Like several of the giants of the bebop era including Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and the Heath Brothers, Billy Taylor was born in North Carolina. In Taylor’s case, he was born in Greenville in the eastern part of the state on July 24, 1921. However, when Taylor was young, his family moved to the Washington, DC area, where his grandfather was a co-founder of the Florida Avenue Baptist Church, located near the Howard Theatre, which was one of the stops on the T.O.B.A. circuit of venues for black performers.
Taylor told JT’s Geoffrey Himes in 2005 that the music played in those two seemingly different environments helped to form him as a musician. “For a long time, I didn’t separate pop music from classical music and church music,” Taylor said. “It was all part of our environment. All of us sang in church. We had two organists in the family and a vocal quintet made up of the family’s male members. But because I grew up in Washington, I also saw people who looked like me playing European classical music as expertly as the people I saw in the movies and concert halls. And every week we had a different band playing at the Howard. You talk about an education: I heard Earl Hines, Chick Webb—people who looked like me and could play so well. I wanted to be one of them.”
Taylor was just seven years old when he told his family that he wanted to play like those jazz musicians he had been seeing and hearing at the Howard and other local venues. His Uncle Robert gave him 78s by Fats Waller and Art Tatum and advised him to immerse himself in their music. And Taylor started to take lessons from a neighborhood woman named Elmira Street, who introduced the youngster to the fundamentals of the piano.
“She taught me in a very traditional way,” Taylor told Himes. “We did scales and arpeggios, simple pieces by Haydn and Bach, learning pieces that we could do in her studio. I learned how to read music, the whole idea of how music was put together, the idea that a piece of music has to start somewhere, go somewhere and reach somewhere. She said, ‘Don’t just bang on the notes; it’s got to be music. Make me feel something.’”
Taylor also studied informally with pianist Louis Brown, a ragtime player who worked at the Howard Theatre. “I wanted to play like Fats Waller,” Taylor told Himes in 2005. “[Brown] didn’t have a lot of time, because he was working so much, but he told me about the old players and certain things they did. He said, ‘This is the way Fats Waller would play ‘Handful of Keys,’ and then he played the fastest version of ‘Handful of Keys’ I’d ever heard. I’d heard it on record, but to hear it played in person with an individual touch made me want to run home and learn it.”
Taylor also studied classical music while attending Dunbar High School. His teacher was Henry Grant, who had taught another Washington resident, Duke Ellington, 20 years earlier. “He was one of the few people Duke really cherished as a teacher,” Taylor explained. “Frank Wess was a year behind me in high school, and Mr. Grant would let us have jam sessions in the basement music room during lunch hour, much to the chagrin of Mary Reese Europe, the sister of [ragtime bandleader] James Reese Europe. She didn’t think too much of jazz.”
Cobbling together his own personal jazz piano curriculum from various teachers and sources, Taylor experienced firsthand just how limited the opportunities were in a segregated America for African-Americans to study jazz or even music. He would make it one of his missions in life to change that situation. Although he accomplished a great deal musically in his life, his direct impact on how jazz was presented and taught is perhaps his greatest legacy.
But that pursuit would come later in the midst of his own career as a professional musician. After graduating from Dunbar, Taylor went to Virginia State University near Petersburg, where he also experienced a reactionary response to his interest in studying jazz rather than classical music. However, he was fortunate enough to come in contact with a teacher named Undine Smith (later Moore), who although not a jazz musician herself, encouraged the young Taylor to pursue his passion for the music. “She was one of the few people on the staff who didn’t say, ‘Stop doing that jazz stuff and concentrate on something good.’ Instead she tried to help do what I was doing and make it better. Everything she taught me was classical, but everything I was doing was jazz. She was a wonderful pianist and teacher. She knew just what to help her students with. She knew each of us had different strengths and she was wise enough to know how to appeal to those strengths.”
