Culture Currents wins Milwaukee Press Club award and Pulitzer-winner Megan Twohey highlights awards dinner



Kevin Lynch with his 2017 Milwaukee Press Club award for best critical review of the arts, for a Culture Currents review. Photo by Ann K. Peterson

For this night, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. For me, The Milwaukee Press Club’s Journalism Awards Dinner Friday evening summoned memories, and gratitude, but also pressing urgency about the media’s current role in the nation’s often-troubling affairs and crises.

Recent Pulitzer Prize-winner Meghan Twohey of The New York Times spoke, upon  receiving the press club’s Sacred Cat award, in honor of her extraordinary investigative work with Jodi Kantor. The Times duo broke the Harvey Weinstein sex abuse scandal which triggered the extraordinary “#Me Too” movement last year. Twohey and Kantor helped to expose sexual harassment and abuse throughout various major patriarchal systems of power.

More on Twohey and her work shortly.

This blog received the press club’s gold prize for best critical review of the arts for 2017 in Wisconsin journalism. The top prize in this category went to a Culture Currents review titled “Adolph Rosenblatt: A Great Eye, Gifted Hands, and a Huge Heart.”

Last August, I reviewed a retrospective exhibit of an acclaimed and beloved Milwaukee artist and educator,  Adolph Rosenblatt, at the Jewish Museum of Milwaukee. The exhibit beautifully chronicled the late Rosenblatt’s artistic output, dominated by handcrafted figurative clay sculpture of unassuming wit and insight, which captured life in Milwaukee with the grainy fingerprint of truth. The show also revealed his lesser-known work addressing important social issues, including a precursor of the #MeToo movement, the Anita Hill case vs. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

I had studied with Rosenblatt as an undergraduate art student at UW-Milwaukee, about the time when he transitioned from predominantly painting to his trademark sculpture. It was a pleasure to remember and write about this genial and knowing artist. Here’s is my review:

Adolph Rosenblatt: A great eye, gifted hands and a huge heart

At the awards dinner, another blast from this writer’s past came when the out-of-state judges awarded a second top prize for best critical review to Dominique Paul Noth, for his film review titled “Meryl as Metaphor,” for Urban Milwaukee, an online publication.
Noth was my editor during most of my 10 years with The Milwaukee Journal, before its merger with The Milwaukee Sentinel and my move to Madison to work for The Capital Times.

Noth had been film and theater critic for The Journal before becoming arts and entertainment editor in the early 1980s. At the awards dinner, I also caught up with another former colleague, Rob Thomas of The Capital Times, who won a bronze award for his review of the film Dunkirk.

This is the second gold award presented by the Milwaukee Press Club to the Culture Currents blog, which also won for a 2013 review of an exhibit by the historic photographer Edward L. Curtis, who pioneered documentation of Native American life and culture. The Museum of Wisconsin Art presented that exhibit. 1

So the night offered opportunity to meet up with a variety of accomplished Wisconsin journalists in print, radio, television and online media.

Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times investigative reporters Megan Twohey (left) and Jodi Kantor broke the Harvey Weinstein sex abuse scandal story, which helped launch the “#Me Too” movement. Photo by Sharon Suh

But the evening’s highlight was clearly the appearance by Megan Twohey, who accepted her Press Club Sacred Cat Award for herself and Jodi Kantor.

In her acceptance speech, Twohey said that, since winning the Pulitzer and the prestigious George Polk Award for national reporting, she has done a number of speaking engagements. But this was her favorite occasion because she grew up as a professional journalist here in Milwaukee. The Evanston native worked for The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel for four years before being hired at The New York Times.
“I’m really grateful to (Journal-Sentinel) editor George Stanley for giving a young inexperienced woman a chance, and for believing in me,” she said.

Twohey recounted how, before the Weinstein investigation, she had previously reported on the stories of four or five women who had accused President Trump of sexual misconduct. “Trump was very unhappy with me, and at one point he called me ‘a disgusting human being.'” she recalled.
It’s striking how that comment could be mirrored back at Trump himself. Twohey should  consider the misfired insult a badge of honor, as a professional journalist seeking the truth in the Trump era.

When she and Kantor began digging into the long-heard rumors about film and media mogul Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misadventures, they encountered his longtime strategy of bullying and attempting to silence not only his victims but potential reporters.
But The New York Times editors stood firmly behind their reporters, and Weinstein’s efforts to meet with editors to “explain himself and clarify things” failed. The reporters began the hard work of accumulating on-the-record testimonies from numerous women as well as Weinstein himself. They would not use anonymous sources, Twohey said.

She explained the challenge of persuading many of Weinstein’s victims to speak up after years of coerced silence. “I told them I couldn’t change what happened to you, but we could change your personal pain and turn it into something constructive.” Twohey’s empathetic strategy eventually worked.

The reporters published their first story in October 2017 and went on to expose how Weinstein had preyed upon 70 women, with various types of sexual assault and abuse including rape. That opened the door to the extraordinary exposure of sexual abuse by powerful men across many industries.

These remain difficult times for professional journalists, with the transformation of information dispersion through the Internet and social media, the manipulation of U. S. social media by malignant forces, including the Russian government, and especially the pervasiveness of “fake news.”
But in my mind, the accomplishments of Twohey and Kantor will surely inspire Milwaukee journalists attending this event to keep up fighting the good fight for the sake of truth, the free press and democracy.


1 While working as arts reporter and critic for The Capital Times in Madison, Kevin Lynch also received a first-place Milwaukee Press Club award for best critical review, and an honorable mention award.

Jazz musician and social activist Johannes Wallmann shows how love wins in a cynical age


Album cover for Johannes Wallmann’s “Love Wins.” 

Johannes Wallmann will present a CD-release concert in support of Love Wins (Fresh Sound/New Talent) at 8 p.m. Friday, May 11 at The Jazz Estate, 2423 N. Murray Ave., Milwaukee. Phone 414-964-9923, The group will include Wallman, piano; Rob Dz, spoken word/rap; Russ Johnson, trumpet; John Christensen, bass; and Mitch Shiner, drums.

“Love is unmotivated respect: all of which testified not to a peevish Lord who was His own love but one who enabled human love. Not for his own glory – never. God loved the way humans loved one another; loved the way humans loved themselves; loved the genius on the cross who managed to do both and die knowing it.” Toni Morrison, from her novel Paradise. 1

Johannes Wallmann is a musician worth caring about for reasons more than his artistry.  I, for one, wish more jazz musicians today found socially-relevant topics to set their music to, or be inspired by.

Not that it’s something required, in any PC sense. But the Madison-based pianist and composer has created a fabulous new album that happens to explore and assert equality in marriage. It also flows directly from the challenges of Wallmann’s own life and his dedication, and love (and don’t shortchange that too-oft dismissed or debased concept), as well as his uphill and, yes, inspiring successes.

I can think of few recordings in recent memory where the music and lyrics prove as passionate, engaging and thoughtful as Love Wins. And few so closely entwine the musician’s creative strivings with each human’s worthiness of equality and respect, as this nation purports to profess.

Max Wendt Photography

Pianist-composer Johnannes Wallmann. Courtesy Wisconsin Union UW-Madison

Walllmann is gay, and his husband, Keith Borden, and he were two of the plaintiffs in the ACLU lawsuit challenging Wisconsin’s ban on sax-sex marriage (they had gotten married in Canada, where such marriage was legal). Wallmann couldn’t attend the August 2014 oral arguments before Judge Richard Posner and two other members of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

When in 2012 Wallmann and Borden moved from California to Wisconsin for Wallmann to lead the jazz studies program at the University of Wisconsin, the couple had been together for 15 years. They had been legally married for five years. However, the State of Wisconsin did not recognize their marriage.

A month later Posner wrote the ruling that upheld an earlier federal court decision striking down Wisconsin’s same-sex marriage ban. In June 2015, the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage across the U.S.

