Pianist Cecil Taylor is a pioneer of free jazz who broke all the rules in the 1950s. He has inspired musicians and startled audiences.

Well, tonight, Taylor gives a rare solo concert in Harlem as part of a two-week festival celebrating his music. Taylor is a reclusive, but Tom Vitale got the chance to talk with him about his music.

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: When you hear Cecil Taylor perform, you never forget it. He is a force of nature at the piano with a furious attack and a sound all his own.


BEN RATLIFF: His piano is an orchestra.

VITALE: Ben Ratliff is the jazz critic for The New York Times.

RATLIFF: Cecil has been with us for so long and, every once in a while, he comes and does these amazing galvanizing solo piano performances. And you go see them and you think, like, wow, what was that? That was amazing and I can't get that anywhere else in the world. And that's unique.


VITALE: Cecil Taylor says dynamics are the key to expression in music and practice is how he created his own language, thanks to his mother.

CECIL TAYLOR: One of the things Mother said to me - you want this? You got to practice. And I know how to practice.

VITALE: Cecil Taylor has been practicing a long time. He is 83 years old now. His lower front teeth are missing and he chain smokes, which accounts for his viper's rasp. Taylor has been playing piano since the age of six. His mother was a dancer who also played piano and violin and Taylor says she was a taskmaster who kept his fingers in the correct position with a sharp ruler.

TAYLOR: Mother said, you curl your fingers like that. The ruler came from I don't know where. She said, raise up and you will practice six days a week and then, on Sunday, you may do as you like.

VITALE: One day off a week eventually led to studies at the New York College of Music and the New England Conservatory. He began his career at Harlem jam sessions, influenced, he says, by the stride piano of Fats Waller.

But when Taylor formed his own band in 1956, he used his classical training to go beyond the jazz tradition, stretching the beats in a measure and playing notes outside the chords of a song.


VITALE: In 1956, Cecil Taylor's trio opened a new club on the Bowery called The Five Spot. Trombonist Roswell Rudd, now 76, was a student at Yale at the time who spent his weekends at the club. Rudd says Taylor's gig there was a watershed moment in modern jazz.

ROSWELL RUDD: Once Cecil had pioneered the opening of that place, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane played there, Sonny Rollins, Mingus. You know, it goes on and on, but to walk into this place and hear this band of Cecil's - oh, it was just amazing. It was a great mixed reaction. People were being struck dumbfounded by what they heard and people just jumping up and running out. Oh, it was great.

VITALE: Rudd played trombone with Taylor on a 1961 record called "Into the Hot."


VITALE: The record was produced by legendary arranger Gil Evans. In a 1980 interview, Evans said his main job when Taylor was in the studio, aside from getting snacks, was to calm the engineers.

GIL EVANS: Because, if you'd been around Cecil long enough, you wouldn't have been so shocked, you know, but if, all of a sudden, you heard him for the first time and you hadn't heard him develop, then people were - you know, were a little bit - I don't know what the adjective is. I don't want to know, either.

VITALE: Cecil Taylor says his music has always been underappreciated. Work has been scarce and that's often left him breathless with rage.

TAYLOR: I didn't get many jobs and there was a time, after I finished a concert, I couldn't speak for at least an hour. You know, and some of those things that made me angry are still there because they do not understand.

VITALE: Musicians idolize him, yet today, Cecil Taylor lives in a rundown 19th century townhouse in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn with paint peeling from a steel gate pulled across his front door, but Taylor quotes Sinatra, saying he wouldn't change a thing.

TAYLOR: The song, "I Did It My Way." I don't really have any regrets.

VITALE: Cecil Taylor says he'll keep doing it his way as long as he can. For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.


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