Dr. Billy Taylor Remembered in Memorial Service in NYC
Life of pianist celebrated by thousands at Riverside Church
On Monday, January 10, much of the jazz community gathered at the massive Riverside Church in New York City to remember the life and work of Dr. Billy Taylor. The Reverend Calvin Butts III, minister for the famous Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, presided over the memorial service, which included prayers, remembrances and musical performances over the course of nearly two hours. Thousands of family members, neighbors, colleagues and fans withstood the extreme cold in order to pay their respects to the esteemed jazz pianist, broadcaster and advocate who died of a heart attack on December 28, 2010.
A jazz group led by Jimmy Owens and featuring Geri Allen, Frank Wess (Taylor’s lifelong friend), Chip Jackson and Winard Harper played music written by Taylor, including “Theodora,” dedicated to his wife, and “It’s a Grand Night for Swinging.” That group was joined by singer Cassandra Wilson for a performance of Taylor’s iconic Civil Rights anthem, “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free.” Pianist Christian Sands, a protégé of Taylor’s, performed a solo piano version of “A Bientot.”
Among the speakers who did their best to put Taylor’s incredible life into perspective were: Kevin Struthers, who worked with Taylor at the Kennedy Center; Loren Schoenberg, who lived next door to Taylor in Riverdale; Robin Bell-Stevens (president and CEO of Jazzmobile); Ramsey Lewis; Taylor’s daughter Kim Taylor-Thompson; and Reverend Butts. Given Taylor’s impact on the community through Jazzmobile and other programs, one could imagine that a few hundred more could have spoken on behalf of the elegant pianist.
The eloquent and emotional eulogies from Struthers, Schoenberg, Bell-Stevens, Lewis and Taylor-Thompson are published below in their entirety, and in order of their presentation at the service on January 10.
Loren Schoenberg (Musician/Executive Director - The National Jazz Museum in Harlem) :
My perspective on Dr. Billy Taylor is different from most. We were next door neighbors for the last 16 years, and although I knew him professionally before that, our relationship took on a different cast after we began sharing a wall.
Much has been said about his career and public persona. Like many of you here this evening and thousands upon thousands, indeed millions, of others, I first learned of Billy Taylor through his radio and television work as an eloquent and elegant spokesperson for jazz. It's worth not only noting but underlining the fact that when Billy Taylor was born and came of musical age, there was no Billy Taylor to emulate. In the same sense that Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins and Sidney Bechet not only created beautiful music, but also created professions that did not exist in the world into which they were born, Billy Taylor truly had a vision and managed to turn it into a reality whose influence will long outlast both him and all of us. It was a vision born of inclusion, intelligence, humor and above all, the conviction that jazz was good for you. For those us fortunate to live in such close proximity to him and his lovely wife Teddi, he was a wonderful person to encounter on a regular basis in a domestic setting. It sounds too simple to say that running into him in the elevator or the hallway was like encountering a ray of sunshine, but that's what it was like. He radiated positiveness. Billy gave generously of himself, of his time, his knowledge, and had an innate interest in YOU. He was not only an expert speaker, but an equally brilliant listener. Negative viewpoints didn't interest him in the least; the glass was always at least half full to him.
Billy (I should note that early attempts to call him Dr. Taylor were so strongly rebuffed that I will defer here to his wishes) never lost his passion for education and passing along the legacy of the music he lived. Think of it: teenage encounters with Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Waller, lessons from Duke Ellington's piano teacher, a featured spot on 52nd Street in the 40's with Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins and others, stints with Dizzy Gillespie that included the young, unknown John Coltrane, a week or two with Charlie Parker and strings at the Apollo, and all this before forming his own trio in the early 50's, in which Charles Mingus and other notables played.
And it was from this vantage point that he began his career as a public spokesperson for the music, helping Americans to see beyond the tired stereotypes that surrounded (and still do in some cases) the music. Billy Taylor, in his devotion to jazz and all the people he encountered over 60 years of public service, was truly the indomitable jazz man.
