Taylor, Billy 1921–
Billy Taylor 1921–
Billy Taylor has been playing top-notch jazz for well over 50 years. That would be an impressive enough fact for most musicians, but in Taylor’s case it barely begins to describe what he has accomplished. During the second half of the 20th century, perhaps no other musician has done as much as Taylor to place jazz into the consciousness of the American public, whether at the keyboard, behind the radio microphone, or in front of the television camera.
Taylor was born July 24, 1921, in Greenville, North Carolina. His family was a musical one. His father, William Sr., was a dentist by trade, but played bass in his spare time. His mother, Antoinette, was a competent pianist. Taylor’s younger brother, Rudolph, played saxophone. Shortly after Taylor’s birth, the family moved to Washington, D.C. While living in Washington, D.C., he was introduced to jazz by an uncle, who was particularly fond of stride piano king Fats Waller. Taylor began learning how to play several instruments as early as the age of seven, but it was the piano that finally captured his interest.
Taylor made his first professional appearance at the age of 13, receiving the impressive sum of one dollar for his efforts. At Dunbar High School in Washington, Taylor studied classical music with Henry Grant, who had also trained Duke Ellington. After graduating from Dunbar, Taylor enrolled at Virginia State College, a predominantly African American school in Petersburg. By 1938, he was playing professionally on a regular basis. Initially, Taylor majored in sociology. Heeding the advice of one of his instructors, the noted pianist and composer Undine S. Moore, Taylor switched his major to music, and was determined to make it his full-time career. In 1942 he graduated from Virginia State, and soon set out for New York to test his luck and his talent in the world of jazz.
It did not take long for Taylor to find his niche in the Big Apple. Less than a day after his arrival, Taylor found himself jamming with tenor saxophonist Ben Webster at Minton’s, one of New York’s hottest jazz clubs. Webster was impressed enough to offer Taylor a steady gig with his quartet at another club, the Three Deuces. After less
At a Glance…
Born William Taylor, Jr., July 24, 1921, in Greenville, NC; son of William Sr, (a dentist) and Antoinette (a schoolteacher) Taylor; married Theodora, 1964; children: Duane, Kim. Education: Virginia State College, BA, 1942; University of Massachusetts, Amherst, DME, 1975.
Career: Pianist, Ben Webster’s ensemble, 1944; Birdland jazz club, house pianist, 1949-51; founder and leader, Billy Taylor Trio, 1952-; host of Educational Television Network’s The Subject is Jazz, 1958; music director, Black Journal Tonight, 1960s; founded Jazz-mobile, 1964; musical director and bandleader, David Frost Show, 1968-72; host of several radio programs, including National Public Radios’ Jazz Alivel, 1977-82; jazz correspondent, CBS Sunday Morning, 1980-; Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, artistic advisor on jazz, 1994-; numerous performances, lectures, clinics, concerts, etc., in a wide variety of venues and forums.
Awards: Lifetime Achievement Award, Down Beat magazine, 1984; inducted in Down Beat Hall of Fame; Peabody Award for radio series The Subject is Jazz ; Emmy award, CBS Sunday Morning segment, 1983; National Medal of the Arts, 1992; Jazz Masters Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts, 1988; International Association of Jazz Educators Hall of Fame, inducted 1991; Tiffany Award, International Society of Performing Arts Administrators, 1991; Mayor’s Award for Art and Culture, New York City; Man of the Year, National Association of Jazz Educators.
Addresses: Manager —Herbert Barrett Management, 1776 Broadway, New York, NY 10019; Publicist —Creative Music Publicity, 2575 Palisade Ave., Suite 10-J, New York, NY 10463.
than three days in New York, Taylor had become a member of a top-name band.
Taylor quickly became a mainstay on the vibrant jazz club circuit. Pianist Art Tatum, whose acquaintance Taylor also made in those heady first few days after his arrival in New York, became his mentor. Taylor has always credited Tatum as the primary influence in the development of his playing style. Under Tatum’s guidance, Taylor earned a reputation for being a reliable pianist who was capable of playing in any style.
After leaving the Webster band, Taylor toured along the West Coast with the Eddie South trio. Returning to New York in 1945, he joined the Cozy Cole Quintet. With that group, he made his Broadway debut, taking over for Benny Goodman’s band in the musical The Seven Lively Arts at the Ziegfeld Theatre. The following year, Taylor toured Europe with the Don Redman Orchestra. When the tour was over, Taylor stayed behind to live and work in Paris and Holland for several months, before returning to New York in 1948.
In 1949 Taylor was hired as house pianist at Birdland, where his versatility was on display night after night. His first job at Birdland was with saxophonist Charlie Parker. In addition to Parker, Taylor played at the Birdland with other notable jazz musicians such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Stan Getz, J. J. Johnson, Art Blakey, Milt Jackson, and Lester Young.