Upon graduation from Virginia State in 1942, Taylor returned to DC where he continued to work on his music and piano playing. Hearing of a new sort of jazz being played in New York City, he decided to move north and experience the scene for himself. The story Taylor would often tell about his serendipitous arrival in New York City in 1944 sounds apocryphal, but the pianist was not known for exaggeration or hyperbole. The pianist had heard that the new music was being played a club called Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, so arriving via northbound train in the city on a Friday evening, Taylor took the subway from Penn Station to 116th Street and walked over to the club, located a few blocks away.
At that time younger musicians would have to wait in the wings for hours on end for the opportunity to sit in. In Taylor’s case, it wasn’t until the early morning hours that he finally got his chance to play. However, the timing proved fortuitous because by that point established musicians were wandering into the club after finishing their gigs elsewhere. While Taylor was comping behind a soloist, he happened to look out at the club and see the imposing figure of Ben Webster across the room. The legendary saxophonist eventually came over to the piano and stood over the young pianist while he played. Afterwards, Webster told Taylor that he was looking for a pianist and to come by the Three Deuces to sit in with his band on Sunday. Literally overnight, Taylor was immersed in the modern jazz scene of New York City.
To make things even more incredible for the young Taylor, when he showed up to sit in with Webster, he found that the saxophonist was splitting the bill with the Art Tatum Trio. Although Taylor was in awe of Tatum, he found his idol to be a surprisingly nurturing mentor during that period and they developed a close bond.
“Art Tatum just took to me,” said Taylor in JT’s Education Guide. “Every opportunity I got, I followed him around. He was legally blind, but he didn’t like people to make a big deal out of helping him, so I’d help him get a cab as if I were getting a cab for myself and then get into the cab with him. We’d go to after-hours places or wherever he wanted to go. Sometimes I’d ask, ‘How do you do that, Art?’ and he’d show me, but most of the time, if I hung around him enough, he’d play everything I wanted to know.”
Shortly after arriving in New York City and catching on with Webster, Taylor recorded his first album as a leader. He also worked as a pianist for various Broadway shows, including Duke Ellington’s Blue Holiday and Billy Rose’s The Seven Lively Arts. In 1949, he was called to sub for Al Haig, pianist with Charlie Parker’s “Bird with Strings” project then appearing at Birdland. It was yet another fortuitous opportunity that helped to shape the ever-absorbing young pianist, who found plenty to learn from Parker and his contemporaries.
“That was a very special experience,” Taylor told Himes. “The beboppers were only a couple years older than me and they had already done things that literally changed the face of music. They extended the melodic line; they expanded the harmonic boundaries and reshaped rhythm. Yet this was one of the few times Bird got the commercial reward that he deserved. It was strings, but he was doing something very personal with them.”
Although Taylor eschewed the notorious lifestyle of Parker and some of his associates, the pianist became a devotee of bebop. Taylor drew upon his roots in swing and classical to develop his own sound as a modern jazz pianist, learning this new music on and off the bandstand. During 1949-1951, Taylor served as the house pianist at Birdland, where he backed many of the era’s most notable musicians, including Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Oscar Pettiford, Art Blakey, Roy Haynes, Zoot Sims and many more. Throughout the ‘40s and early ‘50s, he performed and recorded with a virtual who’s who of modern jazz, including Stuff Smith, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Coleman Hawkins.
Taylor’s own formal music training came in handy in 1949 when a music book publisher, Charles Hanson Music, wanted to issue a how-to instructional guide to bebop. Parker and Gillespie both declined, but Taylor took it on and his Billy Taylor’s Be-Bop for Piano became. It was also perhaps Taylor’s first step in a long parallel career as an educator.
In 1951 he began a one-year residency at Club Le Downbeat, where he performed with his trio of Charles Mingus on bass and Charlie Smith. After Mingus left to form his own group, Earl May (who had worked with Taylor earlier) rejoined the pianist to form a trio that went on to record for Prestige and other small labels. It was during the’50s that Taylor started to get involved with jazz education, giving clinics and music teachers who wanted to teach jazz. He was invited to participate in a seminal conference at Yale University about jazz and music education and although the conference’s recommendations for expanding jazz education at schools across the country was largely ignored.
