Early in his career, pianist Billy Taylor made a difference in jazz by developing an individual
approach to the use of chords. His concept fit well with that of the beboppers who in the second half of the 1940s were a new and powerful force in the music. Some swing musicians with open ears and open minds–notably Ben Webster–were also intrigued by Taylor’s full-bodied harmonic notions.
Taylor arrived in New York in 1942, fresh out of college, a devotee of Art Tatum. In 1944, he went to work for Webster, the great Duke Ellington tenor saxophonist. In 1949 and 1950, he was the house pianist at Birdland backing a variety of musicians, among them Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young, Stan Getz and Milt Jackson. By 1951, his ideas and popularity had blossomed to the point where he graduated from sideman to leader of his own trio. Previously unreleased music by that group has shown up on Taylor’s web site. I’m going to give you a link to it, but those unfamiliar with how Taylor developed may be interested in a bit of background. Here is some of what I wrote in the booklet for the CD reissue of Billy Taylor Trio, a collection of pieces he recorded in 1952 and 1953.
Webster encouraged Taylor’s use of rich chords in accompaniment. Taylor was inspired harmonically by Duke Ellington’s piano introduction to “In a Mellotone,” which he heard when he was a student. “That wiped me out,” Billy says. “I said, ‘what’s he doing? So I figured it out. It was A-flat ninth in the left hand and an octave with a fifth, A-flat, E-flat and A-flat, in the right hand. I liked it and began fooling around with it, added a couple of things to it: one voicing in one hand and another voicing in the other.
“When I came to New York, that was a part of my approach. Most horn players said, ‘That’s in my way,’ because they were used to being accompanied around middle C, in the lower part of the piano. I was an octave higher. Ben was a former pianist. He liked it and encouraged me to do it.” Over the next decade, Taylor refined his chord-plus-octave style.
By the time he had realized his ambition to form a permanent trio and went into the Prestige studio in late 1952, the sophisticated technique was in his musical grain. By then, a Taylor harmonic invention might be built like this: B-flat, C-ninth, E and G or G-13th in the left hand, C, E, G and C in the right hand. “I was harmonically oriented,” he says, a masterpiece of understatement. “In those days a lot of these harmonies were not common. I was very proud that I was able to establish then.”
For a 1951 Taylor engagement at George Wein’s Storyville club in Boston, Taylor worked with
bassist Charles Mingus and drummer Marcus Foster. The music that surfaced recently was broadcast on a radio program hosted by another young man destined to become a jazz institution, the critic Nat Hentoff. To hear several pieces by the trio and Hentoff’s carefully scripted comments, go here, scroll to the bottom of the page and click on the start button on the video screen. I recommend at least one listening in which you concentrate on Mingus’s compelling bass lines. At the end of the Taylor trio performance, you’ll see a short biography that incorporates an interview by Ed Bradley of CBS’s 60 Minutes.
Taylor will be eighty-seven years old in July. He was scheduled to be at Teachers College, Columbia University, New York, this week to perform and to discuss his life, music and career, but the event has been postponed. For details, go here.