Johannes Wallmann with his husband Keith Borden. Courtesy Isthmus newspaper 

“I thought there had to be something in there that could make an interesting composition,” Wallmann told Jane Burns for Isthmus newspaper.

The ruling’s results are “love wins” – not a formal legal decree but what it meant most to Wallman and Borden. It sure as hell inspired Wallmann, and he corralled a gifted group of musicians to broaden his aural canvas. His most notable collaborator is Madison hip-hop rapper/lyricist Rob Dz.  “He’s absolutely world-class as an improvisor,” says Wallmann of Dz. “There are few people in the world who can do what he can do — freestyle rapping in a jazz setting where he’s able to respond to what’s going on in the music.”

Wallman feels the moment is ripe for such a statement: “It’s a good time for it. We seem to be taking a lot of steps backward and we need to remember to celebrate when we have successes and acknowledge that.”

Still, the recorded celebration grows thematically as a suite, and is not without a clear aspect of drama. The album opens with the philosophically declamatory “Equality!”, and the next three tracks are “Preamble,” “Love Wins,” and “We (reach for) Love.”

Then, the fulcrum of the 10-track album arrives –  the fifth cut, titled “The Seventh Circuit”  – in which Wallmann deftly samples into the tune portions of the actual lawyers’ oral arguments from the court proceedings. So it’s legal and social history literally documented, and enhanced.

“Equality!” opens the album with a hip-shakin’ boogaloo ensemble line, conveying the power of collective momentum and mutability for a greater good. It also suggests dance as an underestimated human rhythmic force. “Hatred is seen as a frivolity,” Dz notes, then posits: “Why can’t we all find a way to just be us, from the rights of Stonewall to those refusing to give up seats on the bus/ to those seeking to open up the door to equality?” The ensemble lines follow, tight, tough and harmonically pungent.

By contrast, the instrumental “Preamble” sets a more uplifting, expansive tone with the horns casting musical questions in the air like a skywriter, with trumpeter Johnson especially soaring.

The title track “Love Wins,” ensues, resurrecting the modal celebratory vamping of some 1960s jazz. Interwoven with instrumental solos and buoyant refrains by vocalist Sharon Clark is an eloquent and wise meditation on love, by Dz: Love is patient, love is kind, love is a spiritual connection/ There is no true definition, love is what brings life to fruition/ love is designed to be a disposition…who are we to try and box it in, or micromanage love?…Now imagine a world without love/ when the very fabric of our existence as been disposed of?…All love wants to do is live free, as the basis of equality./ It’s a right to love for every American – white, brown, yellow, red…” 

“We (Search for Love)” sounds like the force of love’s inexorable will. “We will, we will love!” Dz asserts defiantly.  Wallmann uses synthesizer with a swirling muscularity to lift the tune to a powerful climax.

“The Seventh Circuit” aptly bristles with contrapuntal lines – trumpet, tenor and baritone saxes, guitar and Devin Drobka’s crackling drums – that swing and stomp.  Johnson’s trumpet absolutely shines, as a rights-of-humanity beacon over troubled waters. And then the sampled lawyer comments arise. Finally, Rob Dz drops into the discussion, like an avenger for love, a brilliant stroke.

“Can I Know (More Love)?” belongs to veteran Madison singer Jan Wheaton, recalling Carmen McRae tempered by Shirley Horn, and  offers a limpid respite from the hurly-burly. It’s the calm before a spirit storm.

“Stonewall was a Riot” functions on at least two levels. It refers to the 1969 “Stonewall rebellion,” an historic series of spontaneous protests by gays in Greenwich Village that gave birth, in a loud outcrying, to the gay liberation movement. The music of “Stonewall”  is pure swinging, righteousness – evoking John Coltrane’s “Resolution,” from his classic album A Love Supreme, perhaps the most celebrated and powerful testimony on the subject in jazz history. So Wallmann’s music feels inevitable here, an homage, but steely-willed rather than reverent.

The closing tunes borrow from Cannonball Adderley-style soul jazz and, finally, more beautiful writing, singing and playing –- in sum, a spirit-empowering affirmation of love as an uplifting, elusive and functional force in life.  

Wallmann has played increasingly in Milwaukee as a sideman for trumpeters Brian Lynch and Russ Johnson, who is now returning the favor, and for vocalist Jackie Allen. But he’s clearly one of the premier jazz talents in the upper Midwest, not only given that he is director of UW Madison’s jazz studies program. He’s toured the U.S., Europe and Asia, and performed or recorded with trumpeters Lynch, Ingrid Jensen and Ralph Alessi; saxophonists Gary Bartz, Seamus Blake, Dennis Mitchelltree, and Pete Yellin; bassist Matt Penman, drummers Jeff Hirschfield and Danny Gottlieb; tubaist Howard Johnson, and singers Kevin Mahogany and Donald Bailey, among others.

Johannes Wallmann (right) with hip-hop word artist Rob Dz. Photo by Keith Borden, courtesy

Rob Dz has contributed mightily, in his comparatively soft-spoken manner, to recordings and performances by the excellent politically-minded jazz group Chicago Yestet, and he works weekly with a Madison-based band, New Breed Trio.

In fact, he’s the rapper for those who struggle with more braggadocious and off-color hip-hop. That ain’t for a second to say he’s not a serious truth-dealer, even important, and yes, cool.

Dz is also a thoughtful historian of his chosen art form, with a dry sense of humor. I recall his fine presentation on hip-hip and rap when he spoke at a cultural journalism class I taught at Edgewood College in Madison a number of years ago. At one point, one of my students asked him what his favorite kind of music was.

“Silence,” he answered, without losing a beat. Though doubtless tongue-in-cheek, that solitary word spoke volumes from his sly, reflective side.

Dz, Wallmann & Company show that Love Wins won’t remain silent, even as it stands on the most easily derided of human values. Acclaimed, and sometimes acerbic author and essayist Martin Amis identifies love as the essential quality in Saul Bellow’s work, in arguing for him as perhaps America’s greatest novelist. “Love has always been celebrated for, among other things, its transformative powers; and it is with love, in concert with his overpowering need to commemorate and preserve (‘I am the nemesis of the would-be-forgotten.’) that Bellow transforms the world.” 2

Johannes Wallmann here seems to do that, with both the jazz tradition and human  equality in life and marriage. In his telling, love takes on all comers, and transforms the world. As did “the genius on the cross,” whom Toni Morrison aptly describes as a black man: “See? His woolly head alternately rising on his neck and falling toward his chest, the glow of his midnight skin dimmed by dust, streaked by gall, fouled by spit and urine…This execution made it possible to respect – freely, not in fear – oneself and one another.”  3


1.Toni Morrison, passage from Paradise quoted in The Origin of Others, Harvard University Press, 2017, 70-71

2. Martin Amis, The Rub of Time, Nabokov, Bellow, Hitchens, Travolta, Trump: Essays and Reportage, 1994-2017, Knopf, 2018, 26

3. Morrison, from Paradise quoted in The Origin of Others, 71-72

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Lynne Arriale Trio will perform a CD-release concert at Milwaukee’s Blu nightclub on Mother’s Day

Lynne Arriale Trio CD-release concert for Give Us These Days (Challenge Records) , with Jeff Hamann, bass, and Dave Bayless, drums  

Blu nightclub, Pfister Hotel, 424 E. Wisconsin Ave., Milwaukee, 7:30 p.m. Sunday, May 13, $20 advance, $25 at the door. Contact: Blu information


Time has only deepened the shadows and glow of Lynne Arriale’s art. From her earliest days as a pianist in Milwaukee, she asserted her vision and will to become a leader in the classic jazz idiom of piano trio, and its intense spotlight. By now, we needn’t discuss how the jazz culture remained then, in the 1970s, a male-dominated realm. This has never deterred her, at least by the evidence of her performances and recordings.

Her music remains unalloyed in its crystalline brilliance. As this should imply, there are many facets to this art, the unalloyed aspect is probably the purity of her strength as an artist. As a musician, she ably encompasses a panoply of straight-ahead jazz vocabulary. Give Us These Days testifies to her balance of original composition and ingenious yet utterly appealing probings of the better compositional felicities of popular music.

