Billy Taylor, 1921-2010

Billy Taylor, a pianist who became a television and radio spokesman for jazz and made the music familiar to millions, died last night in a New York City hospital after suffering Billy Taylor Smiling.jpgheart failure at home. He was 89. In his work on National Public Radio and CBS-TV’s Sunday Morning, Taylor’s playing and relaxed explanations dispelled for many listeners and viewers the notion that jazz was remote, impenetrable and difficult. He earned a doctorate in music in 1975 and chose to be called Dr. Taylor, a title that suited his professorial side. For a summary of his career and accomplishments, see the obituary by Peter Keepnews in The New York Times.
Taylor was born into a middle class North Carolina family and grew up in Washington, D.C. When he arrived in New York in 1943, he was educated, articulate and eager to build on his solid foundation in music. I spoke at length with him as I prepared the notes for the reissue of several of his early 1950s recordings in Billy Taylor Trio. An excerpt gives an idea of the intellectual curiosity he brought to his early music-making and of the difference he made in the development of jazz piano.

The young pianist went to work for tenor saxophonist Ben Webster at the Three Deuces. Unlike most horn soloists, 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 an 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. By the time 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 them.”
When the recordings at hand were released as 78-RPM singles, Taylor’s harmonies reached the ears of many pianists, who adapted them to their own playing. Later in the fifties the sound was to be identified with Red Garland, a pianist who rose to fame as a member of the Miles Davis Quintet. But Taylor pioneered the approach.

There are dozens of Billy Taylor videos on YouTube, part of his legacy of media visibility. In this one, he plays a decidedly two-handed blues. The interested onlooker is fellow pianist John Lewis.

No remembrance of Taylor would be complete without his most famous composition, “I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free,” the piece that became an anthem of the civil rights movement. Here, he plays it with bassist Victor Gaskin and drummer Curtis Boyd.

Finally, a memory from April of 1969, a rehearsal of the all-star band that performed for Duke Ellington’s 70th birthday celebration at the White House. It recalls Taylor’s magnanimity and the respect other musicians had for him. The pianists on hand included Taylor and Dave Brubeck, both of whom would be featured that night. A photographer approached them and said, “Can I get one of you together?”
“Sure,” Billy told him. “Maybe something will rub off.”
“I hope so,” Brubeck said, “—On me.”

Related
Email this to someoneShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Reddit

Comments

  1. says

    Seems the Good Doctor finally got his wish; he’s as free now as the lark ascending or the dove descending, keyed where the chords don’t get any richer–his vaunted intellect put to good use (we can hope), soul at rest but the arc of his spirit a-moverin’ still.

  2. Charlton Price says

    Dr. Billy Taylor for many decades has been a guru and guide to our understanding and appreciation of the music: as a performer and impresario on radio and TV — and as an educator, using his scholarship to underline and preserve the traditions and imperishable beauty and power of jazz. His contributions as a guide, a performer, and a champion of the music have been a constant source of of wisdom, appreciation, and delight. These gifts to us will keep on giving. But this is a big tree that falls in our forest. We sure hear the crash.

  3. Grace Holden says

    An amazing spirit in the person of Billy Taylor. God allowed us to witness love of music in Billy Taylor in my lifetime.

  4. Jeffrey Sultanof says

    I had the great pleasure of preparing a book of his piano solos for Hal Leonard back in the 1990s. Going up to his beautiful apartment and working with him was a treat that I looked forward to. He was a joy to work with. I remember specifically that we discussed African-American composers who wrote symphonic music such as William Grant Still. The music of James P. Johnson had just been recorded and we spoke of that CD at length. He was clearly upset that James P. did not have the opportunities that Taylor had to perform with symphony orchestras on a regular basis.
    I also remember the powerhouse big band he led on the David Frost talk show. I told him that I’d studied with John Carisi who wrote for the band, and that was clearly a happy memory for Dr. Taylor.
    I will miss him.