In the liner notes to his 1994 album, It’s A Matter of Pride, Taylor explained that, “It was during this period that I began to focus on the importance of radio and television in my attempts to get better exposure to jazz.” In 1958, Taylor was invited by National Educational Television to host the first-ever national TV series on jazz: The Subject Is Jazz. His band on the show featured Doc Severinson on trumpet, Tony Scott on baritone sax and clarinet, Jimmy Cleveland on trombone, Mundell Lowe on guitar, Earl May and Eddie Safranski on bass and Ed Thigpen and Ossie Johnson on drums. Among the guests appearing on that pioneering show were: Duke Ellington, Willie “The Lion” Smith, Ben Webster, Nat and Cannonball Adderley, Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, Langston Hughes, Bill Evans, Aaron Copland and many other notable figures in music.
In the ‘60s, Taylor began working regularly as a jazz DJ at first for WLIB and later WNEW in New York City, eventually rising to become the program director at WLIB. When David Frost launched his nationally-syndicated TV talk show in 1969, he asked Taylor to become the musical director of the program. The David Frost Show helped to introduce Taylor to a wider audience, and studio audiences would get a one-hour jazz concert every night. Frost also featured various jazz personalities, including Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Buddy Rich.
With his appearances on radio and television programs, Taylor was very aware of the opportunity he had been given and the responsibility it entailed. “It was a chance to educate people about jazz,” Taylor told Himes. “A lot of people were stepping gingerly around jazz in those days…I was trying to clear up a lot of misconceptions. I wanted to explain that it was an excellent music that was saying a lot about our period.”
The eloquent Taylor was a man of many words, but he inevitably would put those words into action. In the mid-60s, Taylor was a member of the Harlem Cultural Council and after a fellow board member proposed that the organization develop a program to bring music directly to the people in the inner city neighborhoods of New York, Taylor insisted that the music should be jazz. They borrowed a float from a beer company and updated the New Orleans tradition of parading through the streets with music. They called the program Jazzmobile and it was one of the most innovative and important outreach programs in the history of jazz. Countless jazz fans and musicians point to early experiences with Jazzmobile as directly introducing them to the music. The organization is still active today.
Taylor had been teaching at various colleges and universities, and when the University of Massachusetts launched a doctoral program for African-American leaders, Taylor decided to enroll in order to establish his own academic credentials as well as to affirm his own teaching approach. “It was one of the busiest times in my professional life,” Taylor told Himes, “but I wanted to see if the teaching materials I’d been preparing would work, if they would help people learn jazz.”
After receiving his Ph.D. in 1975, Taylor would thereafter be known as Dr. Billy Taylor, although he was never a man to stand on ceremony. To most people in the jazz community, the honorific title merely affirmed his stature as a gifted musician, teacher and thought leader.
Perhaps a bit inspired by his academic experiences, Taylor began writing more ambitious large-scale works, a practice he would continue for the rest of his life. Among the earlier ventures into large ensemble pieces were: Suite for Jazz Piano and Orchestra commissioned by Maurice Abravanel; Make a Joyful Noise for T.J. Anderson; For Rachel, a dance suite; and Impromptu for the Kentucky Symphony. He also wrote various scores for theater productions, such as Wole Soyinka’s The Lion and the Jewel and Your Arms Are Too Short to Box with God.
Taylor founded and served as director for a new jazz radio program called Jazz Alive, which he also hosted. The NPR program featured live jazz performances from new and established artists all over the country. He also developed TaylorMade Piano, a 13-week series tracing the history of jazz.
Given his vast experience in the broadcast field, it came as no surprise that CBS offered him a job as a correspondent for their popular show, CBS Sunday Morning, at that time hosted by Charles Kuralt. Taylor had appeared as a guest on the show and the producers were so taken with his presence that they asked him to join the show permanently. During his long tenure with that program, Taylor profiled well over one hundred jazz artists, both noted and obscure, giving them exposure never before possible for a journeyman jazz musician. In 1982, Taylor won an Emmy for his work on that acclaimed program, specifically for a segment with Quincy Jones.