So she opens the album with a clarion call of her generation, Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” a song of utter inspiration, when the songwriter watched the original Woodstock phenomenon secondhand. Still, Mitchell was moved as a songful storyteller, sensing a profound moment in time. That remains more than enough – Arriale takes firm grasp of the song’s somewhat modal cast, carving out the melody by striking powerful chords, as if the “half-a-million strong” generational tsunami drives her own witnessing. Her solo finds space behind the beat, pauses, and arpeggios to the song’s embracing vision. Hear Tyner-esque power in her cascading drive. With drummer Jasper Somsen kicking it up a muscular notch, this goes from graceful will to resolute testimony, and genuine joy in humanity’s ongoing potential.

But Arriale’s no idealizing Pollyanna. By contrast, her other cover, Lennon and McCartney’s “Let It Be” abides by the title’s implicit Zen philosophizing, wholly inhabiting the song’s deep-chested wisdom, imbued with grace. The pianist’s solo turns through the stately changes like jewels held to daylight.

Lynne Arriale new CD. Courtesy Challenge records

Among her excellent originals, the title tune, “Give Us These Days,” brims with meaning. The title derives from a poem by Jim Schley, titled “Devotional.” Indeed, it gathers itself as a bouquet of humble words, and a genial, wondering, musical theme steps deftly into gentle winds. The music feels like a prayer for blessings from Bill Evans’s exquisitely tragic ghost, with its lovely descending voicings of melody melting into limpid concentric harmonic circles. Like a true poet, Arriale also knows when to end, never wasting anyone’s time with mere chops displays or empty rhetoric.

“Appassionata” unfurls a smart Latin tempo that recalls Chick Corea, but Arriale possesses her own attack, resonance and phrase-turning – elegant yet driven in the same long pianistic breath. Bassist Jasper Somsen interacts propulsively with her chording. The melody, a strength of her writing, conveys an eloquent arch- the-back steeliness to reach for intervals of melodic rightness.

Arriale clearly prioritizes beauty in her music. However, she provides relief from the lyrical and sumptuous in the slightly Monkish “Slightly Off Kilter,” with its see-saw rhythmic tumble and puckish dissonance. Van Hulten’s counterpunching drums work like cock-eyed clockwork as Arriale swings with stylish muscle and momentum. Similarly, “Over and Out,” revels in pungent harmonic and rhythmic potency.

By delicious contrast, this leads to a surprise, the album’s closer “Take It with Me,” a Tom Waits song rendered by guest vocalist Kate McGarry. “The ocean it is as blue as your eyes. I’m gonna take it with me when I go,” she sings early on, a sort of reverie acknowledging the preciousness of life’s final departure. Cultural commentators are loathe to ascribe sentiment to art they seek to praise. Yet there’s a place for unabashed feeling especially born of the poetic songwriter’s reflective poise. For Waits’ sentiment stands up beacon-like to the heart’s deepest ache and travails. And that’s nothing to sneeze at. Its emotion is well-earned by Waits’ wry-tinged mastery, and the dueting artistry of Arriale and McGarry.

Arriale proves she knows how to craft a full album, with a meaningful musical and expressive arc, an increasingly lost art, in this age of bifurcated attention spans. Sit back, let this music breath, amid your own senses and its fine passing time. Give us these days.

Is Sean Hannity the new shadow president?


Sean Hannity talks and Trump listens hard, it seems. Look again at Hannity here…SeaCourtesy

CULTURE CURRENTS MEDIA WATCH Celestron 25x100 SkyMaster, Weather Resistant Porro Prism Binocular with 3.0 Degree Angle of View, U.S.A. - 71017

April, 18, 2018

Regarding the new controversy in TV-besotted Trumpworld: Fox talk show host Sean Hannity’s evidently increasing closeness and influence over Donald Trump and his “thinking,” ie. his tweets and even policy behaviors.

“It’s impossible to overstate how much influence Sean Hannity has on Trump and the White House,” says a pundit on a show Wednesday afternoon, hosted by Nicolle Wallace, a Republican talk show host on MSNBC.*

“But it’s innocuous, because it’s so transparent, “ says Donny Deutsch, an advertising executive and former talk TV host, who’s a curious sort of pundit on serious politics. He seems to take a quasi-aesthetic/ political gamesmanship angle, the kind who manipulates mirrors to see things, then “re-focuses” to his curiously skewed viewpoint. He’s the sort of “liberalesque” guy who might be liked by Trump (See Deutsch’s controversies below 1)

“Here’s where it’s dangerous,” Wallace quickly countered. “Fox isn’t state-run media; the state is run by Fox…It’s dangerous, Hannity has accused of Bob Mueller launching a war on Trump.”

Wallace has become one of MSNBC’s most watchable and compelling hosts, even though she’s a bit buried in the middle of the daily afternoon slot. I’m fortunate that I work largely at home, and can catch her from time to time. And she’s worth political reflection for not being an obvious liberal, like most MSNBC hosts. I admit I seem to be a clear liberal now, having been pushed further left in recent decades by Republican corruption, inhumane destructiveness, and now a sort of presidential insanity and the pervasive spinelessness of Republican Congress members.

(Similarly another Republican commentator frequently on MSNBC, former George W. Bush strategist Steve Schmidt is, for my money, among the most lacerating, illuminating, and eloquent critics of Trump. He’s a paragon of a true Republican patriot, and could be a strong (R) presidential candidate, if he were so inclined. 2)

Back to the exchange on the Wallace show: Deutsch’s waffling-banalities-disguised-as-bright-ideas continues: “A poll says half of Republicans say that Fox News is the most reliable source of information…I think Fox viewers accept whatever Trump has to deliver. He’s a master communicator.”

To me, “master communicator” is an utterly grandiose way of putting it (or driving it when he should be putting it, to use a golf analogy Trump might understand).

A “master communicator” cannot persistently be a “you know what I mean” president, as Wallace again pithily nailed Trump as, versus one who can actually study, understand and articulate a viable, humane, democratic, and coherent policy. We’re increasingly frightened by Trump’s dangerous, by-seat-of-his-pants “foreign policy.” What’s left of my hair turns whiter daily.

To me, Trump is not “such an idiot” as a friend of mine recently said, in understandable exasperation. More precisely, Trump is an idiot savant, of sorts. And it’s quite clear by now that his “genius” is his ability to toy with his 30% voter lemmings, the base group called “The Base” – and, sadly, manipulate the daily news cycle, with his irrepressible and typically semi-articulate Twitter bleats. So yes, there’s also some strange breed of fox in this orange-haired Fox suckler.

Another dangerous aspect of the Hannity-Trump “symbiotic” relationship (as these pundits agreed on) is that not only is Hannity the “unofficial Chief of Staff’ as White House insiders now call him. With John Kelley seriously on the outs (and Trump following the advice of no official staffer, except maybe his newbie nuclear-tipped plaything John Bolton), Hannity might be morphing into the type of presidential whisperer that Dick Cheney was: in effect, the shadow president when George W. Bush was nominally president.

Bush implicitly admitted this, by having to repeatedly assert his independence from Cheney by calling himself “The Decider. “ The problem, and danger and tragedy (see: The Iraq War, and the unleashing of Middle East chaos, which continues exacerbated today) was that W.’s decisions stood on the hyper-macho mountains of bullshit built – and fed to him – by Cheney, and the nuclear tomahawk who is now Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton.

Lord (if you’re paying attention anywhere), have mercy on us!

I don’t watch Hannity enough to give him a pointed or pithy labeI, or characterization.  I’ll leave that up to others. Thoughts?

Respond on Facebook, preferably, or on the comments section here.


*I apologize, I turned away from the TV to begin typing notes for this post, so I missed the name of this quoted commenter. If any reader can identify him, please do!

