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Dr. Billy Taylor Remembered in Memorial Service in NYC

Life of pianist celebrated by thousands at Riverside Church

Dr. Billy Taylor
Billy Taylor

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.


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