Dr. Billy Taylor: Taylor Made

An Excerpt From 'The Jazz Life of Dr. Billy Taylor'

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Dr. Billy Taylor (center) with Art Tatum (third from right) and friends at a club in New York City
By Billy Taylor Collection, Library of Congress
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Dr. Billy Taylor, New York City circa 1947
By William P. Gottlieb

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With his passing at age 89 in December 2010, Dr. Billy Taylor left behind one of the most chivalrous legacies in jazz. Dr. Taylor was, of course, a formidable pianist and composer, but his work off the bandstand, as an educator, broadcaster and advocate, garnered him a reputation as one of the art form’s patron saints.

His new posthumously released autobiography, The Jazz Life of Dr. Billy Taylor (Indiana University Press), written with the academic Teresa L. Reed, does his high esteem justice. Without sacrificing the man’s integrity, the book captures Dr. Taylor’s wide-eyed enthusiasm for jazz and for his missions to further the music’s tradition and expand its audience.

In this excerpt, the pianist recalls his move to New York City during the heady days of bebop. Just hours off the train at age 22, he began making connections with jazz greats that would change his life forever.

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On a chilly Friday night late in 1943, I boarded the train for the big city, my pockets filled with the money I’d saved, my head filled with dreams, and my heart pounding a syncopated rhythm of nervous yet hopeful anticipation. New York was jazz heaven, and I couldn’t wait to get there and take my place. As the train moved farther and farther away from Washington, D.C., the bittersweetness of permanently leaving home and family gave way to blurry yet bright and enticing visions of the unknown. As soon as I could, I intended to head for Minton’s, the legendary Harlem club where the who’s who of the jazz world gathered to jam. Minton’s Playhouse was the regular stomping ground of people like Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk. Everybody knew that if you wanted to make it in music, Minton’s was the place to be.

When I first arrived in New York, I had arranged to stay for a short time with my mother’s older brother, my uncle Walker Bacon, and his family. So I got off the train, and contrary to Duke Ellington’s advice to Billy Strayhorn about taking the “‘A’ train,” I took the Lenox Avenue subway to 145th Street. I got off the train, and with my luggage in tow, I walked three very long blocks in the bone-snapping cold to the Dunbar Apartments in Harlem. I quickly greeted my aunt and uncle and told them I had to depart immediately to meet someone, which was part lie and part truth. I dropped off my bags and was swiftly out the door again. Having now relocated to this city whose lights, sounds and possibilities had beckoned to me, I was making a total commitment. I had no idea what lay ahead, but I knew that I’d arrived someplace where to dream and to dare were one and the same. There was no time to waste.

On that very first night as a resident of New York, I enrolled in the school of jazz known as Minton’s Playhouse. Upon arriving at the club, I introduced myself and joined the company of eager young musicians who, like me, craved a chance to display and hone their skills. The players who had already passed muster enjoyed the hard-won privilege of going on first. All of the rest of us were waiting in line to play after them, some guys sitting nervously while clutching their instruments, others furrowing their brows in apparent fear of following the guy ahead of him (the guy he never figured to be that good), and still others wringing their hands and glancing down at their watches as the minutes and hours ticked by. Tapping feet kept the pulse as we waited, listened and took it all in—new twists of harmony, melody and rhythm, new hot-off-the-press musical ideas to incorporate into the improvisations we each rehearsed inside of our heads. Despite its legendary status, Minton’s was the kind of place where the older guys considered it their role to scold, correct and encourage the youngsters, just as seasoned masters do to their apprentices. Anyone with a desire to play could walk into Minton’s, wait his turn to sit in with the band, and, if he had enough nerve and the right thickness of skin, get a jazz education par excellence from veteran musicians who taught by example and cared deeply about the music.

Excerpted with permission from The Jazz Life of Dr. Billy Taylor, by Dr. Billy Taylor with Teresa L. Reed. Indiana University Press, 2013.

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DOCTOR’S NOTES: BILLY TAYLOR’S BEST RECORDINGS
By Giovanni Russonello

THE CHRONOLOGICAL CLASSICS, 1945-1949
(Chronological Classics, 2000)
If Thelonious Monk will always be bebop’s mad professor emeritus, Dr. Billy Taylor remains its department chair: natty, literary, diplomatic in his music and manner. On this collection—bridging six varied sessions from the earliest years of Taylor’s recording career—he blends the lessons of his idols, gilding the bright dance of Ellington’s piano with a glistening, Tatum-esque spume. But if he has a more resourceful left hand than most bop pianists, and a more affable touch, there’s no mistaking it: Taylor was of the new breed, a modern player like Bud Powell and Duke Jordan.

JAZZ AT STORYVILLE VOLUME 2
(Roost, 1952)
“We disagreed on our approach to many different things,” Taylor once said of his relationship with the irascible and iconoclastic bassist Charles Mingus. On this rare recording of them playing together, they blaze through a collection of standards in a one-off trio with drummer Marquis Foster. Their abrasion tugs Taylor out of his comfort zone, and on an uptempo “What Is This Thing Called Love?” he throws his weight into every phrase while Mingus pushes against resolution. Originally released on 10-inch vinyl, the album is long out of print. If you can’t nab a used copy, almost all the material can be heard in a half-hour YouTube clip: “Billy Taylor Trio with Charles Mingus - Live at Storyville.”

WARMING UP!
(Riverside, 1960)
Taylor’s working trios rarely reached for the restless kinetics that make Jazz at Storyville stand out. But this record, with Ray Mosca on drums and Henry Grimes on bass, epitomizes the sound that we’ll remember Taylor by: concise, delightful and scrupulously swinging. Mosca generally sticks to brushes, and Grimes’ bass does its best to meld into Taylor’s left-hand lines. Warming Up! pulls together 12 Taylor originals from a single studio date, including the often-covered “Easy Walker.”

TEN FINGERS, ONE VOICE
(Arkadia, 1999)
Billy Taylor was 77 by the time he released his first solo piano album. Too bad: This record relishes the piano’s palette in all its bodily breadth, showing off the sensitivities Taylor inherited from the masters of stride piano he’d always idolized. On “Night and Day,” his left hand’s spare, strolling harmonies jostle in crisp repartee with swinging eighth-note lead lines.

To read the rest of this story, purchase the issue in print or from the Apple Newsstand. Print and digital subscriptions are also available.

Originally published in May 2013

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