  1. In 2014, Deutsch was ordered to pay a real estate broker a four percent commission for the 2010 sale of his $30 million home in the Hamptonsarea of New York. He was ordered by the New York Supreme Court to pay $1.2 million to Sotheby’s for his breach of contract with broker Edward Petrie.[19][20]
  2. Schmidt’s comments often provide striking historical perspectives, like his acidic but imaginative tweet posted Wednesday: “Understanding what Trump did to (UN Ambassador Nikki) Haley requires a leap of imagination to the surreal where after Adlai Stevenson delivers his brilliant exposition of Soviet lies, Bobby Kennedy calls the Kremlin and says don’t worry about it, we don’t mean it, and then JFK takes Zorins’ side.” (Valerian Alexandrovich Zorin was a Soviet diplomat best remembered for his famous confrontation with Adlai Stevenson on 25 October 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis.)

The late Cecil Taylor reconsidered and revisited: An interview from 1986

Almost exactly two months before my June 11, 1986 interview with pianist Cecil Taylor, he’d been in Berlin performing solo, and recorded for what became his next album, For Olim, on the Italian Soul Note label. The concert was for the “Workshop Freie Music 1986,” a festival of improvised music. I just now realized that time frame, and consider how that might illuminate our remarkable interview. I’m taking care to think of temporal matters, as I don’t laugh off non-scientific things like numerology.

And now that Cecil has died, which changes many things, some small details grow in magnitude. As I mentioned in my previously posted Taylor appreciation, he was born in March 25, 1929 in Long Island. My father, who had a similar interpersonal warmth, was born less than 4 months later, July 20, 1929, on the opposite American coast, in Seattle. Norm Lynch first spurred my interest in music with his love of jazz and classical music, and his favorite jazz artist was composer/arranger bandleader Stan Kenton, whom classically-trained Taylor also held in high regard.

I certainly felt a connection to Taylor when I met and interviewed him that summer. And I was stunned when, after the interview, our mutual friend Ken Miller persuaded him to fly to Milwaukee to merely visit, a place he may never have been to, though he did teach at the UW-Madison for several years in the early 1970s. Perhaps Cecil was coming out of the grief and mourning of having lost the musician closest to him, longtime Unit member and saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, who died in May 1986, the month right between his For Olim concert and our June interview (The For Olim album is dedicated “To the living Spirit of Jimmy Lyons”).


Which brings me to say that, though I have nothing but fond memories of him, I don’t want to paint Taylor with a hint of a Pollyanna patina. That first teaching gig of his in UW Madison’s music department revealed how Taylor could be a difficult person. 

I know not much of that period of his life, aside from my very first Taylor concert experience – seeing him perform solo at UW-Madison’s Mills Concert Hall. I was in the third row, and I could almost feel his leaping, cougar-like muscles, his flying sweat. This was an astonishing revelation of the potential of live music performance, something that could easily encompass, music, dance and athletic feats, like playing a full game of competitive basketball (I easily imagine the small, wiry Taylor as an Allen Iverson-style point guard; he typically wore athletic garb for his performances). He played this concert without his nearly ever-present glasses, so his extraordinary physical dynamism and intensity led to an almost comical circumstance.  1, 2 His black knit cap repeatedly slipped down over his eyes and he would play blind for several minutes at a time, before easing the pace and allowing himself to push the cap back out of his eyes.

Once of the mysteries of Cecil Taylor was that he lived to be 89 while being a life-long cigarette smoker. However, the rigorous athletic lifestyle he otherwise kept probably contributed to his longevity. Courtesy

And the UW is where he met Ken Miller, the dancer with whom Taylor would form a deep, lasting bond, and who became the first person to ever dance with the Cecil Taylor Unit.

However, it’s a matter of history that in this teaching position he controversially flunked two-thirds of his final music class. I think the extraordinarily high standards that he set for himself, he also expected or hoped of others, especially his students. At UW, I suspect he was still learning how to maintain reasonable rubrics of instructional expectations. After all, he did live in The World of Cecil Taylor (as one of his first albums was titled) which was a profound, wide-ranging and sometimes mysterious realm. 

And I know, from first-hand experience as a recent graduate student and teaching assistant, that even today it’s easy for professors – at large universities where research expectations are valued more than teaching – to elide the clarity of set rubrics, in the name of “academic freedom.” But students can be left groping, without proper benchmarks for a good grade.

Madison jazz pianist Jane Reynolds, who did a PhD dissertation on Taylor, says the UW music department stopped allowing Taylor to use their pianos because they thought he was damaging them. “That pushed him over the edge,” Reynolds says. Taylor soon left UW, with Ken Miller, for a teaching position at Antioch College. He later also taught at Glassboro State College in New Jersey.


I digress: Taylor’s 1987 Milwaukee trip had no prospect of a gig or payment, only socializing, hosted by Ken, a dear old friend. Cecil and Ken came to my home for dinner and attended a reception in Taylor’s honor, the real centerpiece of the visit, filled with many musicians. 

Cecil Taylor greets fans at a reception held for him at the Wisconsin Conservatory of music in Milwaukee in 1987. His long-time friend and collaborator Ken Miller, who organized the event, sits directly to his left. 

Pardon the personal indulgences. But my welter of feelings and thoughts upon his death last week finally focused on the realization that posting that 1986 interview was a very logical extension of the remembrance I wrote. The interview is, among other things, sort of the soul of my relationship with Cecil Taylor, such as it was. I reported and wrote it for Down Beat magazine, but it was held in his front practice room, on the second floor of his three story townhouse, beside his grand practice piano. He would not reveal the brand of that piano, perhaps because he didn’t want potential thieves assessing is value. He had good reason being wary, partly because he knew he was a naturally gregarious person who might easily be hustled. This indeed happened late in his life, when a contractor he thought of as a friend bilked him out of his $500,000 Kyoto Prize, though the man was later exposed and arrested.

When I interviewed him, Cecil talked well into the second of two 90-minute cassette tapes I had with me. I’ve never needed, before or since, more than one 90-minute tape for an interview of an artist. Again, the numbers suggest something about the nature and quality of the conversation. It mainly reflects Taylor’s thoughtful, poetic eloquence, his extraordinary, quicksilver mind which took surprising tangents but usually tied them together in his own distinctive way. I hope the interview as published conveys the best of that talk, although much was edited out. (More commentary and photography below, after the magazine interview) 

The cover of Taylor’s 1987 album “For Olim,” was among his most acclaimed of many solo piano recordings. The triple-exposure photo by Ken Miller aptly characterized Taylor as an embodiment of the title’s meaning. On the back cover is this explanation: ” *Olim – An Aztec hieroglyph meaning movement, motion, earthquake.” Album Photo by Ken Miller, courtesy Soul Note IREC.



What also presses greatly on my memory and heart now is Ken Miller, a nearly forgotten man who died in his mid-40s of respiratory illness. His death crushed me, as I was by then working in Madison and had lost touch with Ken in the pre-social media era. He was a sweet, gifted and remarkably wise man who, more than any other friend, helped me through my tumultuous first marriage. He helped counsel Taylor through his teaching career and far beyond. He was also a talented cultural facilitator and promoter, photographer and visual artist.

His brilliant photos of Taylor, taken in the pianist’s Milwaukee hotel room, also inspired a promotional campaign for Polygram Special Imports, the company that distributed the Soul Note label of Taylor’s recordings at the time. The promotion included a “Jazz Mount Rushmore” motif built around Miller’s iconic cover photo of Cecil on For Olim. I was among the jazz journalists who received unsolicited a sweatshirt and a large promotional pin. A nifty marketing strategy, however Ken Miller knew nothing of it until I told him of the promotion items using his superbly sculpted portrait (see photo below). He later said he never received any compensation for their artistic liberties with his intellectual property, unlike DownBeat which paid for in their original use of his photographs 

Photo of Polygram Special Imports promotional items by Kevin Lynch

I believe part of the reason Ken Miller died so young was that he was a financially struggling artistic black man who didn’t get the proper medical treatment he needed. I always wanted to talk to Cecil about this, but when I finally phoned him, late in his life, he never called back. I sensed that the subject of Ken it may have ventured into private matters. They were both gay men, but Taylor, born in the Great Depression, survived partly by staying in the closet until the 1980s, when he was outed by a conservative journalist who also played drums and had an ax to grind, because Cecil did not let him play in The Unit.

