I remember when I first met Billy Taylor. I was playing at the Hickory House back in the ’50s. I would go over to Birdland a lot, and that’s where I first heard him. I still have this mental picture of going to Birdland and seeing this skinny young man with glasses, whom I’d never seen before. I asked somebody, “Who is that?” And they said, “Oh, it’s Billy Taylor, he’s our pianist.” I went back to Hickory House with the thought in my head that I had to get to know this guy, and I did. We became good friends from that time on.
We shared a love of Duke Ellington, Mary Lou Williams and a lot of other people too, including Art Tatum, though Billy got to know him much more than I did. Art did a great deal for Billy’s education as a jazz musician. Like Billy, Art Tatum was a very friendly and nice guy. Art always treated somebody like me with great friendliness.
I noticed that Billy started getting around and doing all kinds of things right away. It seemed that the Birdland performances sent him off into all kinds of directions. He was immediately recognized as a very good player and when Piano Jazz came along, he was the second guest I had on. Mary Lou Williams did the show first and Billy was second, and I remember really looking forward to Billy’s appearance because, to be honest, Mary Lou was a little tough as an interview. Billy was such a charming guy with wonderful technique. He was the real thing. He could call himself a doctor and not have it be an honorary thing, because he was a real Doctor of Music. And that’s what he liked to be called, Dr. Taylor.
Over the years we’ve had many, many occasions of playing together, and he did several Piano Jazz shows with me, and he was a wonderful partner for those shows. And he wrote some very good tunes. Whenever we would get together, I would always say, “Let’s play ‘Capricious,'” and that would always be one of the tunes we played, sort of a Latin-flavored tune with a good melody. During one Piano Jazz show we did together, I improvised an instant musical portrait of Billy.
He was also very good at hosting radio and TV shows. He had so many things going. I watched the CBS Sunday Morning show regularly because he always had an interesting guest. Of course, I always hoped one of those guests would be me, but it never was! Nonetheless, I got such a kick out of watching that show and many others that he did over the years.
I remember when we were invited to the White House when Bill Clinton was president. That day, I played solo piano and after that Billy played. And he did a lot of skillful technical things that he liked to do, like playing a lot of very complex runs with one hand while hanging loose with the other hand. He did some clever tricks at the piano. The Clintons were big jazz fans and they loved everything they heard, so having Billy there was a treat. I watched him do it with great envy, and I remember at the White House he tore up the piano quite a bit, wanting to show Bill Clinton what he could do.
People don’t always think of him first as a great piano player because he took on so many educational things. It may have seemed that he did things like that rather than perform as a jazz musician, although he did play a lot of clubs. I think, in the long run, he was doing international tours and composing and doing many things other than just going to a club and playing. He had one show that I remember on WLIB. It was in the afternoon, and I was always driving to the Hickory House or somewhere in New York City. I would always catch that show because for those one or two hours, he just became a disk jockey. The show was fascinating and I listened to it every day while I was driving. He always seemed to be in the thick of things.
He also wrote some nice tunes, such as “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free.” We did that song together as a duet and I got to know what a great bebop piano player he was. He also deserves kudos for Jazzmobile. That is such a unique thing, and it still is. To get people to hear jazz, they set up the group on the flatbed truck on the street corner and the group played to the people there. It just got people to really hear what jazz was firsthand. For Billy to come up with a thing like that was a great piece of innovative thinking.
He was far too nice a guy to dismiss people who came up to him. He would be courteous to everybody, even though they might not be of his stance or his mind either. He was always too polite to say to them, “Get lost!” Once a fan went up to Benny Goodman and asked, “Can I shake your hand?” And he said, “Get lost!” Billy was not ever like that. No matter where he was, he was always courteous and friendly with everyone he met.
I think he will be remembered for all of those educational activities, but also as a top-notch modern-day bebop pianist who could play anything. He had such excellent chops and he could tear up and down the piano.
As for younger musicians coming up, I know that he’s given a great many of them something to think about and helped them on their way with ideas and technique and so on. To be honest, I don’t know how he had time to do all he did. He always had a briefcase in his hand, and always had this look of being on the run.
I think from the word go he already had this feeling that he was going to be something, and was going to help the cause of jazz music. Billy didn’t want jazz to be the sort of thing where people say, “Let’s go to a club and have some drinks and maybe we’ll listen to some music or maybe we won’t.” He wanted to stress the beauty and interest in jazz music. And people hadn’t listened to it, and he certainly got them to listen.
Billy was the most courteous gentleman in the world and he will be terribly missed by all of us. And I feel very, very sad for his wife, Teddi, and his daughter, Kim, to whom he was devoted.
[As told to Lee Mergner]