Friday, March 20, 2020

Dr. Billy Taylor – Jazz Emissary

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

The late Jazz writer, Gene Lees, once said of pianist Billy Taylor: 

"With his knowledge of history, musical and otherwise, Billy quietly rejects the image of the early Jazzman as an uneducated autodidact, creating the music out of thin air and natural instinct - which he calls with a wry smile the 'noble savage' theory of Jazz genesis."

And Richard Cook and Brian Morton writing in The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD noted:

"... Billy Taylor's talents as a piano player should be recognized more than they are. He played with everyone from Stuff Smith to Charlie Parker on 52nd Street.... Taylor's affinities are essentially bop, but his sensibility is akin to Teddy Wilson's: cultivated, gentlemanly, his improvisations take a leisurely route through his surroundings, alighting only on points which are germane to the setting, but managing to suggest a complete grasp of the material and the task at hand."

In The Oxford Companion to Jazz, Bill Kirchner [ed.], pianist Dick Katz stated:

"Pianist-composer-spokesman-author-educator Billy Taylor has done as much as anyone in Jazz history to promulgate an awareness, understanding and appreciation of Jazz to large audiences. ... Because of his public persona, his brilliant piano playing has sometimes been under-appreciated. ... The influence of his mentor, Art Tatum, is a prominent feature of his playing." 

Billy Taylor died in December 2010 at the age of 89.
Ten years later, it’s still difficult for me to imagine a Jazz world without him.
A pianist, who played in bands with all the greats of modern Jazz, led his own trios for many years and seemed to always be in one aspect of Jazz education or another, Dr. Billy Taylor was a true emissary of Jazz.
For many years, I remember having my morning coffee while watching the version of CBS’ Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt as host that featured periodic visits by Dr. Billy interviewing a Jazz great, or explaining how his JazzMobile was created as a traveling bus to distribute books and records directly to children in the neighborhoods of New York to help familiarize them with the music, or performing with his trio or on solo piano to demonstrate something about Jazz.
Quiet, urbane and always with a smile on his face, Billy was the personification of a Gentleman and, as such, quite the opposite of the stereotypic Jazz musician with their arcane hip talk, disrespect and disregard for the general audience, sloppy dress and disheveled appearance.
With his passing at age 89 in December 2010, Dr. Billy Taylor left behind one of the most honorable of Jazz legacies.

His autobiography, The Jazz Life of Dr. Billy Taylor was published by Indiana University Press. It is co-authored by Teresa L. Reed.  It is a work that does justice to “... Dr. Taylor’s wide-eyed enthusiasm for Jazz and to his mission to further the music’s tradition and expand its audience.”

Eugene Holley, Jr. filed this review of the book in the August 2013 edition of Downbeat.

© -Eugene Holley, Jr./Downbeat, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

The ebullient pianist, composer, educator and author Dr. Billy Taylor almost single-handedly made jazz a thriving educational discipline, and presented it in the media with clarity and dignity — all of which comes across in the pages of The Jazz Life Of Dr. Billy Taylor (Indiana University Press). The North-Carolina-born, Washington, D.C.,-bred Taylor was a poetic and propulsive musician who recorded more than 60 recordings as a leader, who, before the term "multi-tasking" was invented, launched groundbreaking, pioneering parallel careers as an Emmy and Peabody winning radio broadcaster, variety show musical director and TV correspondent. He was also an acclaimed author of nine books, in­cluding Billy Taylor's Taylor Made Piano, and was a tireless spokesman, who coined the phrase "jazz is America's classical music." This concise and com­pelling autobiography was co-written with Teresa Reed, director of the School of Music at the Uni­versity of Tulsa. She began working with Taylor in 2006 and continued her work after his passing in 2010 at 89.
The most illuminating passages deal with Taylor's early life. Those looking for a clichéd, dark ghetto tale of black poverty and suffering in Taylor's reminiscences of growing up in the nation's capital in the 1920s and '30s will not find it here. Instead, Taylor — the son of a dentist and homemaker — proudly describes the D.C. mid­dle-class enclave he grew up in that produced a segregated yet thriving African-American busi­nesses, art venues, and role models in an age where ‘there was an equally significant artistic and cultural movement among our people that echoed the well-known achievements of the Harlem Renaissance." That refinement was evi­dent in Taylor's Dunbar High School, one of the greatest black high schools in the country, which boasted teachers like historian Carter G. Woodson and Taylor's piano teacher Henry Grant, who encouraged Taylor to "listen to Debussy etudes and [former pupil] Duke Ellington together so we could compare the similarities between their use of harmony.’
Teachers and mentors occupy a special place in Taylor's heart, from his piano-playing Uncle Bob to Undine Smith Moore, the classical pianist/ composer who urged Taylor to drop his sociology major at Virginia State to music. He graduated in 1942, and headed to New York a year later. There he jammed at Minton's Playhouse, secured sev­eral prestige-building gigs with Eddie South, Don Redman, Ben Webster and Cozy Cole, and be­came the house pianist at Birdland from 1949 to 1951. It was during this period that Taylor penned his first book, Billy Taylor’s Basic Bebop Instruction, where jazz education entered his life, which also included his wife, Theodora, and later his children Duane and Kim. ‘Those early opportuni­ties to speak and write about jazz foreshadowed' things to come,’ he writes.
In the ensuing decades Taylor would record a number of excellent recordings, including My Fair Lady Loves Jazz and It's A Matter Of Pride and even penned a soul-jazz standard, "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free." His profile as an educator and broadcaster also grew, as evidenced by his history-making stints as a disk jockey and program director on New York's WNEW and WLI8 radio stations, He also back as an educator through his role in co-creating Jazzmobile, the Harlem-based mobile performance venue that provided free jazz concerts and lessons to inner city youth. Taylor broke ground as musical director of "The David Frost Show," being the first Af­rican-American in that position, hosted National Public Radio's "Jazz Alive," and served as a cultural correspondent for “CBS Sunday Morning."
Though Taylor, who earned his doctoral de­gree at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in 1975, approached his role as jazz educator, am­bassador and spokesman with verve, the book makes clear that his pianism, an astonishing, tech­nically impressive amalgam that spans all of the eras of jazz, was overlooked as a result. Still, Taylor did not mind so much — as he writes, ‘At the time, I knew that my involvement in these various efforts took away the precious hours that I would have liked to spend writing songs and playing the pia­no. Looking back, however, I have no regrets.’”

And, 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.

© -Teresa Reed./University of Indiana Press, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“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.”

Order information about the book is available at

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please leave your comments here. Thank you.