June 24, 2024

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New Cecil Taylor and the old crew in ’70s NYC: A remembrance: Photos, Video

Go ahead. Jump in. The Cecil Taylor Unit of the early 1970s was daring you to come inside the music. Do it!! The band was a weather system – blizzards of notes, torrential, flooding your senses with its accumulating velocity. To see Taylor at that moment, was to be overwhelmed, lifted, stunned — this was stunning music, literally.

It was an endurance test. A baptism. Dive in. You can hear the challenge in the opening passages of Cecil Taylor: The Complete, Legendary, Live Return Concert, issued last month by Oblivion Records, an independent label that had been dormant for nearly 50 years. Recorded at Town Hall in Manhattan on Nov. 4, 1973, it delivers a remarkable gift: 88 minutes of previously unreleased Taylor at his height. His performance is rapturous, tactile, vivid: You can imagine him hunched over the keyboard, eyes lit up, a little crazy, jabbing at the keys, his fingers a blur. He is plugged in, as are his bandmates: saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, bassist Sirone, and drummer Andrew Cyrille. Their music was a paradox: absolute abandonment matched by absolute control. It was relentless, feeding off its own private energy source, ebbing and flowing, consuming itself, regenerating — and stopping, mysteriously, on a dime. As much as any group of the era, the Unit channeled and transformed the wild, spillover energy of the 1960s. And in doing that, it transformed you. Hearing this music, I remember exactly what it felt like to be alive at that cultural moment.

A victory for completists, Return also includes a shorter set from the same show that Taylor fans will recognize. It was released in 1974 — on the late pianist’s own label, Unit Core — as Spring of Two Blue J’s. One of the key documents in Taylor’s gigantic canon, it exposed Taylor’s romantic side, which felt new at the time, along with the famous turbulence and virtuoso flights — like Art Tatum from a different galaxy. It was a perfect record. Until now, we didn’t know it had a perfect twin. Sitting side by side on this new digital-only release, they form a time capsule — more than two hours of music, revealing a vanished scene that was all-consuming for those who were there.

It’s been said that the Sixties didn’t really happen until the early ‘70s. If you were living in New York at that time, that was obvious. New York was bankrupt, dangerous, and affordable, and musical revolutions – punk, classical minimalism, the incredible jazz loft scene – were just the norm. And if you happened to be working uptown at Columbia University’s WKCR-FM — as was my friend Fred Seibert, who wound up recording the Town Hall concert because of his KCR connections and has now released it after staring for decades at the reel-to-reel tapes on his shelf — then you really were in the eye of the creative hurricane that the Cecil Taylor Unit embodied. I was at the station, too. Fred was one of my mentors. Do you know the Albert Ayler tune “Truth is Marching In”? We were a band of idealists — all students, still in our teens or barely past them, broadcasting “truth” to the world. Our saints, our superheroes, were named Coltrane, Ayler, Ornette, Pharoah, Archie Shepp, and Cecil Taylor. By broadcasting their superhero sounds, we were convinced, we were engaged in a kind of spiritual levitation of New York City. This belief colored our lives. I can remember opening wide the window of my dormitory room one night and blasting, at painful volume, saxophonist Billy Harper’s “Call of the Wild and Peaceful Heart” – insistent, swirling sounds of ascension – into the quad below. Listen, people! Rise up! And then came the knock on my door: “Hey, man, will you turn that down!”

Like the city itself, KCR was a dump, but it was our dump. We were all cutting classes — Seibert, who went on to become a co-founder of MTV, never graduated — because “the station” (that’s what we called it) was our raison d’etre. On a summer afternoon, when it was hot enough to fry an egg in the vestibule, we might all be sitting on the crummy sofas, talking about the latest album on Strata East Records, or recalling the details of saxophonist Sam Rivers’ unbelievable performance the night before down at Studio Rivbea, his loft at 24 Bond Street, where Robert Mapplethorpe had a studio upstairs and Sam (that’s what we called him) performed in the dank basement underneath a World War II parachute he’d bought on Canal Street and pinned to the ceiling. And, we’d say, still sitting on the sofas, did you know that Rivbea, where Sam lived with his family, was actually owned by Robert De Niro’s mother? And then the doorbell — more like a buzzer — would ring and in would walk Milford Graves, talking about alchemy, or Andrew Cyrille, who liked to hang out, or Sirone, who always wore nice sweaters and smoked a pipe. Or — surprise! — Lester Bowie might be standing there, grinning and smoking a cigar. Or it might be Leo Smith (pre-Wadada), or Lonnie Hillyer (Mingus’s trumpeter who lived a few blocks south on Broadway), or Juma Sultan (who played congas with Hendrix at Woodstock), or Dewey Redman (who had just signed with Impulse), or William Parker, the bassist who would grow up to be the guru of the Downtown scene, but was then a skinny kid in a T-shirt who couldn’t even afford a case for his bass and would have performed nightly, live on the air, if we had given him the okay.