Throughout his career in the media, Taylor never stopped performing and recording. After recording for various labels such as Prestige, ABC and Paramount, Taylor founded his own label, Taylor-Made Records, to release his records on his own terms. In the ‘90s, he had a run of releases on the GRP and Arkadia record labels, but eventually returned to his own label, Soundpost, for which he recorded Urban Griot and Live at IAJE. He was a passionate supportor and participant in the Civil Right movement and in 1966 he wrote “I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel to Be Free),” a powerful anthem that later ended up in the film Mississippi Burning
Taylor was an active member of the International Association of Jazz Education, which recognized Taylor with numerous honors including admittance into its Hall of Fame. In addition, Taylor was a frequent speaker and guest of honor at the JazzTimes Convention, the industry conferences sponsored by this publication.
During his lifetime, Taylor received many honors, including about two dozen honorary doctoral degrees. He also received two Peabody Awards (for broadcasting) as well as a Grammy. In 1988 Taylor was named an NEA Jazz Master. In 1992, he received the National Medal of Arts, presented by President George H. W. Bush. He received the Grammy Trustees Award, which recognizes outstanding achievement in a non-performing capacity, in February 2005. On March 3, 2007, Dr. Taylor was honored, along with other notable jazz musicians, by the Kennedy Center with the “Living Jazz Legend Award” during the Jazz in Our Time Celebration opening gala.
Taylor had a long and fruitful relationship with the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. He served as the Kennedy Center’s Artistic Director for Jazz from 1994 until his death, and developed numerous ongoing concert series as well as the KC Jazz Club. His live show, Billy Taylor’s Jazz at the Kennedy Center, was produced and recorded by the Center and National Public Radio for eight years. He also helped to launch the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival and was instrumental in bringing Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead program into the Kennedy Center’s slate of events. The Kennedy Center celebrated Dr. Taylor’s 80th year on January 20, 2002, with an all-star celebration in the Eisenhower Theater.
“We are deeply saddened by the death of Dr. Billy Taylor,” said Darrell Ayers, Vice President of Education and Jazz at the Kennedy Center in a press release. “In his role as Artistic Director for Jazz at the Kennedy Center, he generously shared his wisdom, time, and passion for music. He was a great statesman and ambassador for jazz throughout the world. We are grateful for Dr. Taylor’s devotion, friendship and his influence on jazz.”
According to the press release from the Kennedy Center, in October 2001, Dr. Taylor presented to the Library of Congress his jazz collection and memorabilia assembled over more than 65 years, the largest and most inclusive jazz archive ever acquired by the Library.
For the last 40-plus years of his adult life, Taylor lived with his wife Theodora (“Teddy”) in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. In an At Home feature for the January/February 2004 issue of JazzTimes, David R. Adler profiled the pianist in his home environs there. During the interview ostensibly about his home life, Taylor decried the relative decline in sophisticated music in American culture, but then quickly made sure to recommend an up-and-coming young musician, Eldar Djangirov. Regardless of the setting or context, Taylor always had a knack for elevating the conversation about music and for championing other players, often those of much lesser renown.
Taylor was a devoted husband and father, who despite a busy schedule would always do his best to be there for his family. He is survived by his wife Teddy and daughter Kim Taylor-Thompson. His son, Duane, died in 1988. Many people in the jazz community considered Taylor part of their family and his death on Tuesday, December 28, was an emotional blow to those whose lives Taylor had touched, directly or indirectly.
In the liner notes to his album, Urban Griot, Taylor wrote: “I sometimes think of myself as an American Griot. In African tradition, a griot is a professional entertainer, a master musician, a historian, a bearer of news, good and bad, a storyteller, an educator, a wise man and sometimes a healer. I am not a healer, but I have lived a long time, traveled a lot and actually lived through and participated in enough history in the other categories.”
Note: The above article used considerable material from “Billy Taylor: The Dean of Jazz Ed,” an excellent in-depth profile about the pianist, written by Geoffrey Himes for the 2005-2006 Jazz Education Guide published by JazzTimes.