Musicnotes Musical Career Recognition Recipient
Hanah Jon Taylor
A Lifetime of Achievement
|Hanah Jon Taylor at his jazz and culture presentation
venue Cafe CODA on Williamson Street.
Taylor received the Musicnotes Musical Career
Recognition Award at the 2019 MAMA Awards.
One of Taylor’s most memorable performances was in Nickelsdorf, Austria for personal as well as professional reasons.
“We weren’t exactly scheduled to play,” Taylor said with a chuckle. “They did find a place for us on the schedule and we killed it. It was a great surprise for
the Austrians to have this group emerge from Chicago by way of France to play a wonderful portion of that festival. That was pretty amazing. Unfortunately, two
of the members of that band are now deceased, Oscar Brown III on bass, Calvin Coco Bronson. They were both almost a generation younger than me. That’s
also why that was a magic moment because some moments you hope that you will be able to maybe duplicate or relive or revisit, but when your brothers and
sisters with whom you have shared that moment are no longer here, then I believe that makes that moment more precious.”
Taylor is the ultimate improv performer, always driven to explore new boundaries — and instruments — in his search for that perfect jazz session.
“The last summer festival I played was in the south of France, in Sommières, France,” Taylor recalled. “It was with a Franco-American ensemble called
Watershed with Denis Fournier, Nicole Mitchell, Tamika Reed, Bernard Santa Cruz and myself. We were in this festival and it was such a thick festival that
actually coming off the stage — it had one large stage which is uncommon — and I was carrying four horns. I had to hustle back and forth quickly to get on
and off stage. On top of that, it was the first introduction to the wind synthesizer ever heard. Because the band is Franco-American, we didn’t have too much
time to rehearse because half of the band was coming from the United States and half the band was coming from France. I talked to them and explained what
the wind synthesizer was. It fell on pretty skeptical ears until I was able to whip it out. I did it during a seemingly opportune time during the music when
everyone loved it. Now they wanted to hear it again. It’s always amazing to me how the people whom you consider to be the most artistic around you can be
very reluctant to change. And that was the case there. But it was a good group and a good experience.”
Taylor has always relished how much the people of Europe appreciate jazz. Instead of it being the background noise in a bar while they play darts and talk
incessantly, the Europeans treat jazz like it is a work of art that must be presented in a gallery with no other distractions so that it can be truly appreciated.
Taylor has tried to bring that environment to Madison when he founded Café CODA.
“Understanding the correct manner in which the music should be presented from playing in so many places in the world where the music was really
respected, I simply applied my vision to what I have learned from past environments,” Taylor said. “That’s from what we have designed the club Café CODA.
When you go into Café CODA, you will hopefully feel an environment that is unique to Madison. What I have done is chosen elements that were attractive and
memorable to me from other places in the world. And basically, I coagulated them to one environment. For example, when you see the hanging lights from one
side of the room, they were inspired by the lighting of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, which I wanted to play a solo flute concert or recording in. And the Imam
there led me on for about three days before he told me no, it wasn’t going to happen. He waited until I was about to leave town. That’s an example of some
visual inspiration. So when I look to that side of the room, that’s what I am reminded of and maybe it takes me to a place where I wouldn’t be if there was a
television in the room or a dart board.”
When one walks into Café CODA, the lighting sets the mood. Large posters of noted jazz artists line the walls. The performance stage is in the rear with small
cocktail tables arranged throughout the space adds to the intimacy and feel that you are in a different place than Madison, Wisconsin.
“When people come to our place, the reaction from them consistently is that they feel they are someplace else,” Taylor said. “They feel like they are in Chicago
or Paris or New York. To me, that tells us that we are succeeding because we are not trying to mimic or duplicate what is here now. There are many places in
Madison, Wisconsin to throw darts and watch television and shoot pool. I can think of only one place in Madison, Wisconsin with a concert grand piano,
suitable staging, a green room and an intimate environment that only has a capacity for 99 people. When I was a young person, we thrived on such
environments for our listening education. And I believe that with the resurgence of this type of environment, that the appreciation of the music will then find a
And Taylor feels that Madison — if it wants to be considered a major player in the world educational and IT worlds, must expand its concept of itself to allow
places like Café CODA — the only bar owned by an African American with a liquor license — to find their niche.
“When I first came here, I could see how potentially Madison could be a world-class place,” Taylor said. “But in these 25 years, I’ve also seen the city seem
to rebuke the notion of its potential. What we have to realize is that in the next 20 years, Madison, I believe, is in for a demographic and a cultural shock. We,
as a city, must expand our thinking of what this city is about and what it can be to prepare for that. We need to be sensitive and aware and prepared to realize
Madison and its potential in the Midwest and in the world.”