But I'd like to create the image in your mind of the non-public Billy Taylor, one who was, as hard as this may be to believe, even nicer and warmer than the public figure you saw on the stage, on the television. I watched him recover from his first stroke several years ago, step by step, and then, just recently, stoically start on the road to recovery from yet another stroke and, this time, serious heart surgery. He was in the midst of making yet another miraculous comeback just a few weeks ago. And although I wanted to know how he was doing, how he was feeling, he would always steer the conversation back to me or my partner, what was new for us, and always, his thoughts and counsel supporting the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, where he served for over a decade as an active advocate and founding board member. I am proud to announce and humbled to accept the family's donation of his music library to our archives, to create a Dr. Billy Taylor Collection.
As long as there is music, Billy Taylor's spirit will reverberate somewhere. To paraphrase the title of one of his most popular compositions: with Billy in mind, it'll ALWAYS be a grand night for swinging.
Kevin Struthers (Director of Jazz Programming at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, DC):
I am deeply honored to be invited to speak to you today about the gentle giant of jazz, Dr. Billy Taylor. Husband. Father. Brother. Son. Pianist. Composer. Educator. Recording Artist. Broadcaster. Esteemed colleague. Mentor. Friend.
For the past 14 years, I had the distinct privilege of working with Dr. Taylor at the Kennedy Center– where, since his appointment in 1994, he served as Artistic Director for Jazz.
TAYLOR MADE was the name of one of Billy’s music companies, he established years ago. TAYLOR MADE is also an apropos description of jazz programming today at Kennedy Center. Since opening its doors in 1971, the Kennedy Center has annually presented jazz from its many stages. However, prior to his appointment in 1994, there was little structure – no thoughtful, big picture approach to the programming befitting the music as one our country’s most important indigenous art forms – or as Dr. Taylor coined it – America’s Classical Music.
The season before his appointment, for example, the Center presented just four jazz concerts. Sixteen seasons later, the annual concerts number in the hundreds. And not just ticketed events – but free programs – allowing access to hundreds of thousands to experience live jazz music and performance, at their best, both at the Center and online.
You can imagine the list of performers, too. His friends and colleagues….many of whom are here, today. These are the world’s premiere jazz talents, who have graced our stages annually.
He opened a new Kennedy Center Jazz Club, which remains our most popular venue for jazz performance at Kennedy Center.
He opened the Kennedy Center’s doors to jazz performances for children from across the metro-DC region, including students from the Shaw neighborhood of Washington, where a young Billy Taylor - and Frank Wess - grew up and learned to play the piano.
He initiated local – and national – educational programs – including free satellite and internet-based television broadcasts, which he often hosted – appropriately combining his skills as a performer, educator and broadcaster.
Taylor-made, indeed. Upon his death, the front page Washington Post obituary and tribute cited Dr. Taylor as making Washington's Kennedy Center “one of the nation's premier concert venues for jazz.”
The Kennedy Center’s jazz programming reflects his personal passions, including education – and – granting opportunities for performance by the world’s many talented female jazz artists, particularly instrumentalists - who Dr. Taylor felt often didn’t get the attention they deserved, or opportunities to perform. In 1996 – to counter this - he founded the Kennedy Center’s Mary Lou Williams Jazz Festival. With his intended effect, sixteen years later, the Festival has spawned other, similar events across the United States, greatly enhancing opportunities for women to perform – and helping to nationally raise the profile of many of the most talented artists, who just happen to be women. He often laughed and told the story that when he suggested the Kennedy Center present the Mary Lou Williams Festival, someone at Kennedy Center replied “are there enough women to perform an entire concert?”
Following his many years on New York’s WLIB, he was one of a small group of people who came together to help form National Public Radio. He eventually became one its most active and recognized jazz hosts and performers.