  5. says

    One of Billy Taylor’s most-admired and most-covered pieces is “A Bientôt”– recorded by Freddie Hubbard, Oliver Nelson, and others.
    A few years ago, I was involved as a player in one of the annual “Giants of Jazz” tribute concerts held in South Orange, New Jersey; the honoree that year was Dr. Taylor. So I called him and asked him for a lead sheet on “A Bientôt” so that I could play it with a rhythm section during the concert. He sent it to me, and in the green room before the performance, he gave pianist Michael Weiss and me a quick lesson on some of its subtleties.
    He was a wonderful musician, a lovely man, and the best spokesperson/advocate jazz has ever had, and he will be much missed.

  6. says

    Billy was my inspiration since I was 15. His piano solo book of his compositions gave me “meaty stuff” to study and practice.
    I met him much later and became a friend and had the utmost respect for his constant growth as a musician. He offered me much advice and encouragement in my “dues” paying days.
    The Jazz community and world will miss this Master. He was blessed with the capacity to Love his fellow man unconditionally
    Thank you Dr. Taylor.
    RIP

  7. mac says

    The Washington Post had an early quick appreciation online till a formal obit was put together and one idiot went all GlennBeckian saying that Dr. Taylor pandered to the NPR wine & cheese crowd. Bozo didn’t know about the radio years (free,commercials included), the Jazzmobile, the inclusion of teen musicians to the NPR tapings. The guy gave Billy a bad rap for his playing; didn’t hear much, I guess. Dr. Taylor was fully aware that his position of teacher and advocate meant that playing would take a back seat to his day job. We should all have a back seat like Dr. Taylor’s keyboard moments. And another thumbs up in appreciation of the David Frost band. Two LPs made with the band,including one of the greatest Christmas albums ever (sans David Frost’s ego marring many an intro). BTW,I’m one of those NPR wine & cheese people, but I’m blue collar and my wine is Yeungling Lager and my cheese is Whiz on a steak sandwich. Billy Taylor=Soul.

  8. says

    WE ALL SHARE ADMIRATION RESPECT AND LOVE FOR BILLY. IN AN INTERVIEW THAT WE READ IN 2009, I BELIEVE, HE EXPRESSED SOME REGRET THAT HE HAD SPENT SO MUCH TIME IN ADVOCACY FOR JAZZ THAT HE HAD NOT DEVELOPED AS FAR OR DONE AS MUCH AS HE HAD HOPED AS A COMPOSER, PIANIST AND ARTIST. I THINK HE FELT THAT THE ADVOCACY HAD BECOME A LOSING BATTLE AND FEWER AND FEWER YOUNG EARS SEEMED ATTUNED. HOWEVER, IN THIS SAME ARTICLE HE SPOKE OF A YOUNG PIANIST HE HAD DISCOVERED IN THE NEW HAVEN AREA. DAVE KNOWS THE YOUNG PIANIST WHO NOW, I BELIEVE, IS AT MANHATTAN COLLEGE OF MUSIC. ( IN FACT, DAVE’S CARDIOLOGIST BROUGHT THE BOY TO OUR HOUSE IN WILTON FOR A LESSON.) BILLY HAD GREAT GENEROSITY OF SPIRIT AND WE WERE ALWAYS GRATEFUL FOR HIS INTEREST AND ENCOURAGEMENT OF OUR SONS WHEN THEY WERE FIRST STARTING OUT—PARTICULARLY, DARIUS. WE WILL MISS HIM. WHEREVER MUSICIANS GATHERED. HE WAS ALWAYS THERE—AT NEA MEETINGS, IAJE—WHATEVER AND WHEREVER, BILLY ALWAYS ARRIVED UPBEAT AND SMILING, MAKING PEOPLE FEEL GOOD ABOUT BEING TOGETHER. I CAN’T IMAGINE SUCH GATHERINGS WITHOUT HIM.