Jimmy Carter caught up with pianist Cecil Taylor under a clump of trees on the White House grounds. It was the White House Jazz Festival in June 1978, and Taylor had just delivered a tremendous five-minute performance.
He immediately rushed from the bandstand after finishing. The president rushed right after him. "The first thing the president said to me," recalled Taylor, "was whether Horowitz had heard me. I said, 'No, I don't suppose he has.' He said, 'You know he was here. He should hear you. How did you learn to do that?' I said, 'Hell, I've been doing it for 35 years.'"
Taylor's lack of reverence extends from the chief executive to the American music establishment. Recognized by the jazz cognoscenti as a master composer-performer who employs jarring, dissonant harmonies, Taylor, 47, is better known in Europe than in the United States. He feels his music -- jazz -- is treated as a stepchild of the arts in this country. For this he is resentful of the arts bureaucracy and the classical music establishment. And he bristles when he recalls his academic training at the New England Conservatory in the early '50s.
"I had to realize that the very people I went to in the beginning had narrow concepts," he said, sitting in his Four Seasons Hotel room after finishing a recent engagement at Blues Alley.
"And when I'm dealing with the National Endowment for the Arts, I find that they want to bring the music [jazz] to the Kennedy Center. But where do they want to put it -- in some little back-room, unkempt cafe with little checkered cotton tablecloths on the tables. And I said, 'Look, Duke Ellington was appearing at Carnegie Hall in 1943.' Then they said, 'Well, this is just the beginning.' Beginning! Beginning for whom?"
Taylor, a member of the Endowment's jazz policy panel, was referring to an idea that the Center and the Endowment had been discussing, that of presenting jazz in a cabaret setting at the Center. The idea was abandoned.
Cultural racism is deeply rooted in the American educational system, Taylor charged.
"There were certain realities defined for me," he said, discussing his four years of conservatory training. "I had written a piece and the man in charge of the composition department played it in class. He smiled in that little sarcastic way of the eminent. He said, 'Well, this is a mood piece. It's all right as long as it's not 'Mood Indigo.' On the basis of what presumption does he make that statement?
"Thirty years later, [Pierre] Boulez, in Paris, in a composition class, decided he would give an analysis of the person he felt was America's greatest composer. And you must understand that the person who relayed this story to me, a Frenchman, also said, 'We in Europe don't think much of American composers and they're not played much.' So Boulez set out to analyze a work of Charles Ives. Whereupon, these two young men got up and said, 'What about Duke Ellington?' Boulez turned around and said, 'I'm not even going to honor that question with an answer.'"
Taylor, a health-food devotee, was mixing tea with lemon and honey, and his bedside table was lined with bottles of vitamins. He walked to the dresser and exchanged his clear glassed for a pair with smoked lenses.
"What I'm saying is that the eminent professor, like Boulez 35 years later, was in ignorance of the magical processes of Duke Ellington and the family of music-makers that gave birth to Ellington. These people in spite of their learning, cannot duplicate the subtleties or nuances found within the Ellington orchestral concept.
"When I look back on my education at the conservatory, I see no courses that provided me with the technology that would assist or even encourage me to look at the music or cultures of other people," he said in the sharply edged tones of his native New York City.
"The information has always been selective, which is a euphemistic way of saying it has always been absolute and biased in terms of graciously admitting that there are different kinds of geniuses. As a black who is a participant in the American civilization, who has work to do and would like to see that work shared with other Americans, the forces that have the power to disseminate that work have actively obstructed me from having a stage upon which to perform."
Indeed, Taylor's stage appearances have been comparatively few. He's said to have worked so little in one year in the '60s that he didn't earn the amount required ($600) to pay federal income taxes.
Though he dismisses them as an influence, there is more than a hint in his work of the most advanced 20th-century European composers -- Stravinsky, Bartok, Schoemberg, Berg, Webern, Bouliz, Stockhausen, as well as several jazz master composers and pianists -- Ellington, Fats Waller, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell.
A man of slight build, Taylor emits volcanic energy at the keyboard. He is an iconoclastic dresser, given to wearing Arab-like headwraps, silk shirts and expensive leather boots.
When he first emerged on the national jazz scene in the late '50s, the music he performed was mistakenly called "free jazz." His music, however, was highly structured and anything but "free," though it sometimes suggested willful abandon. Taylor hasn't had a contract with a commercial American firm in almost 15 years. But he continues to record for companies in Germany.
Recognition in this country is coming slowly. five years ago it would have been unthinkable for Taylor to perform his avant-garde music at Blues Alley. In 1979, he, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Heather Watts appeared in Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia in a series of performances, featuring Baryshnikov and Watts dancing to Taylor's music. The pianist has also written music for dance company leaders Alvin Ailey and Diane McIntyre.
Classical pianist Ursula Oppens said once in an interview that she had been listening to Taylor for 10 years and the only person she could think of who could execute in his manner would have been the Vladimir Horowitz of 30 years ago.
But Taylor doesn't have many kind words for most classical pianists. When reminded of the Oppens statement, he said, "And who's she? She needs me more than I need her"
The mention of Horowitz's name particularly set Taylor's temper afire.
"People become hysterical over some man in his late 70s who plays Rachmaninoff," he said quietly. "Well, the man has been playing the piece for 40 or 50 years. And he makes incredible amounts of money. It's like a continuation of God. I think that's all right But don't hold me accountable for the pettiness that seems to be inherent in the way the ball game is set up.
"The photographer that [jazz impresario] Norman Granz uses told me a story about Norman taking [jazz pianist] Oscar Peterson backstage at a Horowitz concert. According to this man, the first thing that Horowitz said to Oscar was, 'Ah, but do you read?' Oscar said, 'Yes, but I don't let that interfere with anything.' Boy, when this guy told me that I bristled. That's what it's all about."
Still in his room, Taylor phoned room service and ordered a couple of Heinekens. "What we know is that the Europeans didn't invent art," he said, thrusting forward a stiff jaw. "We know there is Balinesian music and African music. Beethoven may have been very gifted, but he didn't create Balinesian music.
"Nobody else in the world has created the music of Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker and Jelly Roll Morton. I just think it's preposterous to consider the achievement that has been given to the world, or the magnitude of that achievement, and not venerate the architects of that colossus. But, of course, we obviously know the interplay between history and the bad manners of the conqueror."