Following the popular NPR series JAZZ ALIVE, which he hosted, it was another radio show – BILLY TAYLOR’s JAZZ AT THE KENNEDY CENTER- that cemented Dr Taylor’s role as Kennedy Center’s Artistic Director. For seven years on NPR, Billy would talk some, then play some, with a special guest artist – and Billy’s superb trio – recorded in live concert at Kennedy Center. As a young man, I - as the front-line presenter for these concerts and radio tapings - I learned so much about jazz at the foot of the master interviewer. So, too, did the millions of listeners from around the country.
Kennedy Center’s connection with NPR remains, today, with our annual Piano Jazz Christmas and New Year’s Eve broadcasts – and our active partnership with “JAZZSET with DEE DEE BRIDGEWATER.” You think jazz on the radio airwaves is limited, today – imagine if jazz had not had the eloquent, articulate, passionate advocate Billy Taylor on the radio all of these years! Where would it be?
A few days ago I was sharing memories with Dr. Taylor’s dear friend - Marian McPartland. Unable to be with us, today, Ms. McPartland recalled meeting Dr. Taylor when he was but in his twenties, at Birdland. She said he was just “a young, skinny kid” – and they immediately became fast friends. As we discussed our great sorrow at his passing, she said – with her best British understatement – that he was “Greatly loved. Talented. Brilliant. A decent and most likable fellow.”
When Dr. Taylor arrived as a young man on the scene in NY, his talent as a musician was recognized by the then, current generation of masters – who taught, counseled, and advised the young pianist about the music and the business. Inherent to the music is the tradition of passing on knowledge from master to novice, generation to generation. Dr. Taylor’s experience – was paid forward – and his commitment to passing on to the next generation has never waivered, whether at his Jazz in July program in Massachusetts, or at the Kennedy Center, where he invited Betty Carter to bring her JAZZ AHEAD program, to foster the careers – the training – of young composer-musicians.
Walk onstage with purpose, he’d say. Dress for respect. Address the audience directly, articulately. Respect the audience. Connect with your audience. Engage them. Give them something they can take away with them. Find your own voice, he’d say. Your own unique delivery that makes you – well, you! Then, you will succeed.
Behind the scenes throughout his career – away from the public eye – what many don’t know about are his tireless – selfless – efforts to assist other musicians. Connecting the dots. Connecting artists with other artists; connecting artists with presenters and promoters; to use his leverage as a public figure to foster the careers of so many – on the radio, on television, in New York, around the world. To help out a musician down on his luck, in need of a job. To bring attention to those who deserved greater recognition. Many of the beneficiaries of these acts of selflessness are sitting in this sanctuary today. We will never know how many artists would not be successful if it weren’t for the efforts of Dr. Billy Taylor. And that is the way he wanted it. Without recognition. All behind the scenes – these efforts were not about Billy Taylor….No, they were for the benefit of the MUSIC – for the benefit of OTHERS.
I’ve been with Dr. Taylor in so many different contexts over the years……and his thoughtful, gentlemanly demeanor never waivered. Whether it was in the White House, on the streets of Washington – or in the halls of the Kennedy Center speaking with patrons – wherever – he always spoke in the same, measured tone of respect for everyone he met. When he spoke to anybody – stranger or friend - he would make you feel like you were the only person in the world.
I heard him speak numerous times about his most widely recognized compostion – among the hundreds he created – “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free.” Penned in just fifteen minutes to teach his daughter, Kim, a bit about the swingin’ offbeat rhythms of her African-American heritage. He told me once how when he was involved with Dr. King and the Movement in the 60s, that there was a large gathering in Birmingham, AL, at which Dr. Taylor was performing. A number of people were onstage – when suddenly a portion of the stage collapsed. Amidst the immediate confusion and tumult that followed, Dr. King turned to Dr. Taylor and said – play that song! And just like that, Dr. Taylor started with “I Wish I Knew…..,” and the crowd calmed down.
