Was it Michael R. Taylor or Ronald Michael Taylor?. Just another unresolved mystery of the enigma that was Mike Taylor, born in London in June 1938 and died in the Thames Estuary on or about 19th January 1969 – another puzzle in a life full of them.
Mike – let's call him that, because the two excellent LPs he recorded for Denis Preston 1965 and 1967 are by The Mike Taylor Trio – was a fantastic and imaginative pianist and composer, who, while destined to be neglected by the jazz public, contributed to his own obscurity by refusing to give interviews or make broadcasts, at a time when BBC Radio was much more generous and receptive to jazz than it later became.
Mike's parents died while he was a young child and he, his brother and sister were bought up by his grandparents. Older Mr. Taylor was a businessman, who employed Mike in his company. Though his biographer is unable to shed any light on his personal circumstances (indeed, he seems to have been very circumspect even with close friends), we must assume that his early life was middle class, conservative and rather disciplined. He became an officer in the RAF, and after leaving returned to the family business by day and to his music at night. There, I think we might see the first great conflict in his life – the staid world of business mixing with the informal and sometimes hedonistic world of post Ornette Coleman jazz. Mike marries Anne Summersby (they divorce in 1965 and we hear nothing from her), and from late 1965 till the time of his death Mike is transformed from this smartly dressed man, straddling two very different worlds, to the complete informality and neglect that made him appear to his friends in his final days as looking like a “tramp” or derelict. Of course, being born on June 7th, Mike was a Gemini, who are of course, twins.....
One gets the impression that he was very serious about music, but that once the discipline of the day job was out of the way (it is suggested Mr Taylor's retirement led to the business closing and Mike becoming a dishwasher for Lyons), music becomes almost secondary to Mike's pursuit of recreational drugs, and it was these substances that led to his accidental or intentional death at Leigh On Sea Essex three years later. Yet music was still incredibly important to him – indeed, long after the start of his decline one of his works Ballad is recorded in September 1968 by the beautiful New Jazz Orchestra under Neil Ardley on their LP Le Dejeuner sur l'Herbe, which, typically, was released after Mike's death. It fits into the ambience of this record wonderfully. He had written other charts for NJO which, apparently, were beyond the capabilities of an earlier incarnation of this band.
Sadly two key characters who might have been able to have supplied more information on Mike's background, his brother, Terry, who helped manage the Mike Taylor Quartet in it's early days, and his ex-wife Anne, are not heard from. It seems Terry has also vanished without trace into the world. He would now be in his 70s, as would his ex-wife so it would have been extremely helpful to have had their insights. As it is, we are left with a puzzle. I was intrigued by two of the interviewees in the book Dave Tomlin, who played soprano sax on the first of his two records “Pendulum” says of the “Ronald/Michael” enigma: Anyone named Ronald would change it as fast as possible as it would be too embarrassing to admit to. Shortening it to Ron would be even worse as it would be too common – working class and very naff.
I am sure this perception came from Mike – or more likely – his grandparents, as I am sure Dave Tomlin is not personally a snob and will be aware of the many “Ronnie's “ in jazz – Scott, Ross, Hughes, Chamberlain, Ball, Stephens, Cuber to name a few. If this is the reason why “Mike” and not “Michael”? - a small but telling point, in my view.
When I read those lines I instantly thought of Philip Larkin's most quoted line – only in Mike Taylor's case it was grandparents, and not mum and dad.
None of the interviewees, they include Dave Gelly, Ron Rubin, Jon Hiseman, and somebody I would regard as a slightly hostile witness, Goudie Charles, are able to shed a great deal on the life of the man, as opposed to the musician, Dave Tomlin is certainly the best source.
The book is highly readable, and very worth while obtaining. I found it very interesting It's author, Luca Ferrari has made a very credible attempt to make bricks without straw, but is guilty of a few errors (for example, he suggests some new music, not commercially issued, was broadcast originally on Jazz Record Requests, which would be a contradiction in terms, as it wasn't a record, nor had it been requested), there are some proof reading errors.
I feel perhaps not all leads were followed up (there is mention of another brother apart from Terry but no details whatsoever). I would strongly suspect the key to Mike Taylor's life and death has more to do with his personal circumstances – the dichotomy of his upbringing and RAF service with the completely opposite approach to life of the fledgling avant-garde of the early 60s.
A few months after Mike Taylor died, Coleman Hawkins died as well. I remember reading at the time, that concerned friends of Hawk tried to encourage him to eat, rather than just drink, and that he had a lot to live for. Hawkins, apparently told those friends he didn't care whether he lived or died, and I suspect Mike had the same attitude, so whether his death was accidental or deliberate doesn't matter, finally. What does matter is that we had another unique talent, who, given luck, and rather less self resistance to media might have gone on to become a major figure in British jazz. His two records (a third track from a compilation CD recorded at Herne Bay in July 1962 can be found on Reel Records, shows Mike in a hard bop setting, and isn't really typical of his work) have always been dogged by low pressings. The original LPs of Pendulum and Trio can only be found for hundreds of pounds, and on CD they have done no better: Pendulum was issued legitimately by a small company but contested by Universal, who claimed ownership (but apparently can't be bothered to reissue it, nor do they own the master tapes!) and Trio – his masterpiece, in my opinion – try to hear what he does to All The Things You Are and his own beautiful ballad Abena (you could always try Jazz Record Requests, or perhaps encouraging Dusk Fire, who have reissued the NJO material to reissue it) – was reissued in a very short print run a decade ago and can now only be found for £40-£50, if at all.
I just wish a real jazz historian like Simon Spillett had written this work – when you read his biography of Tubby Hayes The Long Shadow of The Little Giant, you know the forensic work that went into it to make it impossible for anyone else ever to improve on it, for it's clarity and scrupulous fairness and honesty. With all due respect to Mr Ferrari, I would have tried to dig deeper, but I genuinely congratulate him on writing this book at all. My only quibble is the implication that he was mentally ill (“madness” is a word that crops up more than once). Unless depression and discontent has been reclassified thus, I don't believe he was.
The book is modestly priced and worth obtaining
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