September 2006 By Lee Mergner
My Gotham Hero
To help give perspective to this special issue celebrating the legacy of jazz in New York City, I could think of speaking only with one man. And ironically enough, he’s from Washington, D.C. Dr. Billy Taylor came to New York City in 1944. He went on to play with Charlie Parker and other legends, organize Jazzmobile, host numerous radio and TV shows; and become perhaps the greatest spokesman and champion for jazz, with apologies to our cover artist, who has had a similar role in spreading the jazz gospel.
Taylor came to New York after graduating from college in D.C. and saving up some money so he wouldn’t starve in the big city. “But fortunately, I didn’t have to pay the dues I thought I would,” says Taylor, laughing. “I was extraordinarily lucky. I came to New York on a Friday night, got off the train and dropped off my bags. And then I came to Minton’s because I knew in those days you could sit in. It was late in the evening before I got on, but that was the lucky break for me, because when I finally got to play, a whole bunch of guys were on the bandstand, including Ben Webster. And Ben was my all-time ideal for the tenor. Everybody was off from work and there are ten guys on the bandstand, so I didn’t get to do all that much soloing. But I played a couple of choruses, did a lot of comping. Turns out that was really what he was interested in. After the last set, he came over and said, ‘Look, I liked what I heard you doing.’ I told him I had just come into New York. He said, ‘Why don’t you come on down to the Three Deuces? I’m working down there. Come down on Sunday because it’s quieter and I’ll be able to hear you.’ I went down and auditioned for him and got the gig. So the third night I was in town, I was working on 52nd Street!”
Taylor found himself in the center of one of the great music scenes of the Twentieth Century. “Jazz was the popular music at that time. In New York, you had lots of places where they had dancing. Then there were a zillion clubs, because in the ’30s the speakeasies took over.”
Taylor has witnessed a host of changes in the New York scene since then. “It’s changed immeasurably. The housing has changed, where people live, where people go. In the early days of my tenure here, Harlem was a wonderful place to live and eat. In a ten-block radius, you would run into all kinds of stuff. Right there and then, there was a unique mix of people. And a combination of things that no longer exist in the same way.” More than 60 years later, Taylor still lives in New York (in the Bronx) and still believes the city to be the jazz capital of the world. However, he recognizes that things are different now for musicians wanting to call New York City home. “Musicians can’t afford to live anywhere in New York. It’s much more expensive than any guy who’s trying to making it as a musician can afford to live now.”
And as documented in Josef Woodard’s piece on artists’ reflections on 9/11, that event changed the city and its inhabitants in profound ways. “I saw it on television,” recalls Taylor. “My wife and I just watched it spellbound. It’s indescribable. It’s changed everything, but it hasn’t changed what we do in the city. The wonderful thing about New York City is its resiliency.” We hope to have captured a sample of that resiliency with this special edition.
Originally published in September 2006