They would all come by the station for on-air interviews, or to perform live sessions with their bands, or to pressure one of us to help them type out a grant application, which was a new thing at the time. We really were at the center of something. There was a lot of jazz radio in New York in the early 1970s, on WLIB (which broadcast from the Hotel Theresa in Harlem and counted Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton, who had been Malcolm X’s lawyer, among its shareholders) and WRVR (in Riverside Church, just up the block from Columbia, where the erudite Ed Beach held forth weekday afternoons), or WBAI (where mesmerizing late-night talker Steve Post was apt to toss in something new by McCoy Tyner). You could also turn on WABC-FM, one of the major rock stations, and hear a 20-minute side by Pharoah Sanders or Miles Davis, because radio jocks didn’t care that much about genres. I even remember listening to WEVD-AM (affiliated with the Jewish Daily Forward), where the legendary “Symphony” Sid Torin was still hosting a late-night jazz show, and Lester Young’s “Jumpin’ with Symphony Sid” remained his theme song.

But WKCR stood apart. We were a voice — the voice in New York — for the progressive wing of this great Black art form. And because we were on a mission, we worried about the strength of the station’s signal: our antenna, atop a mid-sized building in Midtown, was hemmed in by skyscrapers. Dialing in KCR on your radio – finessing the signal to emerge from all the crackling white noise – was a challenging exercise. Sometimes, while doing a show, we would wonder if anyone was listening. If the phone rang, inevitably, it would be a guy named Sam — he was the son of Jack Gilford, the actor in the Cracker Jack television commercials — who would talk endlessly, usually about Eric Dolphy. Was anyone else even out there? But then the phone would ring and it would be Charles Mingus, gruffly demanding to set the record straight about something someone had just said about Charlie Parker. Terrified, we would hand the phone to one of the more seasoned student announcers: Sharif Abdus-Salaam (a celebrity to me; I used to send him letters when I was in high school on Long Island, a KCR addict doing my homework while listening to his show “Jazz ‘Til Midnight”) or Phil Schaap (who would grow up to become a GRAMMY-winning jazz historian, Wynton Marsalis’s in-house expert at Jazz at Lincoln Center, and an NEA Jazz Master). Phil, who was just beginning what would turn into a 50-year run at the station (it lasted until his death last September), would nod his head, solemnly, and say, in his deep baritone, “Yes, Charles, I understand, Charles…”

Sometimes the phone would ring and it would be Cecil Taylor, who made Mingus appear like a lamb. For instance, there was the time Cecil phoned “Jazz Alternatives” host Irv Schenkler to contest Irv’s laudatory remarks about soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy whose contributions should never be set alongside Coltrane’s or Bechet’s. Moments later, Cecil was on his way up to the station to set the record straight, once and for all.

But I digress. It’s time to return to Fred Seibert, the hero of this story.

The son of a pharmacist out in Huntington, Long Island, he arrived at Columbia in 1969. He was a Beatles fanatic. He loved bands like Traffic and Cream, and, hearing something about a campus radio station, he wandered into WKCR, thinking he might be able to score some free albums. One of his first assignments was as on-air engineer — controlling the microphones, running the turntables — for a show called “Jazz Projections,” hosted by a mumbly bearded fellow named Jim Carroll who was the station’s foremost expert on the avant-garde. Seibert was skeptical: “The idea of Albert Ayler screaming in my face — for six months, I was like, `Why am I listening to this noise?’” Then one night, he went to a concert by the Tony Williams Lifetime — a double-bill with Traffic in Port Chester, N.Y. — that somehow clarified the noise he’d been hearing. Williams’s extended jazz-fusion freak-outs connected the dots between Hendrix, Cream and the jazz avant-garde. Suddenly, Seibert was worshipping at the altar of Ayler and Ornette Coleman. He began to explore the station’s two-track recording equipment and turned out to be a talented recording engineer. Musicians streamed to Studio A where Seibert recorded live-on-the-air performances by the Revolutionary Ensemble, the avant-garde superstar trio (with violinist Leroy Jenkins, Sirone, and drummer Jerome Cooper); German multi-reedist Gunter Hampel, whose band included the marvelous vocalist Jeanne Lee; and Newark-reared saxophonist Tyrone Washington (whose “Natural Essence,” on Blue Note, is one of the definitive albums of the late ‘60s). A session by soulful Joe Lee Wilson — for me, the most riveting jazz singer in New York, though he’s now largely forgotten — would land on Seibert’s new record label, Oblivion. He had founded it with two buddies from Long Island, including Tom Pomposello, who did a blues show on WKCR. Entrepreneurs with a mission, they also put out an album by Mississippi Fred McDowell.

