Requeim for a Legend

Posted by jcmaziquemd on January 4, 2011

The First Spokesman


When I heard that Billy Taylor had died Tuesday at the age of 89, it surprised me how fast I was able to think of my favorite performance by the brilliant pianist. It’s a 1993 concert by Taylor and one of his favorite collaborators, the superlative baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan. The two of them are playing the jazz standard "Darn That Dream," and they’re enjoying themselves so thoroughly that, at one point early in composer Jimmy Van Heusen’s melody, Mulligan just can’t contain his joy and starts laughing, right in the middle of the first chorus.

Over the course of a career that lasted 70 years, Taylor was one of the major figures who helped the world learn how to take jazz seriously. He was perhaps the first and greatest spokesman for the whole of jazz, as a teacher, broadcaster, producer, impresario and all-around advocate. He was the composer of one of the great anthems of the civil-rights movement, "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free," and he was the force behind JazzMobile, which still brings jazz to uptown New York streets and residents 45 years later. His very visible dignity and decorum helped give jazz a degree of respect—particularly in education and political circles—that it had never known before. Yet Taylor’s music itself was all about having fun. It was—to use the title of his most famous composition—"Capricious," and it’s no surprise that while playing with Taylor, a major musician like Mulligan would burst out laughing.

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The Billy Taylor Trio at Hickory House on 52nd Street in the early 1950s, with Taylor on piano, Charlie Smih on drums and Earl May on bass.


Taylor was all these things and more. Before Wynton Marsalis, he was probably the most famous representative the jazz world ever had, a familiar presence on TV and radio, as well as the force behind jazz at the Kennedy Center in Washington. If he had limited himself to being a pianist, composer and trio leader—like most of his colleagues—he would still be celebrated as one of the major figures of the jazz piano. But Taylor went far beyond that.

Billy Taylor was born in Greenville, N.C., in 1921, and grew up in Washington D.C. His father played several horns and led the choir in church; two uncles played piano. When one uncle played him a recording by Art Tatum, the teenage Taylor reacted by thinking, "Wow, who are those two guys?" As he told Marc Myers of Jazzwax.com last year, he studied piano with the same teacher who had taught Duke Ellington. He also remembered seeing Ellington, Fats Waller and others at Washington’s Howard and Lincoln Theaters while still a student.

Already a professional musician, Taylor worked his way through Virginia State University. When he contracted tuberculosis in 1942, it took him a year to recover—but it kept him out of World War II. He kept practicing while he recuperated, and by 1943 had moved to New York where he began playing in Harlem and on 52nd Street.

More than most musicians of his generation, Taylor was equally fascinated by both the past and the future of jazz. A protégé of the amazing Tatum, Taylor was an early supporter of the bebop movement ("I knew Charlie Parker before he was Charlie Parker," he told Mr. Myers) and was also eager to soak up everything he could from legendary masters like Willie "The Lion" Smith. "That’s where I first met Thelonious Monk," Taylor told me about 10 years ago. "He was just another young pianist hanging around the Lion then."

By the mid-’40s, Taylor was well-established on the jazz scene, first with the veteran violinist Eddie South, and also as part of a famous 1945 all-star concert at Town Hall. He worked with virtually every veteran jazz giant of the golden age (including, famously, Ben Webster) as well as those of his own generation. He was well known enough to become the house pianist at the Birdland, after it opened in 1949, and by the ’50s had branched into broadcasting both as a studio musician (he was at the center of "The Subject Is Jazz," the first and most famous television program dedicated to the music) and as a host and DJ. In the mid- to late-’50s, he was already making some of the most famous albums of his career, such as "Taylor Made Jazz," taped with most of Duke Ellington’s horn section, "My Fair Lady Loves Jazz," with orchestra conducted by a young Quincy Jones—both in 1957—and "Billy Taylor With Four Flutes" two years later.

From 1969 to 1972 he served as the first African-American conductor on a major network series ("The David Frost Show"). He received his doctorate from the University of Massachusetts in 1975. He later said that he had written "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free" as a dedication to his daughter, Kim, as early as 1954, although it was not recorded (most famously by Nina Simone) until a decade later. In the late ’60s, the song was sung in schools in black neighborhoods all over the country.

Taylor became best known as the voice of jazz on both radio and television, hosting "Jazz Alive" for NPR and managing the even more difficult task of keeping the music visible on television—his reports on "CBS Sunday Morning" exposed millions of viewers to the art of jazz. He was a tireless proselytizer for the jazz cause, one of the first jazz advocates to serve on many government councils, including the committee that first formed the National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Masters award (which he himself justly received in 1988). He was appointed the artistic director of Jazz at the Kennedy Center in 1994, the same year he began hosting its NPR radio series "Jazz from the Kennedy Center." He was still performing both roles up until the time of his death.

What’s amazing is that although Taylor was a full-time jazz advocate and a major presence in all the acronym organizations (the NEA, the National Association of Jazz Educators, the Jazz Foundation of America), he never stopped being a full-time musician, bandleader and recording artist. When Marian McPartland launched her long-running NPR series "Piano Jazz" in 1978, the first guest she had on was Billy Taylor.

Mr. Friedwald writes about jazz for the Journal.


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