Following his stroke a few years back, our relationship grew ever stronger. With our many common references, we would have long conversations - although he sometimes was unable to say exactly what he was thinking. I understood exactly what he was talking about, and wonder if anybody listening to us would have the foggiest idea what we were discussing. Looking back, I cherish those talks. It was during this time that he would end our conversations by not saying ‘Good-bye,’ but rather he’d say ‘STRAIGHT AHEAD.’
I think that ‘STRAIGHT AHEAD’ was a testament to his positive energy – always looking ahead – looking forward.
It is impossible to truly gauge – to measure – the impact Dr. Billy Taylor has had on the music. Quite simply, Dr. Taylor was the world’s most articulate and prominent educator for HIS music, HIS love. And although he is no longer with us in person, his recordings and books, and telecasts and music and compositions, will live on, forever….forever sustaining the future of jazz.
Truly, without the least bit of cliché I tell you that I am certain that Dr. Taylor truly knows – NOW - how it feels to be free. For the past couple of weeks, I’m positive that he has been sitting in Heaven at a Steinway, with an entire crowd surrounding him, as he performs knock-out concerts with his fingers flying, the heads of the fellow angels boppin’ – the Heaven’s above, swingin’.
Husband. Father. Son. Brother to but a few. Pianist. Composer. Educator. Recording Artist. Broadcaster to millions. My esteemed colleague. My mentor. My friend.
You were a gentle giant of jazz – Billy Taylor – and you will be missed tremendously.
Robin Bell-Stevens (President and CEO, Jazzmobile, Inc):
This evening we get to celebrate the truly glorious and extra ordinary life of Dr. William Edward Taylor, Jr. …the man…the husband…the father, relative, music master, educator, friend, mentor, ……and Kim if you will allow me…at times, a “Father by choice” providing professional guidance, wisdom and paternal caring that became all the more important to me after the passing of own father. What a blessing…
And I believe all of us gathered here in this place were blessed to have known Billy Taylor. Whether it was through his playing, composing, teaching, writings, or personal interactions; but certainly through the gift of Billy’s music he has touched us all. I am sure that if each one here had the opportunity to share remembrances of Billy, there would probably be 2,500 stories times 10!! But for now I ask that you indulge me as I share with you my letter to Billy.
I remember being introduced to you by your former bassist, Aaron Bell – my Dad (smile); but it was you, who years later- actually a few days after attending my father‟s funeral- told me this story…
You were a regular at the famed Hickory House night club and whenever Duke Ellington was in town he would go there to hear you and your trio play and I would add to enjoy the playing of his favorite protégé. Well on this particular trip to NY, Duke came three nights in a row, and you were elated because that was- as you said- “an unusual occurrence‟…and at this point in your story you broke into laughter and conclude with……about a month later Aaron Bell was the bassist for the Duke Ellington Orchestra!
I never told you; but I have always believed that the timing of this story was a demonstration of your sensitivity and selflessness and ability to genuinely care for the feelings of another. You also let me know that you were and always would be there for me.
Hey Billy, remember when we started working together on the Jackie Robinson Foundation’s An Afternoon of Jazz Festival?
Rachel I am sure you will remember this story. [an aside to the widow of Jackie Robinson seated in the front pew]
A young very talented musician arrived with his group to Cranbury Park in Norwalk Connecticut for the festival……..they were about 30 minutes late. As the Executive Producer, I knew they had enough time to get to the stage – set up and begin their set at the scheduled time; but there was a glitch. The young leader wanted an additional 30 minutes to ….prepare, he wanted to press his suit, polish his shoes…smiles. Then you, our music director, took our young musician aside, spoke with him and had the group hit the first note right on time.