By the early 1950s, Taylor was ready to lead his own trio. He teamed up with bassist Charles Mingus and drummer Marquis Foster to form the Billy Taylor Trio. Foster was soon replaced by Charles Smith. Taylor continued to front the trio, as well as other ensembles, over the course of the decade. The trio’s lineup varied somewhat over the years and included, among others, bassist Oscar Pettiford and drummers Billy Cobham, Jo Jones and Ed Thigpen. All of these men were among the best musicians in the world on their instruments.
As the 1950s progressed, Taylor began to emerge as more than just another club musician. Talented players were a dime a dozen. However, there was a shortage of qualified jazz educators and diplomats—articulate individuals who could communicate exactly what was going on behind the blur of rapid chord changes and complex improvised melodies. Taylor assumed this role because other jazz leaders of the time refused it. In Len Lyons’ book The Great Jazz Pianists, Taylor remarked, “I’m a teacher because Dizzy… and Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington refused to do that. I knew that these men knew intellectually what they were doing, but I read interview after interview where they came off sounding like idiots.”
In 1958 Taylor hosted a 13-part series called “The Subject is Jazz,” produced by the National Educational Television Network. The following year, he signed on as a disc jockey at New York’s WLIB-FM radio station, where he became “the voice of jazz in New York.” Meanwhile, Taylor branched out into acting, appearing in a number of regional stage plays and television shows, including the role of piano great Jelly Roll Morton on an episode of CBS-TV’s You Are There. He also began writing about jazz on a regular basis, contributing to such publications as Saturday Review and Downbeat, and he became a frequent guest lecturer at colleges and universities.
When the jazz club scene began to wither in the 1960s, Taylor, unlike many of his contemporaries, was in a position to make the shift from clubs to concert halls and college campuses. He was also prepared to devote more energy to his educational endeavors. “What drove me out of the clubs,” Taylor was quoted as saying in a 1999 American Visions interview, “was that I was recording for Capitol Records when they discovered the Beatles, and I was so frustrated because nobody could get their records pressed.… You needed to be played on the radio so people would hire you.”
In 1962 Taylor joined the staff of radio station WNEW, where he became the first African American host of a daily show on a major New York station. He moved back to WLIB two years later to take the position of program director. He remained at WLIB until 1969. Perhaps Taylor’s most significant contribution to jazz education came in 1964, when he co-founded the Jazzmobile. This unique program brought top jazz artists to impoverished urban areas, where they performed for free. Taylor maintained a steady presence on television as well, hosting a succession of music specials, including a five-part series about jazz on the popular children’s television show Captain Kangaroo in 1969. He also served as music director and bandleader for the David Frost Show, a position he held for three years.
Taylor was also active in education during this period. He taught at Howard University, C. W. Post, the Manhattan School of Music and the University of Massachusetts. In 1975, Taylor earned his doctorate from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, and he holds the Wilber D. Barrett Chair of Music at that institution. Taylor was named to the International Association of Jazz Educators’ Hall of Fame in 1979. Through the years, he has received 19 honorary degrees.
From 1977 to 1982, Taylor hosted Jazz Alive!, a weekly National Public Radio (NPR) show that became the most popular jazz series in NPR history. Taylor’s audience became even larger in 1980, when he began profiling jazz artists on CBS Sunday Morning. His 1983 segment on Quincy Jones earned him an Emmy award. He also received Downbeat’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1984.
During the 1990s, Taylor earned numerous honors and appointments. President George Bush awarded him the National Medal of Arts in 1992. In 1994, Taylor was named artistic advisor for jazz at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. This appointment lead to the initiation of his NPR project, Billy Taylor’s Jazz at the Kennedy Center, which is recorded live and features a mix of performances, audience questions and answers, and conversations with musical guests. Taylor received yet another award in 1997, the New York State Governor’s Arts Award. The following year, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture included him in its list of the “100 Black New Yorkers of the 20th Century.” In terms of overall contribution to jazz—taking into account contributions as a performer, educator, and promoter—few individuals are in Billy Taylor’s league.
Billy Taylor Trio, Prestige, 1952.
Cross Section, Prestige, 1954.
Custom Taylored, Fresh Sound, 1959.
Billy Taylor With Four Flutes, Riverside, 1959.
Where’ve You Been?, Concord, 1980.
We Meet Again (w/Ramsey Lewis), CBS, 1980.
You Tempt Me, Taylor Made, 1985.
Solo, Taylor Made, 1988.
White Nights & Jazz in Leningrad, Taylor Made, 1988.
Jazzmobile All Stars, Taylor Made, 1989.
My Fair Lady Loves Jazz, Impulse, 1990.
Dr. T, GRP, 1992.
It’s a Matter of Pride, GRP, 1993.
Homage, GRP, 1994.