I suspect Taylor’s strong private side reflected his generation’s struggle with sexual politics, like other great gay jazz men – pianist-composer-aranger Billy Strayhorn, born in 1915, and singer-songwriter/pianist Andy Bey, 10 years Cecil’s junior. Only now, of course, are we addressing important issues like marriage and gender equality, in a nation where we profess that “all men (and women) are created equal.”  I believe that, had they both been born later, Ken and Cecil would’ve become legal partners. Only one of them lived anything close the expectancy of a full life, and Cecil’s was lived uphill most of the way, outperforming white men and virtually everyone, to finally gain, as an old man, honors with financial rewards.

Now, I also recall of my day with Cecil, several cats roaming his home, and a poster on his practice room wall of Chicago multi-instrumentalist and composer Joseph Jarman (best known as a member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago) looking down on us. The Jarman poster now seems more significant, again for temporal reasons. The Art Ensemble’s artistic motto was “Ancient to the Future.” If any other musician, outside of that ensemble, embodied the motto’s values, it was Cecil Taylor. His vision traced our culture’s past and unfolding future and, we hope, vitality. He studied and understood the genius of ancient non-Western cultures and hovered like, a great American eagle, his wings helping illuminate – by directing sunlight with shadow, back and forward – a long road less-traveled. 

And that has made all the difference – for sure at least, an incalculable difference.


  1. Among the giants of new thing jazz in the 1960s, Cecil was about the only one who wore glasses, as he was quite nearsighted and a voracious reader and not uncoincidentally perhaps the most overtly intellectual. However, a comparable case could be made for Archie Shepp, who didn’t wear glasses to perform, but was the first black saxophonist to record with Taylor (soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy – a Russian-American Jew who, like Taylor, loved and worked with poetry – played on his recording debut in 1957). Another avant-garde contemporary of Taylor’s of far less renown, who was comparably bespectacled, was trumpeter Bill Dixon. Among the few other bespectacled great musicians of that generation, but hardly an avant-gardist, was pianist Bill Evans. Yet, in a far quieter way, he was a great and influential innovator.
  2. Among the next generation of jazzers, baby boomers, trumpeter Woody Shaw is one of very few who performed with glasses, also clearly a strong prescription. Woody also was a deep, heady musician and – as a younger baby boomer trumpeter and jazz scholar, bespectacled Brian Lynch, has shown in recent years – a musician still underappreciated for his innovations. (This p.s. shouldn’t be misinterpreted as picking on near-sighted musicians, as I myself have a comparable strong prescription.)
  3. I listened again to the very beginning of the recorded Cecil Taylor interview, and had forgotten that the first thing Taylor does, after greeting me and offering me some fruit juice, was sit down and play a typically powerful, repeated, two-handed Cecil Taylor etude figure on the piano — my very own mini-Cecil Taylor bootleg! And he knew I was recording already. Critic Whitney Balliett was so right about his desire to share his music. Why else would he typically played well past when most people would drop over from exhaustion?


Jazz singer Steve Marche-Torme forced to cancel tonight’s performance at Jazz Estate


CANCELLED SHOW: Tonight, Saturday, April 14, 8 p.m. The Jazz Estate – Jazz singer Steve Marche-Torme (the son of Mel Torme) is a superb vocal stylist in his own right and will make his debut at an intimate Milwaukee club.

MARCHE-TORME HAD TO CANCEL THIS JAZZ ESTATE GIG, DUE TO ICY ROADS IN NORTHERN WISCONSIN, the Estate reports. The management apologized for circumstances “totally beyond our control.”

Marche-Torme has been rescheduled for June 9 at 8 p.m.

For those who purchased tickets, the tickets will be automatically moved to the June 9th event.  Anyone who purchased tickets can get in tonight’s show for 1/2 price, we’ll have a list at the door, The Estate explained. 

Tonight, April 14, the bassist Jim Paolo’s Quartet will fill in, with saxophonist Eric Schoor, pianist Mark Davis, and drummer Dave Bayles.

Jazz Appreciation Month heats up in late April with Eddie Gomez Trio

The great bassist Eddie Gomez, of Bill Evans Trio fame, will be a highlight of Jazz Appreciation Month in Milwaukee, when his trio plays at the Jazz Estate on Thursday, April 26. Courtesy WMKY

  • Thursday, April 26, The Jazz Estate – The great virtuoso bassist Eddie Gomez, renowned as the linchpin of the longest-running Bill Evans Trio, brings a piano trio to Milwaukee, with Stefan Karlsson on piano and Rodrigo Villanueva on drums. The  two-time Grammy winning Gomez has worked with Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Chick Corea,  Gerry Mulligan and numerous others jazz and pop music artists, as well as venturing boldly into classical music realms, a musical range beyond most musicians.

It was an “aha” moment when I pulled the big, dark LP box out of a library clearance sale bin. It was the final “modern jazz” segment of The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz. I’d read about it, but had recently been downsized out of a nearly 20-year staff arts reporter job at The Capital Times, and my financial future was uncertain. So this was a small blessing, as the box set cost me a mere three dollars. 

I knew the whole set was as close as any single collection of recorded jazz history could be, partly because the great critic and author Martin Williams headed the jazz and “American Culture Program” at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.. There, in 1973, he compiled and wrote liner notes for The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz. 1 His album notes for a subsequent collection, The Smithsonian Collection of Big-Band Jazz, earned Williams a Grammy Award. But many jazz buffs knew him from his books of criticism Where’s the Melody? and especially The Jazz Tradition.

The Smithsonian’s boxed jazz history set (see footnote) may be the most readily available byproduct of the organization’s contribution to the art form, which includes a vast treasures of historical holdings in Washington D.C. at The National Museum of American History, such as the invaluable Duke Ellington collection. This includes Ellington’s sound recordings, original music manuscripts and published sheet music, hand-written notes, correspondence, business records, photographs, scrapbooks, news clippings, concert programs, posters, books and other items.

Since 2001, the Smithsonian Institution has sponsored Jazz Appreciation Month in April. That leads to my real purpose – pointing out how much top-notch live jazz is happening in Milwaukee in the second half of Jazz Appreciation Month. A a sign of the significant progress in gender equality and opportunity in jazz is that two of these bands are led by women. Here’s your thumbnail JAM guide:

  • CANCELLED Tonight, Saturday, April 14, 8 p.m. The Jazz Estate – Jazz singer Steve Marche-Torme (the son of Mel Torme) is a superb vocal stylist in his own right and will make his debut at an intimate Milwaukee club. MARCHE-TORME HAD TO CANCEL THIS GIG, DUE TO ICY ROADS IN NORTHERN WISCONSIN, the Estate reports. The event has been rescheduled for June 9, at at 8 p.m. Tonight the bassist Jim Paolo’s Quartet will fill in, with saxophonist Eric Schoor, pianist Mark Davis, and drummer Dave Bayles. For those who purchased tickets, the tickets will be automatically moved to the June 9th event.  Anyone who purchased tickets can get in tonight’s show for 1/2 price, they’ll have a list at the door.
  • Sunday April 15, 8:30 p.m., The Jazz Estate – Post-bop flutist-composer Jamie Baum leads her New York quintet, a rare chance to hear a flutist leading a band. Baum, a 2014 Guggenheim Fellow, gives her instrument the full range of modern jazz possibility. She’s been nominated by the Jazz Journalists Association for “Flutist of Year“ eight times and placed in DownBeat polls annually since 1998.
  • Thursday April 19, 8 p.m., The Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts – Try some left-of-center improv collaboration between Minnesota pianist Matt Blair and jazz/improv-leaning Milwaukee string quartet (which includes a bassist) The Tontine Ensemble.
  • Friday, April 20, 8 p.m. The Jazz Estate – Promoting her brilliant new album Heart Tonic is up-and-coming progressive jazz alto saxophonist and composer Caroline Davis from Chicago. This is heady but accessible music built with Davis’ highly distinctive composing style, and the album’s single cover, of Wayne Shorter’s “Penelope,” suggests the rare strata of her compositional acumen.
 Alto saxophonist and composer Caroline Davis will play at The Jazz Estate on April 20. Courtesy
  • Sunday, April 22, Turner Hall – Big-name jazz artists John Scofield and Joe Lovano will lead their quartet Past/Present.  Scofield is among the most celebrated and versatile guitarists in jazz, and Lovano probably jostles with Sonny Rollins and Wayne Shorter as the music’s preeminent tenor saxophonist. Tenor Saxophonist Joe Lovano and Guitarist John Scofield bring their Past/Present Quartet to Turner Hall on Sunday April 22. Courtesy
1. The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz has been updated and re-released as Jazz: The Smithsonian Collection, a 6-CD,111-track set, pictured here:

Steve Cohen learns more about the profundity of inhumanity and the universality of the blues

Steve Cohen (rear) holds a letter from his uncle, AlMilwaukee blues musician Steve Cohen (left) holds a letter written by his grandfather, an American soldier, to document his witnessing of a Nazi death camp at Buchenwald in 1945. Cohen found the letter in the possessions of his uncle Neil Cohen (right). Courtesy Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

This is The Blues.

This is the blues in the most profound sense of the art form. Its implicit state of mind and spirit is born of the black experience, the black genocide that was slavery. Yet, by extension, this sensibility is shared by all of humanity that is oppressed by forces from within or without. That is the music’s universality.
This is the blues, as expressed in a 12-page handwritten letter that Al Cohen, a Jewish-American Army soldier wrote in 1945 to his mother back home, after he entered and witnessed the carnage and genocide of the Holocaust in the Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald.

This is the blues that Steve Cohen understands in the core of his being, partly because that soldier was his uncle. There’s a deep strain of Jewish klezmer music’s mournful penetrating microtonalities in Cohen’s understanding of the music. That lineage and history contributes to what has made him among the greatest blues musicians that Milwaukee has produced since the blues revival of the ’60s.

Some readers of this blog, oriented to American music vernaculars, would specifically know Steve as the central figure of the longtime Chicago-style blues band Leroy Airmaster. But he’s also a blues scholar and, in recent years, has deeply delved into and performed the roots of the blues, that is, country blues from Charley Patton, Son House and Robert Johnson forward, especially as he has become a more accomplished singer and guitarist, along with his virtuoso harmonica playing.

Further, many blog readers and online media consumers don’t read daily newspapers much these days. So you may have missed the feature in a recent Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel about Cohen’s uncle. Steve’s familiar face in a photo (above) made sure I saw the story and it’s a good one.

But the core of it, Al Cohen’s remarkable and disturbing historical letter, was glossed in Stingl’s relatively brief column. Steve Cohen had recently discovered the letter among his uncle Neil Cohen’s papers. When his uncle Al Cohen saw the horrors of Buchenwald he wrote the letter to his mother and insisted that she share it as much as possible, so that people would understand the tragic inhumanity of the Nazi Holocaust. The stuff of “never again.”

Al Cohen who a teenage soldier when he rolled into

American soldier Al Cohen, who wrote the letter describing the Nazi death camp in Buchenwald. Courtesy the Cohen family

Apparently Al’s mother was reticent about sharing the letter, which includes graphic, troubling details, and it never saw much readership beyond her.

It’s fortuitous that it has come to light and can be shared now, because anti-Semitism and neo-Naziism, and racially-motivated hate crimes and hate speech, seem to be on the rise, as well as the strange phenomenon of Holocaust denial.

This important letter is a primary historical source, as researchers say, something that provides greater understanding of larger truths that we can build from, for a better society.
That is why Culture Currents believes it is important to share it as well online. After Stingl’s the article, The Journal-Sentinel received a strong clamor from people who wanted the letter published in full. The newspaper belatedly transcribed and posted a copy of the letter online.
But here it is for Culture Currents readers, courtesy of the Journal-Sentinel and Steve Cohen. Here’s page one of Al Cohen actual letter, then the full transcription:

This is one of 12 pages of a letter that soldier Al

The first page of Al Cohen’s 1945 letter to his mother.

Here is the complete transcription of Cohen’s letter describing the Nazis’ Buchenwald death camp:

April 26, 1945


Dear Mother,

I am sorry that I can’t write more often but I’ve been working for a long
time. We have been in Germany for almost a month and I’m glad to say that
what parts of it I have seen are smashed to the earth.

A few days after Buchenwald, the notorious concentration camp, was
liberated, I got an opportunity to visit it. You can never realize what it
was like. Approaching it, I saw people dressed in striped pajamas – like
clothing walking around. They were thin as skeletons, weak and quiet, just
walking around aimlessly. The place was surrounded by barbed wire fences
and overlooked by towers where guards used to stand. The enclosure was
very large and for the main part filled with wooden barracks. Across the
street were S.S. barracks and factories. As I entered, my attention was
attracted to a pillory (?) in which inmates were locked and beaten by SS
men with clubs and a tin whip. There were other things that Nazis had
constructed to torture people in the country too.

The next place I visited was the oven room. Entering the basement, I saw
the room where as many as 80 people at a time were hung by their hands
from pegs high on the wall and beaten to death with big wooden clubs. When
they were dead or almost so, they were taken down and loaded on an
elevator, then hoisted up to the ground floor where they were shoved into
ovens and cremated – dead or alive. There were still partially burned
bodies in the ovens.

Walking outside, my attention was drawn to a huge wagon in an inner square, filled with corpses. They were skinny shrunken bodies with big staring eyes and open mouths. It was so horrible that I was not bothered by it at all – it seemed too unreal. Believe me though, I
have seen with my own eyes what sights I describe. Some of the boys took
pictures of this and I’ll send some home at my first chance.

Every once in a while, some of the inmates would bring in a pushcart full
of bodies from the woods where the S.S. troops had taken them and shot
them. These corpses were dumped on a pile with others which were later
taken away to be buried. They were heaped together like a pile of leaves.

The hospital was a dirty grimy building and it was the smelliest place in
the whole camp. This was probably caused by the dirty bed clothes and the
dead and dying people. It was hard to tell the difference; they both had
purple skin. The main cause of death was malnutrition. There were barracks
after barracks filled with people who were slowly dying from that cause,
whom it was impossible to serve. The inmates were beaten down, broken-spirited people. Til the time when the Nazis had to leave there were 51,000 killed in the camp and there
was a high monument with that number on it in the center of the courtyard,
which had been placed there by the Nazis to commemorate their murderous

I spoke to some Polish boys of a group of boys my age. They were placed in
a concentration camp at the age of seventeen and were there for five
years. They told me that the only thing that concerned the Nazis was how
to kill the people fast enough. One of the methods they used at first was
to inject chlorine or a strong acid either into the heart or veins with a
large hypodermic. This killed them instantly but it was not efficient for
large numbers of people so new methods were evolved. They were herded into
a large barracks, 800 at a time, and all the doors and windows sealed off.
SS men stood guard – a week later all the people in the barracks were
dead. The Kommandant’s wife was an ugly woman but it meant 25 lashes for
any men who looked at her. Her hobby was making lamps and knick-knacks of
parts of humans.

The food at the camp was not fit for human beings. It was dirty looking
soup and coarse-grained bread. In one barracks of living-dead men there
was a collection of rotten potato peelings which the prisoners were saving
to supplement their meal. I had brought them K rations and cigarettes from
stuff I had accumulated and they went for those things as if they were the
most wonderful things in the world to eat. The joy of seeing that I had
done some little thing to help them was worth all the discomforts and
disappointments I have found in the Army.