Do you remember, later when I asked what did you do? What did you say to get him to change his mind?…Your response was, that you listened and realized at that moment what he needed was someone to understand his frustrations for their being late and at the same time he explained to you that he still wanted to take the time to do everything he normally would do prior to going onstage, even if it meant he would start the set late (making the audience wait). After reminding him that as musicians you both do what you do for your love of the music; and also for the audiences‟ love of the music‟… you told me that: “Our young musician just needed to be reminded of the latter…” Billy Taylor always the educator…
Billy, your graciousness and caring was experienced by so many others. Last week I spoke with Cecelia and Frank Foster and I had to smile when Frank said..”my life long friend and contemporary will be warmly remembered for his significant contributions to Jazz…he is guaranteed to occupy a most prominent position in that so-called great jazz orchestra in the sky.”
Last spring after my husband and Evelyn Cunningham died –on the same day-you called to offer your condolences and before we hung up I said what I often said – Billy you are going to have to live forever, and as always you said "alright‟ and we laughed.
Not wanting to end the call we changed the subject and I told you we are planning several tributes to celebrate you and your music it will start with a series of concerts, education programs and panel discussions, we'll include musicians who have known you forever like Frank Wess and Jimmy Owens, and we‟ll invite young musicians, historians, industry leaders and others to talk about your influences and contributions to jazz ….and that we are presenting a tribute concert at Alice Tully Hall on June 21 2011. I told you that LeRoy Neiman has offered two images of you for a poster, that George Wein has already agreed to be a Chair of the Gala committee and I asked you if you had heard John Legends‟ and the Roots‟ version of “I wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free?” on their latest album? You said "Yes‟ and that you liked the arrangement and performance (but also politely corrected me and said "You mean their latest CD!").
I told you our plans included dedicating Jazzmobile's 2011-2012 season to you as we continue a two yearlong celebration of your 90th Birthday!....and in that very humble way about you said, "I like that idea, especially the education programming let‟s talk some more about that…and thank you.‟
On December 14, 2010 you enjoyed the sixth Jazzmobile tribute, and 3rd in the “Taylor Made‟ series. That night it was Geri Allen and three “young musical lions” Jonathan Batiste, Gerald Clayton and Christian Sands , playing and speaking their tributes to you on a single stage with 3 baby grand pianos…. It was your last public appearance.”
Straight ahead Billy,
I miss you so…
Ramsey Lewis (Pianist/composer):
If not for one incident that happened very early in my life, I might never have known Billy personally.
My parents started me taking piano lessons at the age of four. Thus began my journey with the European classical tradition. At nine years old I became the accompanist for the gospel choir of our church and the church service in general. At 16 years old, and now at another church, one of the other church musicians who was in college asked me to join the jazz band he was part of. Without rehearsal – he thought I knew enough to make the first gig – he invited me to join their band and show up at the Southwestern Temple Ballroom in Chicago. Those were still the days when people danced to jazz. I was at school late so I went directly there. The dance was from 8 to 11 pm. I got there at 6 pm and did homework until the other guy started to show up. It was a 7-piece band – 3 horns, guitar, piano and drums. We took the stage and Wallace Burton, the leader called a Charlie Parker tune based on the blues. The only blues record I had heard was one my Dad had. It was by Meade Lux Lewis and called “Boogie and the Blues.” So I struck out in the meanest boogie-woogie you ever heard thinking I’d impress them of course. Wallace had me stop and said the guitarist could play the chords. Next he called several standards – none of which I knew! If a song wasn’t in the classical repertoire or the Thomas A. Dorsey gospel songbook, I didn’t know it.
I tell this story because what happened next dictated whether or not I would ever know of Billy Taylor – much less ever meet him! Wallace, our bandleader, told me to just sit out the rest of the evening so I found a place to finish my homework I just figured that was the end of that (remember I was only 16). My parents had told Wallace he had to see that I got home safely, so he drove me home and said that if I came over to his house in a couple of day’s time, he would show me a few things. I did. Among other things he told me to check out some of the top jazz piano players including Billy and to notice how each had his own interpretation of song. Needless to say, this system worked because the rhythm section for that band went on to become the original Ramsey Lewis Trio.
