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JT Notes: 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!”

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