One old man walked up to me and stood there staring at me with a
holy-looking smile of gratitude on his face. He quietly thanked me for the
things they had gotten. I told him “I knew how it was – my name is Cohen.”
He said again, quietly, “When you came in the door I could tell that.” I
never felt prouder.

The Polish boys told me that often the people in the camp were starved
badly. One day there was a wagon load of a hundred corpses standing in the
yard waiting to be taken to the crematorium. When the driver came out to
take his wagon away, there were only 80 bodies remaining in the cart and
there were prisoners standing around eating arms, shanks and other human
parts. This scene was witnessed by these Polish boys – it is not just some
thing they overheard being rumored. For all I know, they may have
participated themselves.

The Nazis used to fill little pails with ashes from the furnaces and sold
them to the relatives of the murdered. Usually they were not even the
ashes of the person they were said to be.

We are deep into Germany now and capturing prisoners quite often. Just
this afternoon at lunch there were captured in front of our mess hall.
Things are more difficult now that there is nothing to worry about. I’m
scared and a scared man is always careful.

Thanks very much for the package.

This letter is long so I’ll close it with lots of love,

Al (Cohen)

p.s. here’s a link to Al Cohen’s full actual letter, scanned to the Milwaukee Journal Online. Click on the small photos sequenced below the main photo of Steve Cohen.

Cecil Taylor (1929-2018), a titantic pianist, poet, dancer, and a social animal

In this YouTube video, Cecil Taylor, at 80, performs solo at the Perugia Jazz Festival in Italy, 2009. The ensuing 1984 video is also well worth experiencing, including his poetry recitation and dancing.

The news pains my heart like a plunged lance with a thousand blue-noted edges. Those are the sorts of notes that Cecil Taylor wielded in any given performance over his incomparable career. My second impulse is to not believe that he has passed at 89.

That’s because, if ever a musician broke through the “mask” that Ahab decried of Moby Dick’s inscrutable forehead –to understand the mysteries on the other side – it was Cecil. His energy and organic realm of soul and structure allowed him to deeply penetrate music and possibility, but also to build a fortress with wings — a weird image, yes, but he was at once of this earth and ever rising and falling, a Prometheus who would never simply acquiesce to physical death.

Writer Howard Mandel reported his passing to the other side, with his concise appreciation, expanded on in the major segment of his book Miles, Ornette, Cecil, an essential study of jazz modernism at its most personal and embracing. Elder pianists as diverse as Erroll Garner and Thelonious Monk were big Cecil Taylor fans. Yet perhaps the great belle lettrist of jazz journalism, Whitney Balliett, said it best, as Mandel quotes him: “…Cecil Taylor wants you to feel what he feels, to move at his speed, to look where he looks, always inward. His music asks more than other music, but it gives more than it asks.”

Keep that desire in mind as you listen to Cecil or watch him on a video. His desire to connect was as overt as the most pandering Kenny Gs of the world. And yet, for the profusions of the dippy saxophonist that might ostensibly connect him to Taylor, they’re worlds apart. If you have the open-mindedness to enter Cecil’s world, you’ll feel it and likely be moved, perhaps in unexpected ways. So it’s unsurprising that  The World of Cecil Taylor was the title of his earliest albums.

On that recording, he came out swinging in his own way, yet he moved deeply in the jazz tradition. Listen to him trading fours with drummer Dennis Charles on “Air,” the first tune on The World of Cecil Taylor – the sharp, swift interplay sounds like Muhammad Ali in his prime, shadow-boxing with himself. As annotator Martin Williams notes of the album’s second interpretation of a jazz standard (preceding “Lazy Afternoon”): “Cecil transforms ‘This Nearly was Mine’ into a blue aria. Richard Rodgers wrote the melody for Pinza to sing, and I find it most moving. In this track, Cecil’s ideas and his playing demonstrate strikingly his ability to sing an interpretation.”  1

Speaking of arias and the “brooding air” of another tune on World, I’m sure Taylor would allow my “air” analogy some breathing room. His whirl-over-the-keyboard approach and attack – for its frequent harmonic density and deep, bluesy eloquence – seemed like he was clearing space for the very evident dancer in him to pax de deux with his huge piano. Another album that emerged from the World sessions was titled simply Air. A solo piano recording in mid-career he titled Air Above Mountains (Buildings Within).

One of Cecil Taylor’s evocative, poetic and apt album titles and covers. Courtesy

The titles are always significant in Cecil’s music, always poetic, evocative and personal. I risk venturing into literary interpretation because Cecil was a poet of the highest order.

Consider a few more album titles simply worth savoring: first, the fulsome single word – indent, Regalia, Conquistador!; Gallia, Melancholy, Trance, Complicite, Remembrance, Garden 1 and Garden 2.

…To the more descriptive: Cell Walk for Celeste; Spring of Two Blue-J’s; Silent Tongues; Dark to Themselves; Unit Structures, New York City R&B , Jumpin’ Punkins; Winged Serpents (Sliding Quadrants); Double Holy House; Leaf, Palm, Hand;  and For Olim (named for an Aztec term for the motion of a volcano).

…To his grandest titular haikus: Nefertiti, The Beautiful One Has Come; Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly!; It is in the Brewing, Luminous; and the brilliant rhythm and momentum of One Too Many Salty Swift and Not Goodbye.

To a word person like me, my breath slips away just to contemplate these titles. This was because Cecil was fascinating to talk to and listen to, nearly as much as his piano playing could “lift the bandstand,” as Monk once put it, and carry the listener to breathtaking heights of vertiginous magnificence. You hung on for dear life to this winged titan of piano creativity and blues power, flying in the face of the fiercest winds. 1

To put Cecil Taylor the poet in literary context, I refer you to the superb anthology Moment’s Notice: Jazz in Poetry & Prose, edited by Art Lange and Nathaniel Mackey (Coffee House Press, 1993). It includes only one of Cecil’s poems, “Garden” (for which he titled two aforementioned albums), but the poem covers a long gust of pages. You see in this book how he fits in to the quietly sumptuous realm of jazz and letters, which dwells largely in silent tongues, unless one opens such a book and reads, and aloud.

Yet to speak personally, I had an opportunity to interview Cecil in 1986 in his home in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn, an encounter facilitated by our mutual friend Ken Miller, a Milwaukee modern dancer who was the first person to ever dance with the Cecil Taylor Unit, in the early 1970s, when he was a music faculty member at the UW-Madison. 2

My interview is in the November, 1986 issue of Down Beat magazine, and during the conversation Taylor sat on a rug cross-legged in a Buddah-like posture beside his nine-foot grand practice piano. Utterly gracious, he expounded and reflected, thoughtfully, expansively. He shared with me some of his visions of music, culture and life. The article was titled “Cecil Taylor: The Poetics of Living.”

As per his desire to “give more than he asks,” Cecil purposely situated is mighty grand piano in the bay window of his Brooklyn brownstone, so passersby could readily hear him playing and practicing.

Despite his music’s extreme originality – a fusion of 20th century “classical” music and technique with aspects of African music and jazz from Waller and Ellington onward, and Taylor’s rigorous practicing regimes –  he was the opposite of an ivory-tower dweller. He was a very social being.

The day I interviewed him, he invited me to a party the next day. This was a first, among all musicians I’ve ever interviewed over 35 years. I accepted, and found myself strolling with Cecil through a Brooklyn neighborhood until we got to the apartment of the party, where Cecil dove in and engaged with several partygoers in bracing and animated conversation (as the photos below indicate).

The personal rhythm and musicality of Cecil Taylor is evident in these shots of him at a Brooklyn party. Photos by Kevin Lynch

The following year, Cecil agreed to fly to Milwaukee – merely to visit his friends and admirers there, with no concert paycheck to be had. He came to my Riverwest flat for a dinner prepared by my spouse Kathy Naab Lynch. I was honored when, entering the house, he immediately gravitated to an abstract bronze sculpture of mine titled “Free Space Relief,” a phrase which might describe a Taylor composition.

