The Laughter of the Maestro

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03/09/2014

Neighborhood: Featured, Fort Greene

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Last week I was walking home through a snowstorm.

Turning the corner toward Fulton I called Cecil Taylor, who lived in the last unrenovated brownstone on that street. We knew each other from back in the 70s. The jazz pianist’s manager James Spicer had been a mutual friend, until the silver-haired impresario ripped off my unemployment checks.

“Who’s this?” Cecil answered the phone.

I told him who and he said, “What’s it like out there?”

“Cold and white.” Three inches of snow covered the sidewalks of Fort Greene with a forecasted accumulation of a foot.

“Sounds like Alabama in the winter.” The maestro of Free Jazz cackled with delight. “Why don’t you come over and we’ll drink something? I got a bottle ready to go.”

“I’ll be there in a few minutes.” I walked to his house and climbed the stairs to his door. Several minutes passed before Cecil unlocked the gate with a yellow smile.

“Nice dress.”

“I don’t have to impress anyone at my age.” Cecil was wearing a saggy sweater and a sheet of fabric wrapped around his waist like he was a sorcerer who had hocked his magic robes. He poked his head into the weather. “Doesn’t look I missed anything. Come on inside.”

“How you feeling?”

“In the cold weather like I was a hundred.”

Arthritis was his constant companion, but I was happy to see him nimbly climb the creaking stairs.

“Awfully spry for a hundred.”

“I have my good days.” He walked through the drafty living room without a glance at its emptiness.

“Cecil, you know what I like about this place.”

“What’s that?”

“It reminds me of my old farmhouse in Brighton. I had the top floor. There was no heat. Only the breeze through the windows.”

“I had a small apartment during my years at the New England Conservatory. New York was never as cold as Boston.”

“It has another climate.”

“Arctic.” He shivered on the next set of stairs. “After that I never lived up north, although a long time ago this tap dancer hired me for a gig in Toronto. His regular sideman was sick and a friend said I was the best. We drove through a snowstorm. It must have taken a day. We get up to the gig and this tap dancer who never heard me play before was disappointed by my style.”

“I can’t see why.” Cecil was an infuriating wildman on the ivories.

“Hah, liar.”

We reached the top floor. His grand piano was stacked with composition papers. He was writing something new. Cecil pointed to the kitchen. He didn’t like people looking at his notes.

“Wine’s in there.” I opened the bottle of rose champagne and poured us each a glass.

“So this dancer didn’t like you.”

“Not at all and at the beginning of the set he tells the crowd, “I could have had Oscar Peterson, but instead I have Cecil Taylor. After the next song he says, “I could have had Art Tatum, but we have Cecil Taylor.” I had heard enough and left the tap dancer on the stage and went to the hotel, where I found his stash and grabbed enough cash for a flight back to New York. The next day he called asking for his money and I said, “You don’t have your money and you don’t have Cecil Taylor.”»

The Laughter of the Maestro
Photo by Francis Wolff

We clinked glasses and laughed at this tale from the 50s.

Cecil was on good form and I was his captive audience, as he mazed through his life with each name shining on another facet of his kaleidoscopic journey; Miles, Trane, Dizzy, the 55 club, getting paid $7 to play in Harlem, a female tap dancer losing her wig during a performance and putting it back on her head without missing a beat, Chet Baker hitting the notes that Miles skipped, complimenting Horace Silver, James Brown, Dave Van Ronk and cocaine before praising the keyboard talent of Nat King Cole.

“He was a great pianist. Just too good a singer and showman to sit down at the keys. Check out ‘Don't Blame Me’.” Cecil remembered everything.

I have a big mouth, but I might have said two hundred words in the course of the night. Cecil was putting on a show. The snow piled up against the window. I drank most of the wine and two beers from the fridge, as I listened to his tales of the Here-Before.

I left around 9 and reached the Fort Greene Observatory before the second phase of the storm hit the city.

Upstairs in my bedroom I put on LENA. It was performed live in Copenhagen in 1962. I love the anarchic spacing and the maddening collapse of the rhythm section from bar to bar.

Outside the snow strengthened in fury, topping the brownstone roof with white.

“Just like Alabama.”

OPEN CITY declared Peter Nolan Smith an underground punk legend of the 1970s East Village. In the last century the New England native worked as a nightclub doorman at New York’s Hurrah and Milk Bar, Paris’ Les Bains-Douches and Balajo, London’s Cafe de Paris, and Hamburg’s Bsir. Throughout the 1990s Peter Nolan Smith was employed as a diamond salesman on West 47th Street in the heart of Manhattan’s Diamond District. The 2000s were spent in Thailand running an internet company and raising his family. More recently he was appointed the unofficial writer-in-residence to an embassy in Mittel Europa. The constant traveler has lived for long periods of time in Tibet and the Far East; he is currently based in Fort Greene, New York and Thailand researching the secrets of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as well as putting the final touches on BACK AND FORTH his historical semi-fictional book about hitchhiking across the USA in 1974. His website www.mangozeen.com covers news and semi fiction from around the globe with over 5000 entries over the past five years written by Peter Nolan Smith. His motto: “All stories are true if interesting.”

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