Cecil, Monk, and New Thing Jazz

The Video/Audio below is an excerpt from the 15th show of my radio series Voices and Freedoms: A History of Jazz, based on my 1976 book of the same name.  This show focuses on one of jazz’s most controversial figures: the pianist Cecil Taylor. The 16-part series played across the nation for five years in the late 70’s/early 80’ and holds its relevance—or is even more so—today than it was back then. The excerpts present about 6 to 10 minutes of the original 30-minute broadcasts. The link above takes you to information about the book and our plans to re-release it and provide access to the full-length original shows. Go HERE for a complete list of shows and links to all excerpts.


The 15th show of Voices and Freedoms focused on pianist Cecil Taylor, with a nod back to one of his great predecessors, Thelonius Monk, also a pianist and one of jazz’s greatest figures. This focus on Taylor, like perhaps my focus on Fats Waller earlier, might seem an odd choice to some, but I consider Taylor the third of the big three musicians of what became known as “New Thing Jazz.” The other two were John Coltrane (the focus of show #13) and Ornette Coleman (show #14).

New Thing Jazz sought to move jazz beyond what had become its standard form and sound, and for that reason it often produced music that was hard to understand and even harder to listen to.  In this 15th show of the series, I’m once again joined by the great jazz critic and scholar Martin Williams, who explains that the standard form for jazz was a theme and variations approach where a song’s main theme is presented, usually by the ensemble, and then, backed by a standard rhythm section of piano (or guitar, or both), bass and drums, the horn soloists take turns improvising on the melody and chord structure of that theme. The piano or guitar usually goes last, then there’s a bass and drum solo, then various standard ways of the horns interacting to bring the solos to a close before returning to a restatement of the opening theme.  I love that form, as do most musicians and listeners.  But practiced over and over again even I grow a little weary, and we look for something to break the mold, perhaps a particularly beautiful or energetic solo performance somewhere.

Each of the main proponents of New Thing Jazz explored deeper ways of breaking the mold. Coltrane explored alternatives to standard Western music and chordal structures, and often sought to break chords apart into “sheets of sound” and cadenzas of furious melodies.  Ornette Coleman questioned the business of soloists taking their turns playing while being backed by the rhythm section. In essence, he questioned why anybody had to play a subsidiary backup role. Couldn’t the group all be soloists playing together, with nobody subsidiary to anyone else.  This often produced a music where bass and drums and, if there was one, the pianist were pursuing solo lines at the same time all the horn soloists were playing their own solo lines.  Everything seemed to be happening at once:  the bass and drums and piano were going off on their own while the horn soloists were going their separate ways all at once themselves.  It often seemed a cacophony of sound. But Coleman’s notion could also produce a  wholeness and artistic convergence of purpose that was thrilling beyond belief. Cecil Taylor, a conservatory-trained musician, brought a deep understanding of modernist concert music by Bartok, Schoenberg, Stockhausen, and others to his concept of jazz playing and composition.

Bartok, for example, showed Taylor different ways of handling folk melodies, and many thought that in Cecil Taylor they had found that long-sought link between jazz and European concert music.  This was especially the case in so-called “aleatoric” music, where, as people like Werner Meyer-Eppler began to teach in the early 1950’s, a part of a composition is left to “chance” as the performer performs an otherwise composed piece of music.  Often, pianistically, this resulted in free and furious cascades of notes, a feature in a considerable amount of Taylor’s music.  The link between “aleatory” and “improvised” is easy to make, and takes us back even further into European music when Beethoven and many others improvised long variations on the pieces they had written.  But perhaps one of his major influences was the great jazz pianist Thelonius Monk (pictured above) who has made many appearances throughout this radio series.  This episode explores their relationship.

Still, it’s undeniable that some of Cecil Taylor’s music, especially one of his major works, Unit Structures, bears a striking resemblance to modern concert music using tone rows, seriality, and aleatory elements. But Cecil, like Monk, also adds to this a deep feeling for the blues and the vocal qualities of his playing are strong.  This episode on Taylor comes near the end of the Voices and Freedoms radio series, and here, more than ever, I was anxious to say that if people can see both that grasping after freer and freer forms of expression, plus that holding onto the importance of the human voice, they can understand the widest variety of jazz music and see how it emboldens us to resist dehumanization and uplift the freedom-seeking, voice-affirming humanity in us all.

Go to the Diversity Training and Teaching main page, and to a list of these radio show excerpts.

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