In those days you could take LPs into listening booths at record stores to decide what you liked. I didn’t have money to buy, but I had the opportunity to do a lot of listening. The record store was around the corner from the Chicago Musical College where I was now taking piano lessons. Billy’s music was particularly captivating. Among other things I was impressed with his sophisticated harmonies, fluid lines and beautiful and elegant interpretations of ballads. But then man could he swing! Within 5 years my trio was preparing to make our first album. The person who was instrumental in getting us with a record company was Holmes “Daddy O” Daylie. On the first day of recording, he came by and who should he have with him but the great Billy Taylor who was appearing downtown at Chicago’s London House. This is where all of the big time piano trios held forth. At first I was unnerved! Here we are with our first ever-record date and in walks one of my idols! But I will never forget that day. Billy said kind words of encouragement to us, talked a little bit about what we were going to record and then left after inviting us down to the London House to check out his trio. Billy had Earl May and Ed Thigpen or maybe it was Charlie Smith with him at the time. With his character, personality and style, Billy made his exit knowing that his staying would make us more nervous. By his grace, he left us positively energized and ready to record our album. Little did I know that day in 1954 that that would be the start of a wonderful friendship between us.
And so it was. For several years, we would see each other occasionally but would talk by phone often enough to keep a running discourse on what was happening in our lives. On many occasions I would leave these conversations with his words of wisdom or some thought to consider.
It was during my appearance on Billy’s television show on the Bravo channel that our relationship deepened. After that show, we found ourselves in each other’s company more regularly. Billy’s show consisted of him inviting pianists as guests for conversation and 2-piano performances. Our taping went so well that we ended up with enough music for two shows! We had so much fun that we decided to look at the possibility of touring together! There was an opportunity coming up in Kansas City, so we had our agents book us on that show for a trial run. The city of Kansas City offered a weekend afternoon of jazz to their citizens and asked us to perform. There were several thousand on the lawn. Some of them had their families there and they were all having a great time. But would they quiet down to listen to two piano players playing jazz standards? Or would the frivolity of the day negate us? Well, not only did we get their undivided attention, but they demanded so many encores that we finally just thanked them profusely and then stopped. Otherwise we would have been there all night!
This was all the evidence we needed to tell our agents to book a tour. We both still performed with our own trios throughout the years, but we managed to perform several 2-piano dates every year for quite a number of years.
It was during this period that we got to spend more face time together which we both greatly enjoyed. As I look back, I am sure I benefitted much more from these interactions because Billy had so many stories and I had so many questions about music and his experiences with all of the greats: Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, just to name a few.
Billy told me the story of when he first went to New York. His father gave him a friend’s name to look up when he arrived there so that he would have someone to connect with and who could look out for the young Billy. However, Billy was so enamored with New York that he toured 52nd Street, sitting in at several clubs, receiving great applause! He had prepared for that moment. The next day he call his father’s friend and was invited to join this friend at a gathering that day in Harlem. Billy said when they arrived it was in the afternoon, the shades were partly down and there were 3 or 4 guys sitting around the room. Billy and his Dad’s friend entered the room and Billy, seeing a piano there, said a general hello to everyone and still feeling the afterglow from the previous night headed for the piano. Billy said he played several of his favorite tunes then was blown away afterwards as he recognized the likes of Art Tatum, James P. Johnson and another illustrious piano giant, Willie the Lion Smith. Each of them in turn offered their interpretation of the last song Billy played! Then the three of them got into a cutting session among themselves where, still paying the same song, had to start with the key and tempo the last one ended on before going into their own interpretations . . . as Billy sat there with his mouth wide open! He told me that it felt like this went on for what seemed like hours before formal introductions were made. To these jazz greats, of course, it was all good-natured fun. And in fact, Billy and Art Tatum became good friends.