Music Keeps Us Young, Arkadia Jazz, 1997.
Billy Taylor: Ten Fingers, One Voice, Arkadia Jazz, 1998.
Lyons, Len, The Great Jazz Pianists, DaCapo, 1983, pp. 177-184.
American Visions, April 1999, p. 40.
Down Beat, March 1994, p. 11.
Emerge, April 1999, p. 31.
Playboy, July 1984, p. 22.
—Robert R. Jacobson
Pianist, composer, arranger, writer, educator
Billy Taylor is one of the foremost disseminators of jazz music and knowledge, working to promote a wider appreciation for what he calls “America’s classical music.” From his performances, lectures, and workshops since the 1950s to his appointment as artistic advisor on jazz at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 1994, Taylor’s life has been filled with activites on behalf of his chosen musical genre. An accomplished performer, educator, mediafigure, composer, and author, Taylor’s indefatigable energy as a jazz ambassador has not only won him admiration and acclaim, but, probably more important to Taylor, has resulted in an audience of jazz fans that might not exist if not for his efforts.
Billy Taylor was born in Greenville, North Carolina, in 1921 ; his family moved shortly after his birth to Washington, D.C. Taylor’s father was a dentist who directed the church choir on Sundays. Young Billy started piano lessons at age 7, and one of his uncles, a jazz pianist, was his informal tutor in jazz piano style. As Taylor remarked in an interview in Down Beat magazine in 1985: “I used to bug him: ‘Show me how to do that.’ And he’d say, ‘Oh, I just do it.’ Finally in desperation he gave me a Fats Waller record.” Taylor listened to and imitated the style of the great master of the stride piano. Later, his uncle gave him another record—this one by Art Tatum. Taylor continued, “It was a record called The Shout. I had never in my life heard the piano played like that, and I just went nuts.… Tatum was probably the biggest and most lasting influence on my solo piano playing of any single mentor that I had.”
Taylor continued his formal music training, attending the historically black Virginia State College, first majoring in sociology and then in music and playing jazz on the side. “As in most black colleges at that time,” Taylor was quoted as saying in a New York Times article in 1971, “playing jazz was frowned on; so I played in Richmond as much as I could.” He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1942.
In 1944 Taylor arrived in New York City determined to make his way as a jazz pianist. What happened is a milestone in jazz history. As he explained in the liner notes to his 1994 recording It’s a Matter of Pride: “I arrived in New York on a Friday night, went to Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, was heard by one of my idols, tenor saxophonist Ben Webster, who auditioned me and hired me to replace Johnny Guarnieri in his quartet at the Three Deuces on Sunday. I was in town three days, and I had a job playing the piano on 52nd Street with Ben Webster, [drummer] Big Sid Catlett and
For the Record…
Born William Taylor in Greenville, NC, July 24,1921; son of William (a dentist) and Antionette (a schoolteacher); married, 1964; wife’s name, Theodora (Teddi); children: Duane, Kim. Education: Virginia State College, B.A. in music, 1942; University of Massachusetts, Amherst, D.M.E., 1975.
Pianist with quartet featuring Ben Webster, Three Deuces club, New York City, 1944; house pianist, Birdland, New York City, 1949-51; founder and leader of Billy Taylor Trio, beginning in 1952; host of Educational Television network’s The Subject Is Jazz, 1958; musical director of Black Journal Tonight, 1960s; founded Jazzmobile, 1965; musical director and bandleader, David Frost Show, 1968-72; host of several radio programs, including National Public Radio’s Jazz Alive!, 1977-82; jazz correspondent, CBS Sunday Morning, beginning in 1980; appointed Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts’ artistic advisor on jazz, 1994; has appeared at numerous clinics, concerts, and lectures around the world; composer and arranger; author.
Selected awards: Lifetime Achievement Award, Down Beat magazine, 1984; inducted into Down Beat Hall of Fame; Peabody Award for radio series The Subject is Jazz; Emmy Award for CBS Sunday Morning segment on Quincy Jones, 1983; National Medal of the Arts, 1992; Jazz Masters Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts, 1988; eight honorary doctorates; inducted into International Association of Jazz Educators Hall of Fame, 1991; Tiffany Award, International Society of Performing Arts Administrators, 1991; Mayor’s Award for Art and Culture, New York City; Man of the Year, National Association of Jazz Educators.
Addresses: Office —Billy Taylor Productions, 555 Kappock, Apt. 2ID, Riverdale, NY 10463.
[bassist] Charlie Drayton opposite the Art Tatum Trio! I was in heaven!”
