Cecil Taylor

Cecil Taylor, copyright Lenny Bernstein
Cecil Taylor, copyright Lenny Bernstein
I met Cecil as a rather young girlhe was a friend of my parents and a visitor to my home. He asked me, the then-classical-piano-student, to play Beethoven for him, but I was too shy to sit down and do it. Cecil probably was even shyer than I back then; he made the request through my Dad and couldn't really look at me. So we were then two shy people of very different ages wanting to connect. He did speak, though, about his childhood of practicing Beethoven and other composers, and how strict his mother was with him about it, which was a bit scary to me as a child.  

I heard (and saw) 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 many times, at Kimball's and Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, and the old Yoshi's and the new Yoshi's in Oakland, among other venues, both onstage and backstage. Cecil visited my folks' home again, 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, a creator, a person, there was no other like him. 

Thank you, Cecil.

Cecil Taylor, copyright Lenny Bernstein
Cecil Taylor backstage, copyright Lenny Bernstein
In this previously unpublished poem about him, the quotes from Cecil are not actual quotes, but rather my poetic expression of what I imagine to be excerpts in his inner voice and about his internal journeythough the part about the backstage gossip is literally true (and a mere fraction of the other tales he told, dramatically, thoughtfully, ruefully, as the true storyteller he was). 

Cecil Taylor: I Am An Orchestra

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 robe

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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