And so it was during those times with Billy that – when we weren’t discussing the art of playing the piano, or sometimes just talking about life in general – he shared numerous experiences with me about the Golden Age of Jazz.
As I look back now, it is clear that Billy was truly my big brother – the one I never had. He was always supportive, offering suggestions and ideas on life in general, musical ideas I still use today, and was a great help to me as I embarked in the world of media as I discussed with him my trepidation of hosting radio and television shows. I still use much of what he gave to me when in front of a microphone or television camera. Billy paved the way for so many of us in our careers.
These are not Billy’s exact words, so I will paraphrase what his words of wisdom meant to me:
• Do whatever it takes to discover your true self.
• Don’t let peer pressure or society interfere with your endeavors.
• You don’t have to be an expert on whatever question is asked of you, just speak from your own personal experience or feelings about it, whatever the topic.
That advice took the pressure off of me and allowed me to venture into a whole new realm. I benefitted greatly from Billy’s mastery of music and life.
Billy was a cherished mentor to me, and my wife Jan and I as well as so many others who encountered him, no matter how briefly, know that by the way he lived his life, Billy was a mentor to us all.
Kim Taylor-Thompson (daughter of Dr. Billy Taylor):
Dad liked to tell the story of how he came to write “I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to Be Free.” I had come home from elementary school and I was singing a Negro Spiritual that the nuns had taught us to sing. I was singing it loud and with a whole lot of feeling, but, apparently, I was singing it all wrong. He later liked to say not only was I singing it wrong, but I was clapping off time -- on one and three – but I don’t believe that for a moment… I think it just made for a better story. But anyway when Dad heard me singing the spiritual incorrectly, he told me that that wasn’t how it went. And, of course, being the child that I was, I told him “Oh yes that is how it goes because Sister Sharon said that was the way to sing it. “ That’s right, I was actually arguing that the white Catholic nuns knew more about Negro Spirituals than my Dad -- I was seven – I was clueless. But apparently when he heard the spiritual – even sung wrong – he was inspired to write something from his point of view, his experience, his heart that would capture the message of spirituals and help his headstrong daughter understand a little better what the Negro spirituals were trying to convey.
He used that moment to teach me through his music. Little did he know at the time that the song that took him all of fifteen minutes to write would become an anthem of the Civil Rights movement and his signature piece. He had captured the sentiments of the times and found a way to give voice to the feelings of those of us who were engaged in the struggle for civil rights. One of those people turned out to be Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King would often ask Dad to play the song but could never remember the name – he would just ask Dad to play that Baptist sounding song. And Dad knew the one he meant.
As I think about my Dad, it is hard to sum up such a meaningful, full life in a few short minutes. But if I had to distill him to his essence, he was a somewhat indulgent Dad; he was a gifted musician; and he was a tremendous educator. As I’ve had a chance to listen to the many tributes to -- and reflections about – my Dad, I’ve come to realize that the private man whom our family called Bill, Uncle Bill, and, whom Duane and I and, later my husband, Tony, called Dad was not really all that different from his public persona. Whether through his music, in casual conversation, or just through his observations, he found a way to tell you something you hadn’t known; he highlighted a particular riff in the music that you would otherwise have missed; he was willing to share something personal about himself that inevitably touched your heart, captured your imagination or just made you nod your head. He had a gift for reaching across the globe but making each one who listened feel that he was speaking just to you.
Of course, in these past few days my mind has been racing back to my childhood and the Dad who was often on the road, but when he wasn’t, I was always underfoot – literally. My favorite place to sit and play with my dolls was right underneath his piano – even when he was playing. The only time he ever chased me out of that spot was when Grady Tate and Ben Tucker would come over to the apartment to practice with Dad and I was told that he needed to work. Of course, I’d still manage to sneak back out and dance in the corner as the trio rehearsed. Dad would just shake his head but he’d let me stay. We had a bond.