Fate continued to smile upon Taylor. In 1949 he began a two-year engagement as house pianist at Birdland, at that time the greatest jazz club in the world, in the greatest jazz center in the world—New York’s 52nd Street. He performed with the best musicians in the business, including saxophonists Charlie Parker, Lee Konitz, and Zoot Sims, trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, bassist Oscar Pettiford, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, drummers Roy Haynes and Art Blakey, and other luminaries. “The years 1944 through 1951 were unbelievable when I was living through them,” Taylor recalled in his liner notes to It’s a Matter of Pride. “Now when I reflect on the great artists I was privileged to meet, work with and learn from I realize what unique opportunities I was given.”
Since 1952 Taylor has led the Billy Taylor Trio. Over the years, his sidemen have included some of the giants of jazz, including bassists Charles Mingus and Oscar Pettiford and drummers Billy Cobham, Jo Jones, and Ed Thigpen. Taylor’s own playing is uniquely his own. Primarily playing in a style he calls “prebop”—between swing and bebop—he also displays a keen understanding of the styles of his predecessors at the keyboard, including Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, Earl Hines, Fats Waller, and Erroll Garner. As Jim Roberts noted in Down Beat in 1985: “His style is strong and deeply rooted, but even the most powerful passages are marked by the unmistakable elegance of the Taylor touch.”
In addition to his performing activities, Taylor has composed dozens of pieces for various ensembles and over 300 songs, including the often-performed “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free.” Many of the larger works were commissioned by universities and performing ensembles. Some of Taylor’s best pieces can be heard on the 1994 recording It’s a Matter of Pride.
Taylor is the author of a history of jazz piano as well as many jazz instruction books, but he is perhpas best known for his activities as a public spokesperson for jazz. In 1958 he hosted a program on the pioneering Educational Television network (ETV) titled The Subject Is Jazz. He also hosted radio programs on WLIB and WNEW in New York City and was musical director for Tony Brown’s Black Journal Tonight in the 1960s. His widest exposure on television came in 1969 when he was appointed musical director and bandleader for the David Frost Show —a post he held for three years. Frost, then at the height of his popularity, had a weekly talk show; Taylor, the first African American to lead a television studio orchestra, became familiar to millions of viewers.
Taylor’s most important contribution in the 1960s was his founding of Jazzmobile, which began in 1965 as part of the Harlem Cultural Council’s summer programs. It started out on a parade float borrowed from a beer company and blossomed into a unique outreach organization that brings jazz to underprivileged urban areas and features performances by major jazz artists. Jazzmobile’s free concerts attract over 400,000 people every season.
In 1975 Taylor received a doctorate of music education from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where he now holds a teaching position. From 1977 to 1982 he hosted a weekly program on National Public Radio (NPR) called Jazz Alive! The program, which combined Taylor’s engaging and informative commentary with the playing of recorded music, became the most popular jazz show in NPR’s history. Since 1980 he has profiled jazz musicians on the television program CBS Sunday Morning; his segment on Quincy Jones won him an Emmy Award in 1983. Taylor’s appointment in 1994 as artistic advisor for jazz at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., led to a series of 26 jazz programs released to NPR member stations in 1995.
Taylor’s accomplishments have been recognized with a Lifetime Achievement Award from Down Beat magazine; Peabody, Emmy, and Tiffany awards; and numerous other honors. A respected jazz pianist and spokesperson, Taylor’s efforts have been most instrumental in the popularity and appreciation of that unique musical form.
Jazz Piano: History and Development, W. C. Brown, 1982.
A Touch of Taylor, Duane Music, Inc.
Combo Arranging, Duane Music, Inc.
Billy Taylor Sketches for Jazz Trio, Duane Music, Inc.
Ragtime Piano Solos and How to Play Them, Duane Music, Inc.
Billy Taylor’s Bebop for Piano, Duane Music, Inc.
“I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free.”
Suite for Jazz Piano and Orchestra.
Step Into My Dream.
Peaceful Warrior (a tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr.).
For Art Tatum.
It’s a Matter of Pride.
A Touch of Taylor, Prestige, 1955.
One for Fun, Atlantic, 1959.
Sleeping Bee, MPS, 1969.
Where’ve You Been?, Concord, 1980.
We Meet Again, CBS Masterworks, 1989.
Jazzmobile All-Stars, Taylor-Made, 1989.
My Fair Lady Loves Jazz (reissue of 1957 recording), GRP, 1993.
Dr. T, GRP, 1993.
Customed Taylored, Fresh Sound, 1994.
It’s a Matter of Pride, GRP, 1994.
Taylor Made Jazz, Argo, resissued on Fresh Sound.
The Billy Taylor Trio, Vols. I and II, Prestige.
Billy Taylor at Town Hall, Prestige.
Conversations With Jazz Musicians, Gale, 1977.
Lyons, Len, The Great Jazz Pianists: Speaking of Their Lives and Music, Morrow, 1983.
Down Beat, May 1980; March 1985; February 1991; March 1994; May 1994; June 1994.
New York Times, January 3, 1971.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from the liner notes to It’s a Matter of Pride, GRP, 1994.