Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Strange Encounters, Part One

Borrowed some back issues of The Wire from a friend and noticed this small-but-telling episode in the history of free jazz popped up in two consecutive issues. Like many such instances, it's probably as telling for what people made of it as for what actually happened. To wit: In 1977, venerated grand dame jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams played a much-anticipated duo concert at Carnegie Hall with her friend Cecil Taylor. It looked like just the gig to break Taylor to mainstream audiences, to prove that he too belonged in the canon. But it was not to be.

Brian Morton: "If there is a stronger word than debacle, this is it. Pianist and educator Mary Lou Williams had the idea of Taylor joining her on what had become a kind of concert history of jazz from ragtime and stride to bebop and beyond. The problem was that Taylor, who apparently hadn't agreed to any such role, started in the beyond and wouldn't come back. The result is a mess but illustrates a valuable point. However unwilling or unprepared Taylor was to play rags and stride vamps, Williams had shrewdly identified him as a man unshakably rooted in the tradition."

The show created a small firestorm in the jazz communtity - occasioning a long pieces from Giddins, Crouch, Hentoff, etc. Cecil was vilified as intractacle and rude and even his admirers seemed at a loss to defend him. From all the huzzah, you woulda thought he had slapped Williams on stage, or something. The set was later released under the (ironic?) title "Mary Lou Williams & Cecil Taylor Embraced."

Greg Tate: "There's that insane collision between Taylor and Mary Lou Williams, a duet where it becomes clear that Cecil is not compromising with anyone just to get along or just to prove his legitimacy to the rest of the jazz world. 'This is who I am, this is what I do, take it or leave it.'"

Of course now there's no argument over who's the greater artist and who's made the larger contribution to music. Cecil towers above Williams, not to mention most of her contemporaries. Who then should have been adapting to who? Who was really being disrespected? Cecil recognized where people thought he stood in the jazz pecking order and merely had the self-esteem to claim his just due.

Tate again: "Cecil's contribution to jazz is unquestionable, he's written his chapter in the book on what jazz has become. He fortifies anybody who is trying to not just go against the grain but split the board in two in the process."


Blogger Prof. Drew LeDrew said...

Great anecdote. Without even getting into "greater artist" status, though, it does seem like the event was sidetracked by some colossal lack of communication, including on stage. Unless Taylor was roped into something he didn't want to do, or understand, there is a something essentially belligerent about his hijacking of the show. What did Williams ever do to him?

10:47 PM  
Blogger Chilly Jay Chill said...

I have to disagree with the hijacking and belligerence argument. My understanding is that Cecil simply agreed to play a duet with Williams. Nothing more. It was her idea that they would do some "history of jazz" schtick but he apparently made it clear during rehearsals that he wasn't doing that. Although they were both friends and shared a mutual admiration, in essence Williams was asking that Cecil turn his back on a style that he had forged through countless hardships in order to go over smoothly with the Carnegie Hall crowd. Taylor (rightly) saw this as a betrayal of the entire lifepath he had chosen. This is one of those "Serious As Your Life" moments, but it also shows that Cecil's unwillingness to compromise, even with his friends, is the one of the hallmarks and wellsprings of his great art. Those players that would be willing to "play nice" for their pals or to make the audience more comfortable wouldn't have the resolve or vision to see their radical art into the light of day. I mean, ever since the mid 60s, Cecil has refused to play covers and when he uses elements of stride, bop, etc it's always within the context of his own work. Now of course Williams could also play "out" and for me the real question is why didn't she meet Cecil halfway, NOT the other way round. She was not - as she pretended - out of her league when faced with his radically rhymic playing. She simply chose to act befuddled by this "crazy shit" when she was fully capable of answering him in equally radical terms all her own. In my view, her unwillingness to deal seriously with Cecil's style was a defacto-if-unconscious attempt to undermine him and make him look bad in front of an unsympathetic audience. Of course Cecil has had the last laugh and in a hundred years people will still be playing his music and few will even remember Mary Lou Williams.

12:26 PM  
Blogger Prof. Drew LeDrew said...

I hear ya. Without pointing fingers, then, and with the giant caveat that all I know about this night is contained in your original post, I'll just retreat to the failure to communicate point. On stage, Williams was not hearing Taylor. Taylor was, as ever, pursuing his own musical vision. He certainly doesn't have to meet her halfway, but if it became clear during rehearsals that the gig was headed south, that in some basic way they were not going to be playing the same tunes, not headed for some common ground, some retooling was clearly in order. I'm reminded of that Andrew Hill/Jason Moran gig last year, when they were so clearly in snyc; basically the opposite of what went down w/ Taylor and Williams.

12:42 PM  

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