Cecil Taylor (1929–2018), who was associated with the postwar black musical avant-garde, and Mary Lou Williams (1910–81), who had roots in jazz’s swing era, met in a notorious 1977 Carnegie Hall recital. These two African American pianists possessed decidedly different temperaments and aesthetic sensibilities; their encounter offers a striking illustration of how conflicts between coexisting performance strategies can reveal a great deal about musicians’ thought processes and worldviews. Evidence from unpublished manuscripts and letters, published interviews and written commentary by the performers, the accounts of music critics, and musical transcriptions from a commercial recording (the album Embraced) reveals that, in addition to demonstrating the performers’ distinct musical idiolects, the concert engaged longstanding debates over jazz’s history and definition as well as broader issues of black American identity. In particular, it dispelled still potent notions of jazz as a genre with a unilinear historical trajectory, and it encapsulated the inherent ambivalence toward the past often exhibited by the jazz avant-garde.

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