why is being gay is considered to be so important that it deserves almost as much space as the passing description of his music in this column beats me — political correctness, I presume.

    Rather than Unit Structures, I’d recommend his best work from the 70s: the solo masterpiece “Silent Tongues” and the landmark “Cecil Taylor Unit” of 1978 with the incomparable Jimmy Lyons on saxophone and Ronald Shannon Jackson on drums, and his 80s work with European musicians in “Winged Serpent” and “Alms/ Tiergarten” which are the ones that drew me to his music.

    Enjoy his music while he’s still alive.

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