WYSO

Open Space for Creativity: Cecil Taylor At Antioch

Nov 23, 2016

The American jazz pianist Cecil Taylor is a pioneer of what is called free jazz—music which often discards notated scores and breaks with meter and conventional harmonic progression. Now 87, his first recordings were released in the 1950s. In the late 1960s and early 70s Taylor taught at Antioch College and recordings from his years in Yellow Springs are found in the WYSO archives.

Taylor was invited to Antioch by professor John Ronsheim. The two had been friends while students at the New England Conservatory twenty years before. Ronsheim became an academic and Taylor paved a singular path as one of the most adventurous figures in contemporary music. One of the recordings, captured by Antioch student Jim Klein, captures Taylor in the classroom in 1969.

"I'm asking you to perhaps at least consider the idea that music and the enjoyment of it does give you a responsibility to those people who have given you the enjoyment..to yourself..to know what it is you have experienced so that you might conceivably make other peoples lives—your own—your friends—lives better."

At the center of Taylor's work at Antioch was the Black Music Ensemble, an orchestra of students who would create—along with his core collaborators, saxophonist Jimmy Lyons and drummer Andrew Cyrille—a canvas for large scale works. Bassoonist Karen Borca was Taylor's assistant at Antioch. She had been introduced to Taylor's musical world while a student at the University of Wisconsin.

"It was a composing lab," says Borca. "[Taylor] was always composing stuff but he wanted to work with larger ensembles and this was an opportunity for him to do that. And of course he was writing music every day. Bringing in new stuff every day.

Borca performed in the Black Music Ensemble, which included musicians who traveled to Yellow Springs from across the country to study with the pianist.

"I don't know many times where it actually comes down to OK here..I'm gonna write this music and Jimmy's gonna write this music and Andrew's gonna write this music and we're gonna try and have you play it...a scene like that that happens for two years...where you would actually have a band together.. that number of people 20 and 30 people ..staying there for that amount of time."

Taylor's residency would wind down in the spring of 1973 as funding ran out amid financial upheaval at Antioch. 

Jazz historian Ben Young has been working on Cecil Taylor's biography for over 15 years He has also documented Taylor's music on his Triple Point record label. Few know the storyline of Taylor's indefatigable career better.

"What he did wasn't going to be easily accepted," says Young. "It was always going to be hard. It was going to be a struggle. He made a great statement a few years ago to try and encapsulate this. I think I was asking him about a recent health tribulation where you and I would probably use that as 'this is what's been going on..it hurts and here's what it won't let me do' and so on....and asking him how he was doing, his simple response was 'I have had to be invincible for quite some time now.'”

Major lifetime achievement awards—including a MacArthur Fellowship, an NEA Jazz Master Award, and this past spring a 10 day celebration of his career at the Whitney Museum in New York have provided polish for his place in history.

For many, including the musicians who studied with him at Antioch over 40 years ago, Cecil Taylor remains an electrifying performer and a galvanizing symbol of the sacrifices that are part of creating art without compromise.

Special thanks to Jim Klein, Larry Blood and Ben Young.