Cecil Taylor, Pianist Who Defied Jazz Orthodoxy, Is Dead at 89 - The New York Times

One day in 1973, a young jazz guitarist named Emmett Chapman showed up at the station to tout his new invention. It was the Chapman Stick, a 10 or 12-stringed guitar-like instrument that allows its player — using both hands, independently, like a pianist — to simultaneously play bass lines, melody lines, chords and textures. It would catch on in time; Tony Levin of King Crimson plays the Chapman Stick to this day. But in 1973, Chapman was a gentle young soul, hoping to make a splash — I can picture him, standing in the doorway of Studio A — and he was accompanied by his manager, David Laura, who was garrulous, a talker, a bit of a character. They were there to meet Seibert, who would record a session or two by Chapman. Apparently, Laura was satisfied with the results, because a few months later, out of the blue, he came by the station once again, this time informing Seibert, “Well, I manage Cecil Taylor now, and we’re going to do this big return concert at Town Hall. We need somebody to record.” And that’s how Seibert, who was 23 and completely self-taught as a recording engineer, wound up recording Taylor’s legendary concert.

It wasn’t really a “Return” concert, although that’s how it was billed.

After making his famous Blue Note albums of the mid-to-late 1960s — Unit Structures and Conquistador — Taylor had moved away from New York for a while. He taught at the University of Wisconsin, where he ruffled feathers by failing half his class, and at Antioch College, in Ohio, where he gathered student disciples and kept honing his band, the Unit. Taylor was a maniac for rehearsing; it’s said that in the late ‘50s, he had put his band (with trumpeter Ted Curson and saxophonist Bill Barron) through daily rehearsals for an entire year in preparation for recording just three tracks on his album Love for Sale. By the early ‘70s, the core members of his Unit — drummer Cyrille (originally a Philly Joe Jones disciple) and saxophonist Lyons (who as a teenager in the Bronx had hung out with Elmo Hope, Bud Powell, and Thelonious Monk; he explained this to me during an interview at WKCR) — had spent so much time with Taylor that they were beyond simpatico. They were more like an atomic triangle of fissionable sound. Prior to the Town Hall show, Cyrille and Lyons participated in Taylor’s March 1972 concert at the Metropolitan Museum, which I attended. (I recall sitting behind an elderly couple, who were intrigued but puzzled by the music. If I’d been honest at the time, that would’ve been my take on it, too.) Taylor also performed in July 1972 at a Newport Jazz Festival show in the city — a quadruple bill with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Mary Lou Williams, and the JPJ Quartet featuring Budd Johnson, the fantastic tenor saxophonist from Texas. (I was at that one, as well.)

In other words, Taylor wasn’t exactly returning to New York in November 1973, but he was definitely ready to claim his spot in the city’s jazz pantheon. He was 44 years old. His performances exhibited a heightened symmetry and balance — they felt grounded. You can hear this on Indent, Taylor’s solo disc, recorded at Antioch in March ’73. With David Laura’s assistance, he had founded a new record label and a new non-profit, the Cecil Taylor Program of New York, to promote performances and educational endeavors involving music, dance, poetry and literature. (I’ve read that Taylor’s mother, Almeida Ragland Taylor, had been a silent film actress who played piano and danced. Perhaps it was her formative influence that would push Taylor to include poetry and dance in his performances in the years ahead.)

The Town Hall concert would be the opening round of his new career phase. And the pressure was on for Seibert, who had never recorded with anything but the station’s somewhat primitive two-track consoles. He knew that an ex-associate from WKCR had mysteriously come into possession of some nice four-track equipment and high-end microphones, so he borrowed them. Then he hailed a cab, loaded in the equipment, and headed to Town Hall, on West 43rd Street, where he and another WKCR associate, a classical music announcer and jazz aficionado named Nick Moy, set up in the wings and began running cables and setting up the microphones on stage. Seibert felt “anxious, anticipatory, thrilled, all at the same time. I was over the moon that I got to record someone of Cecil’s stature.” But this was his first encounter with Taylor — he had never even seen him perform and thought of the pianist as “more like a legend than a human.” During the sound check, Seibert didn’t say a word to any of the musicians: “I was just too scared to go near them.”