For most of our childhood, I don’t think that my brother Duane or I really had a sense of how important he was or the impact he was having on the world. He was just Dad -- A man who could make you laugh even when you were mad; a man who had one of the silliest senses of humor on the planet. He loved the Marx Brothers and Abbott and Costello. He’d watch those same old silly routines and would laugh like he had never seen or heard them before. He really loved to tell a joke, but he couldn’t tell one to save his life. Every time he would announce that he had a joke, Duane, Mom and I would just groan in unison. Because he would start telling the joke, get you all caught up in anticipation and then he’d either forget the punch line or say “oh wait, that’s not how it goes” and just ruin it. That was Dad.
And as everyone today has observed, music was the passion that drove him. Mom would say that she loved to hear him play a ballad because he could move you to tears. Music really was a part of everything he did. So it used to surprise me that when we would get in the car with him, he rarely had music playing on the radio or on a CD. I once asked him why and he said quite simply that music was never background for him. It was always front and center. And that was literally true because the few times that he would have music playing in the car, he would get so caught up in someone’s solo or a particular riff that surprised him that he would miss his exit or drift into the next lane of traffic. But he never stopped learning or listening and trying to figure out how to move people through music.
Dad was a gifted teacher, not just through his music, his stories or words, but also through the life he lived. He taught us to find joy in our lives and to make sure that we did what we loved deeply. He also instilled in us the importance of using whatever talents we had to give back. We saw him live that example at an early age when he founded Jazzmobile – he created it so that communities of color that couldn’t afford to go downtown to hear the likes of Dizzy Gillespie or Duke Ellington could walk out into the streets of Harlem and hear them for free. It was America’s classical music and African Americans had created it. We had a right to hear it, to be a part of it and not have it become so expensive that it was no longer ours. Duane and I learned from that example. In so many ways, Duane was probably most like him. He was artistic and had inherited much of both Dad’s and Mom’s creativity. I was influenced by Dad’s intense political views and chose, as a lawyer, to use my law degree as a way to give back to communities by representing people who couldn’t afford counsel in Washington DC. So even though my path and Duane’s were different from Dad’s, he was the inspiration and guide for our choices. And he was there when we made every critical move, asking us tough questions, listening closely to every idea no matter how ridiculous, helping us choose a path that may not always have seemed the most logical choice but was in the end the right choice for us.
As we all marvel at the things Dad was able to do in his long – but to me – too short life, I know -- and you should know -- that none of it would have been possible if not for one person in his life – his muse, his inspiration, my Mom. She was the one who managed to keep him grounded when other musicians might have lost their way; she was the one whose fierce loyalty helped him know that when the world was cruel he had someone who would walk through fire to help him. She loved him deeply and through that knew how much he loved his music and needed to play and she enabled him to do that so well. So let me say, thank you to my Mom, Theodora Castion Taylor, his bride of sixty-four years.
I would also like to thank the many individuals who have taken the time to express to the family how much Dad touched their lives. Thank you to Congressman Charlie Rangel and the Honorable David Dinkins who are with us today and the countless other dignitaries who have each expressed their love for my Dad. His reach seemed to be wide and extensive, but I think that what has touched my family so much in these difficult days since his passing is that so many have made a point to tell us about how Dad took the time to make them feel important and heard. He would answer any question; he was always ready to be an ear when someone needed it and to offer advice no matter who you were. People who worked his concerts reminded us that he was always the last to leave because he made a point of thanking each member of the crew for making him sound so good. Thank you all for coming and for sharing your memories of how he touched your lives.
Dad once wrote “I sometimes think of myself as an American griot, an urban griot if you will. In African tradition , a griot is a historian, a story teller, the custodian of doctrines, practices, rites and customs. He is often a well trained professional entertainer who passes on the information he has acquired over a lifetime to make life better for those who might learn from his knowledge and experience.” Dad was that and more. He was our griot; he was a world class gifted musician; he was a gentle and caring man. There is simply no greater legacy. We will miss him. I will miss him.