Back when bebop, big band, and swing reverberated through nearly every radio, parlor, bar, and dancing venue, some of the greats we know today as the pioneering avant-garde and free jazz musicians were gathering in studios and on street corners deconstructing the parameters and progressions that conventional jazz established to create a completely new genre of music. Some people liked this new genre; others didn’t. But either way, these new genres changed the way we thought of music construction.
One of the pioneering free jazz founders is pianist Cecil Taylor, though he wouldn’t necessarily identify that way; he was most inspired by playing with other musicians, including his longtime collaborator and drummer Andrew Cyrille.
In the 1950s, the 11-year-old Cyrille began playing the drums on a whim, volunteering to join a drum bugle corps in Brooklyn. Cyrille and the corps played at dances and parties around town, in the heyday of bebop music, which seemed to consume everyone. He studied classic jazz musicians such as tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley, trumpeter Kenny Dorham, and pianist George Shearing, and swing and big band musicians like drummer Gene Krupa and tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins. Cecil Taylor also came out of the bebop scene. Classically trained, he played stuff by Billy Strayhorn, whose classic linear style of jazz inspired the likes of Duke Ellington.
One afternoon in Brooklyn, Cyrille was playing with pianist Leslie Braithwaite when trumpeter Ted Curson approached him. Curson invited the 18-year-old along to a rehearsal he was having in Manhattan later that day with Cecil Taylor, who had begun to experiment with free jazz. After quick introductions, Taylor invited the young drummer to join their rehearsal on the spot. He didn’t tell Cyrille what to play or how to play — they just played. Taylor and Cyrille did that for ten years, learning along the way to hear each other and feed off of the collective creative energy. Listening and playing and listening while playing familiarized Cyrille with how Taylor worked the piano.
Some people consider avant-garde, or avant-jazz, and free jazz to be synonymous, though others consider there to be a distinct difference between the two; avant-jazz dismisses traditional harmony but usually has a predetermined structure that welcomes improvisation. Deciding on specific notes before shows, as Cecil Taylor did every once in a while, is one way of determining structure.
But Taylor is most known for developing the genre of free jazz, which, as the name suggests, is without structure or predeterminations. Both genres were developed in the 50s and 60s in response to the development of bebop and modal jazz a decade prior. The musicians of free and avant-jazz felt limited to the confines of bebop and began experimenting with ways to dismantle the fixed chord changes and tempos.
Cyrille studied drumming at Juilliard, before there was a jazz program. He learned the rudiments, which he’s described as strict beats for soldiers. But playing with Taylor opened him up to new ways of drumming. Cyrille describes his improvisations with Taylor as dialogues, each exchanging a bit of information, putting forth a certain rhythm, beat, or sound that may open up an entirely new conversation. Each had to master their own instrument, not only knowing what it could do, but also knowing how to break down traditional ways of doing it.
Some fell in love with free jazz, but many thought Taylor to be very controversial, believing this free genre to be an abomination to jazz music. By the 1950s, people had grown accustomed to hearing a certain number of chords applied to a certain number of bars with a certain amount of repetition. Musicians like Taylor followed that to some extent, playing a group of chords for a certain period of time, beginning a phrase and following it to its natural conclusion. But his songs didn’t necessarily include a meter. Instead he would play an extended meter, allowing plenty of room for improvisation.
Only a couple times did Taylor ever give Cyrille directions, perhaps instructing him to play a particular beat a certain amount of times. But he mostly left it to Cyrille, believing him to be the master of his own instrument and waiting to be inspired by what this drummer had to offer. Cyrille learned to explore the drums in ways he had never thought of before, coming to rehearsals with new ideas about foot-play, playing in the spaces, accompanying, and coordinating. He used his own sense, and thanks to Taylor, he was able to move beyond the conventions of traditional jazz music.
Cyrille came a long way from the bugle corps’ march-style drumming; free jazz opened him up to entirely new ways of playing the drums. Cyrille officially joined Taylor’s unit in 1964 and recorded the landmark album Unit Structures a couple years later. He followed Taylor throughout Europe to play in his quartet and to Japan to record Akisakila in 1973. They made seven albums as a group, and they collaborated on one more album, Incarnation, in 1999.
Playing the drums is a continual learning process for Cyrille—he’s more familiar with the potential of his instrument than he was 30 years ago and is more comfortable improvising. If anything’s changed about his playing, Cyrille says, it’s that he, and to some extent Taylor, has mellowed out. He’s matured, in a sense, his effort smoother, his playing more calm and confident.
Words by Libby Peterson