Cecil Taylor (center) at a Milwaukee reception in his honor, greeting an admirer, Karen, the spouse of VIolent Femmes drummer Victor DeLorenzo. Also in the photo, at left, is Jim Glynn and, to Cecil’s left, our mutual friend Ken Miller.

The next day, he attended a reception in his honor at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, which Cecil soaked up gratefully. Photographs that Ken Miller took of Cecil in his room at Milwaukee’s Pfister Hotel graced the cover of Down Beat containing my article, as well as the cover of Taylor’s ensuing solo album For Olim.

My favorite portrait of Cecil Taylor was this one, taken by our mutual friend Ken Miller, for my Down Beat interview feature on Taylor. Courtesy

He died in his long-time Fort Greene brownstone. I imagine Cecil trying to practice that day, perhaps even expiring at the keyboard. Born at the crux of The Great Depression a few months earlier than my late father Norm Lynch, Cecil possessed a comparable personal warmth. That came from his generous physical heart, guts and brain. One of Taylor’s finest comments on the notion of “free jazz” is from the liner of Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly!: “There is no music without order — if that music comes from a man’s innards. But that order is not necessarily related to any single criterion of what order should be as imposed from the outside. This is not a question, then, of ‘freedom’ as opposed to ‘non-freedom’ but rather is it a question of recognizing ideas and expressions of order.”

My final word is left to Cecil Taylor the poet, from “Garden,” his long, bountiful poem from the Moment’s Notice collection:

Respect Respect
Aretha aires
absolute absolum
Aretha absolute
Witness sweet inspiration
Witness absolute gentleness 


lil’ Stevie
by holy rock
stand standing
Heritage – echoes – silence – moving – Universe
manners hip food gatherin a be seen gregarious
slip’ en slidin’ getting entities hallowed
            thy will be done

foraging among crabs long tongued ancient snapp’d
but regard is weight hipness lighten’d
           Ray Robinson steered, fandancin’
           out orbiting (no game) sludge
knowing out, in, sideways tall, possibility axis & fall
           Muhammad Ali
           like Amma, arboreal
           corpuscle twine harmonium
them 2 legs (Dinosaurs) that’s got
            each (fine graining) his
natural (from Jack Johnson portent
            know, see, the
             Barring –

            – apart from –
            over reiging

             head, scalp or hand Domed)

of colored goings doings love our way
his own
            Johnson then Robinson War
            Clay now (‘them-thar lookin’
                            fidgetin’ wonderin’
                            how – admiration
                            to – ball breakin’)
Johnson – Robinson – Armstrong – Louis – Ali
inscription held fertile glories passed
magnificence back & forth on & on…

copyright: Coffee House Press, 1993


  1. Taylor’s enveloping interpretation of the Richard Rodgers’ song gives lie to the ignorant comment of one online commenter on a recent YouTube of Taylor performing, that “he doesn’t know how to play the piano,” and has perpetuated a “scam” for decades. On his 1956 album Jazz Advance Taylor ingeniously covered tunes by Monk, Ellington, Cole Porter and the standard “Sweet and Lovely.” That Taylor, an honorary doctorate graduate of the New England Conservatory, still suffers such indignity even upon death at 89, smells of the winds of ignorant reaction I alluded to above, which often blew in his face, and which seem especially polluting in the Age of Trump. As with too many original jazz artists, Taylor’s largest and most supportive audiences were in Europe, and perhaps Japan.
  2. Cecil Taylor was also pivotal to my arts journalism career. In 1977, amid a winter deep-freeze, I drove to Toronto with Milwaukee guitarist Jack Grassel and drummer Dave Ruetz, to solo piano concerts by Taylor. He performed two three-hour non-stop concerts, at 3 and 7 p.m. — in sum, the greatest solo music performance I’ve witnessed, perhaps the greatest performance of any kind. There, I also met Bill Smith, editor of CODA, the Canadian jazz magazine, and he accepted my proposal for a record review of then-emerging saxophonist David Murray, and published it, and my jazz journalism found its footing.



Milwaukee’s March for Our Lives exhibited the power of the surging movement for gun control

Never again! (#Never again). Sing it out high and loud to the heavens.

“Come senators, congressmen/ Please heed the call/ Don’t stand in the doorway/ Don’t block up the hall… There’s a battle outside/and its ragin’.  / It’ll soon shake your windows/ and rattle your walls/ For the times they are a changin’.” – Bob Dylan 

Two baby boomer-age women, among thousands, marched down State Street to the fiery cadences of one of Dylan’s greatest protest songs emitting from a portable player one held. The other woman brandished a harmonica to play along. It was one of many ingenious ways in which people put on a March to Save our Lives from the bloodstained peril of a nation with more guns than people.

It reminded me of how potent Dylan’s song remains. Concurrently, in Washington D.C., reportedly 800,000 gathered in the largest single protest in the nation’s history. And a highlight of that event was soul singer Jennifer Hudson singing “The Times They Are a Changin'” along with a gospel choir and the talented drama club and choir of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas high school in Florida, where the assault-style gun killing of 17 of their classmates has spurred an amazing movement for sane, common sense gun reform.
Hudson cranked the song up to a fever and impassioned pitch – gun death and violence has ravaged her own life. So Dylan’s great anthem met one of its greatest interpreters, 55 years after he wrote and recorded it.

As for the young speakers, they said plenty. But what struck me was how well they made the connection between mass shootings and the countless shootings and death in individual incidents that may or may not make any news, but continue with numbing regularity for the communities afflicted. So the death of Dontre Hamilton, a mentally troubled Milwaukee black man awoken from his sleep in Red Arrow Park  — and killed with a volley of police bullets after a brief struggle with an officer — was addressed several times.

A connective point is that, along with institutional racism, the profusion of guns in America makes police officers exceedingly paranoid, even though their subjective “feared for my life” rationale is way too easy to corrupt their rationale, after the fact. That easy way out for a cop slaughtering an unarmed black man or boy is part of the institutional racism, of course. But the tons of guns completes the tragic circle.

For my part, here’s a photo essay on Milwaukee’s march, one of 80 across the country Saturday, with many more protests marches around the world in solidarity with America’s gun dilemma.

A huge and fiery crowd engulfs the Milwaukee County Courthouse; well, at least up to its ankles.

A senior citizen with a walker climbed up the hill to the courthouse, and let ’em know what she feels about America’s outlandish indulgence for guns — the worst kind of guns, that kill masses of people, senselessly, needlessly. Yes, she’s pissed off.

Another marcher who would not be denied was a woman with a broken ankle.

An infant was used as a prop, but it was starkly effective as a protest.

A big march crowd on State Street, stretching from 9th Street all the way to Water Street,  seemed to have no end.

The destination for the march was Red Arrow Park across from City Hall, a popular gathering place but also infamously the scene of a police gun killing of an unarmed black man, Dontre Hamilton.

Judge Rebecca Dallet (right) joined the protest and did a little in-the-crowd campaigning for her bid for a state Supreme Court seat, in the April 3 election. 

The proud father of a six-month-old girl (below in the buggy) wants her to grow up without needing to fear for her life when she goes to school.

Even the Statue of Liberty showed up, and up, and up, and up.

The crowd listens to an impassioned, spontaneous speech for gun control, with an emphasis on “love,” by a man in the crowd near the podium.  

Here is the man who had plenty to say, despite not being among the invited speakers.

These two high school student speakers wore their hearts n their sleeves, and are part of  a new generation of activists who, we hope, makes a transformative difference in gun control.

On my way back from the march, I noticed the stately old Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, described on its website as a” conservative, caring” congregation. It was built in 1878 of cream city brick, which is deteriorating, but the back side is undergoing restoration work. As with my first photo at top, of the flags and “never again” sign, and we often look to the heavens for answers. What does this conservative congregation care about? One hopes, life and sanity over guns.


All photos by Kevin Lynch