The concert was sold out. Tickets cost $3, which sounds cheap, but in those days that could buy you a decent steak and a large baked potato at Tad’s steakhouse, a five-minute walk from Town Hall. The audience was abuzz as showtime approached, Seibert recalls. This time, I wasn’t there. It was a Sunday night and I may have been up at the station, hosting “Jazz Projections” (which I had inherited from Jim Carroll after he graduated) and perhaps engineering “Jazz Til Midnight” for my hero Abdus-Salaam. Meanwhile, down on West 43rd Street, the performance began with a gorgeous, Charlie Parker-ish flourish from Lyons, who was instantly answered by Taylor’s tremulous, yearning chords, which seem to reach under and around the saxophonist, like an embrace. Seibert remembers being caught up in the music, while doing his best with the unfamiliar four-track equipment: “You were kind of split,” he says of himself. “You were super-focused on the mix, the microphone placement, whatever. But you also had this experience of totally working inside the music.” The opening set was 88 minutes long and encompassed two compositions, “Autumn” and “Parade,” played without pause. With the music rising and falling and then gaining ever greater velocity in his headphones, Seibert felt overwhelmed and immersed: “It was like putting your head under Niagara Falls.” When the storm subsided, the audience erupted in applause that went on for minutes. The atmosphere in the hall was distinctly charged: “Everybody felt the way that I felt, which was — it was ecstasy, just ecstasy that he had come back, and ecstasy in just watching him.”

Cecil Taylor, Jazz Icon Of The Avant-Garde, Dies At 89 : The Record : NPR

Flash forward.

During the pandemic, Seibert had some extra time and found himself “staring right at the tapes” from that night long ago: “I really should do something,” he told himself. And when he put his headphones on and listened to the Town Hall show for the first time in nearly half a century, it brought back the full rush of Taylor’s revelations: “It reminded me that the people who push forward are the people who are worth paying attention to. That’s what it was. I mean, the music sounded familiar. It sounded nostalgic. It sounded not as well recorded as I wish I had done it. But it was more experiential than anything else. I mean, I always like to be reminded that there are people out there in the world who are at the very edges of the mainstream universe, who create ripples that ripple through to those of us who are sitting in the middle. And while I feel that, over the years, I have moved more and more toward the middle, I have never lost that feeling of the excitement of the people who ripple the edges.” Seibert pauses, then summarizes his feelings about Taylor: “For me he was one of those people who defined what it meant to have the basis of your cultural life expanded. He defined expansion for me, in many ways.” He saw Taylor perform many times, and it was always an experience, like being “in a chamber, and the sound was coming at me from 360 degrees, and it allowed me to just sort of sit back and imagine things. That’s what I think it really did, was open up my imagination in incredible ways.”

The last time Seibert spoke to Taylor was outside a Manhattan movie theater, where, it turned out, they had both gone to see Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. “I was shocked to see Cecil there,” he says, “and I said, `So what did you think?’” Taylor answered: “I loved it.” Initially, Seibert thought it was weird that Taylor was even there. But then he flashed on a close-up shot that lodged in his mind — one where the camera zooms in on the rear wheel of Mel Gibson’s motorcycle. “It’s spinning at like 300 miles per hour, just sort of grabbing onto the ground. And then it made perfect sense that Cecil would like it.” Because that image — the speed of it, the unrelenting blur of it — made Seibert “think of the Niagara Falls waterfall of Cecil’s music. So then it made sense to me, not only that he was at Mad Max, but that he loved it.”

Taylor remains a standalone in the history of the music. Unlike, Coltrane or Coleman, he didn’t really leave a school in his wake. People will splish-splash at the keys, joking that it sounds like Cecil Taylor. It doesn’t in the slightest. Seibert recalls marveling at Town Hall at the pianist’s “incredible feat, not just of stamina, but just watching him, the way he played — accurate, pinpointed, almost at the speed of light. Right? It was an incredible visual activity, as much as it was a musical activity.” In essence, he says, Taylor was “a performance artist.” The New Yorker jazz writer Whitney Balliett once got at this same point, saying of Taylor that “if he could not produce on the piano what he hears in his head, he would do it by other means. He would gather about him whales and jets and cascades, and make them sing and roar and crash. And we’d listen.”

Fred Seibert and I recently zoomed for a couple of hours — the first time we’d seen each other in years. We joked about being old and we talked about just what it was that drew us to Cecil Taylor to begin with. And of course, it was WKCR. The station was magic. In American Graffiti, director George Lucas’s coming-of-age film from 1973, a bunch of teenagers cruise Main Street and hang out at Mel’s Diner, listening to Wolfman Jack on the radio. The movie documents a single night, the end of summer vacation, before the kids move on with their lives. For me and Fred and all our friends, WKCR was our Mel’s Diner — only we got to stay for years, and we created the soundtrack. The music that hooked us, that we loved no end, and still love, was about some kind of truth. It was about giving the world a contrarian nudge and about pushing forward. We even got to hang out with geniuses, like Cecil Taylor. It was formative, it was a privilege — we think about it every day, Fred and I agreed. Those times are now fading into memory, but somehow we still carry the music inside us, the beauty of it, and what it proclaimed: Listen, people! Truth is marching in.

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