Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Cecil Taylor

Cecil Taylor, copyright Lenny Bernstein
Cecil Taylor, copyright Lenny Bernstein
I met Cecil as a young girl -- he was a friend of my parents and a visitor to my home. He asked me, the then-piano student, to play Beethoven for him, but I was too shy to. Cecil probably was even shyer than I back then; he made the request through my Dad and couldn't really look at me. I heard him perform with his group around the same time, unable to really process the music but deeply affected by it. Such physically, emotionally, and mentally cataclysmic sound!

Years later, as an adult, I saw and heard him at Kimball's in San Francisco, Grace Cathedral, and the old Yoshi's and the new Yoshi's in Oakland, among other venues, both onstage and backstage. Cecil bought a number of my Dad's gorgeous photos of him and commented kindly on my poems. And my parents had all of his recordings.  

Cecil Taylor, copyright Lenny Bernstein
Cecil Taylor, copyright Lenny Bernstein
Of course he was an unforgettable genius, and my experience of music was changed forever after hearing his as a child. Like the work of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Cecil's showed that poetry and jazz could be united onstage, and not just by blowing some words over an unconnected jazz background. Though I felt that his music was more evolved than his poetry, that lesson marked me deeply.

As a character, there was no other like him. 

Thank you, Cecil.

Cecil Taylor, copyright Lenny Bernstein
Cecil Taylor backstage, copyright Lenny Bernstein
I wrote this poem about him many years ago, but it has never been published before now. These quotes of Cecil's aren't words I actually heard him say, though the part about the backstage gossip is literally true (and a mere fraction of the other tales he had to tell). 

Cecil Taylor

BASH the affectionate
black-and-white scale of his Bosendorfer
keyboard is raked right to left—oh
voices are
and he is marvelously
replying.  “I
—I am an orchestra,
a brontasaura,
and the scales fall
from my fingers,
groaning and sighing,
falling from the San Francisco skyline,
this afternoon's sunlight-on-shingles
lifting from silver cupolas—”

The din
a rent in time
through which the heads
of Horus, Osiris
travel, dragging their little dogs

“It’s my world,”
says Cecil,
“not my undoing.”

In the dressing room,
too delicate to pull the peach chiffon
curtains closed along the rod,
he is slyly telling stories
on Oscar Peterson.

But before the crowd
hear in the crashing
body body
ribs fingers
arrayed keys black pressed
grapes hear in this
jade black wine
rage forgiving its own sadness.

“Hear me smash
through the tombs
future and past
a glimpse
of a human heart”

then he bends his head
as if entering a low door
through the shiny black
Bosendorfer’s hull
elbows rise and fall
then throwing back
his head
rollicking under the chords.

“Must one always
have a chord,
a world, a
Remember, mama,
though I’m not past practice,
at last the world listens
as I cavort
like a girl
let me break
let me take off
my imaginary bra
let me line up
the clusters series of choruses
forests faces each a door a
poem a


copyright 2018 Lisa Bernstein

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