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. Addresses: Office--Billy Taylor Productions, 555 Kappock, Apt. 21D, Riverdale, NY 10463.
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, media figure, 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 collegs 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 [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.
by Joyce Harrison
Billy Taylor's Career
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.
Billy Taylor's 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.
- Selective Works
- 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.
- 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.
- Bill 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.
- Conversations With Jazz Musicians, Gale, 1977.
- Lyons, Len, The Great Jazz Pianists: Speaking of Their Lives and Music, Morrow, 1983.
- Periodicals 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.