Taylor recalled how his parents opened his horizons to a larger world.
“When I first came to Wisconsin, I was a child with my parents, taking in an excursion to Tommy Bartlett’s Water Show,” Taylor said with a smile. “I could
never understand why we did this every year, traveling at that time, 5-6 hours in one direction, to get to a place to watch people ski and perform water tricks.
To me, it was strange because neither my father nor my mother could swim. None of us could swim. After a few years of doing this, I realized what my parents
were really trying to do was to get me off of the pavement and offer me an experience that was unique from the south side of Chicago and in that sense, help
expand my thinking of the world maybe. I learned the value, first of all, of travel excursions. And I learned to appreciate strange environments, environments
that were strange to me ethnically and maybe socially and therefore appreciate my own home and see it as a connection to other places, not just an isolation
from other places. I think too often our experience as people of color is that we feel isolated where we are instead of connected to other places. And so I am
really grateful to my parents for those excursions to Wisconsin at such an early age. I never did learn how to swim. I did learn to appreciate that idea and
principle of being part of a larger world.”
Over the past 25 years, Taylor has seen jazz and other forms of music evolve, especially in this electronics age. But for Taylor, what it all boils down to is the
musician and his/her instrument.
“I think it’s important for young musicians to realize that amidst all of the distractions of the technical world and the illusions of the media, we are at our best
when we are ourselves,” Taylor said. “If I were a musician who 30 years ago aspired to play exactly like one of my heroes, then maybe in 30 years, I might
acquire that ability to mimic, but how much opportunity would I have given to myself to express myself. This industry is not fair to originators. It is not
welcoming to people who seek to develop their own voice. But if one can endure the illusions of the media and the distractions of technology to in fact do
that, then I believe that it will pay off in multitudes. I’m not talking about being famous. I’m talking about being successful. There’s a big difference between
success and fame. If people get 15 minutes of fame, as Andy Warhol suggested, then I believe I might be getting mine in 15-second intervals. And I find that
With being another year older and the responsibilities of running a club, Taylor has had to change his approach to staying on top of his art form.
“I try to practice 2-3 hours per day,” Taylor said. “But it becomes increasingly more difficult because of the responsibilities that I have as a club owner. I am
up and at the club about 7 a.m. and if I can get two sessions in between 7-11 a.m., then I feel like I am making some progress. But it seems like I have to get it
in then or it won’t happen. Presently I am working on this idea of micro-practicing or micro-shedding rather than practicing long periods of time. I would work
in 30 minute segments on isolated areas of the instrument that I need to develop more acutely. I’m reading this book by Sam Newsome who is a saxophone
player. I met him in New York just a few weeks ago. His book has really inspired me to practice in a different way and to look at my practice time with a real
acute economy. These days, it’s not how long I practice, but what I am practicing. For the past 2-3 years, I have been working on playing fewer notes and
investing more information into each note.”
Just because he is immersed in running a club and received a career recognition award, doesn’t mean that Taylor is ready to hang up his horns. On the
contrary, it has made him aware that he needs to keep climbing to greater musical heights.
“In the next 25 years, I would like to make a contribution to the art form as an artist and not just a facilitator of art places and spaces,” Taylor said. “I think at
this point, I have realized I am fairly good at manifesting my visions, but running what I manifest, not so much. I need to delegate those tactile and day-to-day
responsibilities to others who have more expertise. And I need to prepare to reassume my place as a working, creative artist of avant-garde music. That’s
what I want to do. But I realize that what comes first is my next recording. That would be a task that I am about to undertake presently.”
Part 2 of 2
By Jonathan Gramling
Since the mid-1990s, international jazz performer Hanah Jon Taylor has made his mark on the
Madison music scene as a teacher, performer and promoter of the performance and visual arts.
Taylor first started out at the old Ward Brodt Music Store on the Beltline Hwy and then opened his own
studio, The House of Sounds, on Williamson Street. Two to three decades later, Taylor is still
producing fine jazz sounds at Café CODA on Williamson Street.
On June 9, Taylor received the Musicnotes Musical Career Recognition Award at the MAMA Awards
held at the Overture Center’s Capitol Theater. And what a career Taylor has had.
Taylor began his career in Chicago and spent significant time in Europe and other places performing
during the unofficial improve season.
“Most of my work oversees has been in the fall and in the spring because summertime is tourist
time,” Taylor confided. “Although there are festivals, most of the avant-garde festivals don’t occur at
that time because the commercial artists basically have priority in those festivals. Kenny G might
play in the summer where an art ensemble might play the same town in the fall. For that reason, I hate
traveling in the summer and playing.”
Hanah Jon Taylor is hardly done with making an impact on the Madison
music scene. He will be holding that note forever.