© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Arthur Taylor (1929-1995) was an important mentor in my life. Although I never formally met him, I was fortunate to see him perform on a few occasions and he “unlocked a door” for me.
Looking and listening are a big part of learning to play Jazz drums for as saxophonist, composer and bandleader Dave Liebman explain in his book on Dutch Jazz drummer Eric Ineke [Eric Ineke: The Ultimate Sideman]:
“Of all the rhythm section instruments, the drums are the most difficult to learn from books and even records. With drums, you have TO BE THERE … one has to see and feel the music, more so than for other instruments whose techniques could more easily be assimilated by studying available recordings which was the customary method for European musicians learning the music. “
During the halcyon days of West Coast Jazz in the 1950s, I had many opportunities to watch drummer like Shelly Manne and Mel Lewis in action. I thought the world of these guys but I preferred the style of drummers who stepped on it a bit more; played with a harder sound or an edge to their time feel: guys like Lawrence Marable, Frank Butler, Stan Levey and Larry Bunker.
Stan and Larry were particularly helpful because watching Stan for almost three years at his regular gig as a member of the Lighthouse All-Stars in Hermosa Beach, CA helped me “unlock” Max Roach, who along with Kenny Clarke, was the father of modern Jazz drumming.
STAN LEVEY: “I loved and admired Max. He had a special gift that was given to a very few.”
VERNEL FOURNIER: “What young drummers had been studying in challenging drum instruction books by Edward B. Straight and George Lawrence Stone began to make sense after we heard Max Roach. The great teachers laid out the raw materials. But we didn't know how to apply them—until we heard Max. When we got into his coordination, the way he used cymbals, the snare and bass drum, the answers to the puzzle began to fall in place.”
The quotations about Max Roach by Stan and Vernel pretty much sum up the way many modern Jazz drummers felt while coming of age under his spell.
But after I first heard his drumming as a member of Miles Davis’ quintet, the guy I really wanted to get to was “Philly” Joe Jones; I just couldn’t find a key to “unlocking” Philly JJ’s style.
When I mentioned this problem to Larry Bunker he said: “You gotta dig Art Taylor. He’ll get you to Philly.”
And so he did, especially after I caught him in person with a group led by trumpeter Kenny Dorham and heard him on the Jazz Lab recordings, a quintet that was co-led by alto saxophonist Gigi Gryce and trumpet player Donald Byrd.
We wanted to remember Art Taylor on these pages with some excerpts about him from Burt Korall’s Drummin’ Men The Heartbeat of Jazz: The Bebop Years:
© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“Arthur Taylor found a life when he began playing drums. "I never wanted to do anything. Never fit in at school or with my family. I was always on the outside," he told me. "That changed when I went to a summer jam session at Lincoln Square—where Lincoln Center is now. Dexter [Gordon] was there, Big Sid, Freddie Webster, Miles [Davis], Fats [Navarro], Bud [Powell], all those people. I said to myself: 'That's what I'm going to do—play drums.' For Christmas that year, 1947, my mother bought me a set of drums. And I was working two weeks later."
A.T., as he came to be known, grew up in Sugar Hill, a pleasant neighborhood in Harlem. He and his friends from the Hill — Sonny Rollins, Andy Kirk Jr., Jackie McLean, Walter Bishop Jr., Kenny Drew — formed a little band and moved into the music. They listened to the major people and played gigs here and there.
"I took a few lessons with Chick Morrison, who had played with Louis Armstrong. He became disenchanted with me because of my attitude," Taylor said. "I didn't practice, just started working. I had made two hundred albums before I learned to read music. When I went to live in Paris in 1963, I studied with Kenny Clarke for three years."
Early on, Taylor's father took him to hear bands at New York theaters— the Apollo uptown and the Paramount downtown. J. C. Heard caught his attention. "J.C. was with the John Kirby little band at that time. He was the first guy I saw swinging on the cymbal," Taylor said. "That messed me up because I was looking at Chick and Buddy—and that was a different thing altogether."
As his career progressed, Taylor played with all kinds of people— Coleman Hawkins, Hot Lips Page, Gene Ammons, Buddy DeFranco, Bud Powell, Charlie Parker, Art Farmer—and recorded with just about everyone. Philly Joe Jones figured prominently in his life. Jones, one of Taylor's great favorites, took him aside early in his career and worked with him, to straighten out "problems" the young drummer had. He was forever grateful to his friend Philly Joe for that.
Taylor always felt that musicality and success in his job depended on how well he dealt with the cymbal. He concentrated on this aspect of playing, hoping to bring an attractive, provoking quality to jazz time. Ultimately he found his own way to have his say. His cymbal playing endeared him to Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Kenny Dorham, and many other major players. Musicians were attracted to Taylor because he motivated them to play.
Taylor listened very closely to Max Roach, Art Blakey, and Kenny Clarke. They inspired him. What began happening after a while was a stylistic synthesis. Taylor took elements from all three and emerged with something of his own.
Taylor always insisted that his association with pianist Bud Powell was the most important of his life. Powell provided education and enormous pleasure and just about everything else Taylor sought in a playing experience. The records Taylor liked best of the hundreds he made include Thelonious Monk at Town Hall (Riverside), Five x Five with Thelonious Monk (Riverside), Giant Steps (Atlantic) and Soultrane with John Coltrane (Prestige), Miles Ahead with Miles Davis (Columbia), Glass Enclosure with Bud Powell (Blue Note), and Taylor's Wailers with Arthur Taylor (Prestige). Without the aid of "paper"—a drum part—he did the job, depending entirely on his ears and instincts to make the music a true thing, a swing thing.
His flexibility grew as his experience deepened. Taylor impressed the pianist and significant jazz thinker Lennie Tristano, a difficult taskmaster when it came to drummers. Longtime Tristano associate Lee Konitz added: "What convinced us about Art was how he played with Lennie and the rest of us on some music we taped for Atlantic at the Confucius Restaurant, here in town."
Seventeen years in France and Belgium contributed in a major way to Taylor's peace of mind and development as a person and a musician. When he returned home to New York in 1980, he was a new and better man—and, as it turned out, a mature drummer of real consequence. Slick, smart, sharp, he played the way he dressed and looked. Taylor formed a contemporary edition of the Wailers, a band he had headed earlier in his career. He and his young group played good places, recorded, and pleased even the most demanding listeners.
Arthur Taylor passed away the year he had intended to retire  and return to the island in the Caribbean where his family has its roots. It seemed rather quick. I talked with him on the phone, and suddenly he was gone. Unlike most people, the personable A.T. had done what he loved and took it as far as he wanted. That ain't too bad, right?”
The following video will provide you with an example of Art Taylor’s drumming with The Jazz Lab Quintet. The tune is Horace Silver’s Speculation and features Donald Byrd [trumpet] and Gigi Gryce [alto sax], with Tommy Flanagan [piano], Wendell Marshall [bass] and Art Taylor [drums] performing Horace Silver's "Speculation." Also on this track are Benny Powell [trombone], Julius Watkins [French horn], Don Butterfield [tuba] and Sahib Shihab [baritone sax].