Distinguished ambassador of the Jazz community to the world-at-large, Dr. Billy Taylor was born in 1921, in North Carolina, to a musical family in which everyone played piano and sang. Taylor was particularly drawn to the keyboard and decided, at a young age, that he would `sing through the piano.’ It was a fortuitous decision.
Classical piano lessons with Henry Grant and experimentation with saxophone, drums and guitar prepared the aspiring musician for his first professional appearance at the keyboard at the age of 13. His take for the performance was exactly one dollar. Some years later, Taylor was enrolled at Virginia State University where his major was sociology. It wasn’t long before he was playing
in and leading the college dance band. Composer/pianist Dr. Undine Moore took note of
young Taylor and advised him that his future was in music and piano. And so, heeding Dr.
Moore’s prescient counsel, Taylor changed his major to music, and upon graduation in
1942, set out for New York City, Jazz capital of the world, to see where his talent would
Taylor had been in the Big Apple for less than a day when he found himself sitting in at Minton’s, jamming with Ben Webster. Two days later he was invited to join Webster’s group. That same night he met Art Tatum, who was soon to become his mentor. Playing with Coleman Hawkins, Big Sid Catlett and Charlie Drayton, the newcomer Taylor quickly immersed himself in the local music scene. His light touch and musical intelligence took him to Broadway, where he appeared on stage with Cozy
Cole’s Quintet in Billy Rose’s show, 'The Seven Lively Arts,' and played in the pit band for Ethel Waters’ show, 'Blue Holiday.' He also paid his dues playing with the legendary Machito’s mambo band, where he first played and developed his love of Latin music. During this time he also played with such artists as Eddie South, Stuff Smith, Billie Holiday and Slam Stewart. In 1946 Taylor embarked upon an eight-month tour of Europe with the Don Redman Orchestra. This band was the first American band to visit the continent after World War II. After the tour ended, Taylor remained in Europe with his wife, and spent a few months living and working in Paris and Holland. In
1948, he returned to New York where he performed with organist, Bob Wyatt and Sylvia Syms
at the Royal Roost Jazz club and played on the same bill with Billie Holiday in a show
entitled, 'Holiday On Broadway.'
One year later, he was hired as the house pianist at Birdland, where he played with such Jazz legends as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Stan Getz, J.J. Johnson and Morgana King. Each week Taylor had the pleasure of playing with a different all-star group. In fact, his very first job at Birdland was with Charlie Parker, playing 'Bird With Strings.' Popular response to the piece was so good, that after a week at Birdland, the group went over to the Apollo Theater, where they performed for an additional week. Taylor then returned to Birdland, where he remained
longer than anyone else in the legendary club’s history.
He continued to perform with a series of trios and other group configurations on tour and at home in New York City. During the 1960s and '70s, the night club scene began to change. Jazz clubs were crowded, overpriced and excluded young people. Realizing the need to bring his music to a broader audience, Taylor began to focus more on performing in larger venues. He was among the first to make his music accessible to a broader range of people by performing in concert halls, arts and
community centers and universities. And, although he still plays in Jazz clubs today, it
is in the larger venues that he is most often found.
Under the umbrella of `Jazz at the Kennedy Center,’ Taylor produces and participates in some of the most innovative and exciting programs and performances in Jazz: the Art Tatum Pianorama series, the Louis Armstrong Legacy series, the annual Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival and of course, Billy Taylor’s own series of performances with his trio and numerous special guest artists,
which takes place four times each year at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He has toured
with such diverse groups as the David Parson’s Dance Company with pianist and friend,
Ramsey Lewis, his own Billy Taylor Trio and the North Carolina Symphony. In 1984, Taylor
was awarded 'DownBeat' Magazine’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
Having established himself as a performer of note, Taylor launched a recording career that has spanned five decades, and has gone on to include more than two dozen albums which he has recorded as a leader. Among Taylor’s 1950s recordings is an album he made with the legendary Cuban percussionist, Candido, (1954) who had joined his band after Dizzy Gillespie introduced the two musicians. Some of the other albums recorded in the '50s were 'My Fair Lady Loves Jazz,' 'Billy Taylor/Cross Section,' and 'Taylor Made Jazz,' which featured Duke Ellington’s sidemen. The 1960s saw the release of such albums as 'Custom Taylored' and 'Brazilian Beat' with the Billy Taylor Septet, as well as 'I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free,' (1964) whose
title song is probably the most popular tune Taylor has written to date.
Following a self-imposed hiatus in the 1970s, during which he focused his energies on broadcasting, (but always continued to perform), Taylor returned to recording with renewed gusto in the 1980s, with 'Where’ve You Been,' 'You Tempt Me,' 'Billy Taylor Solo,' and 'We Meet Again' with Ramsey Lewis. In the 1990s Taylor has kept the music coming with such titles as 'Dr.T' (featuring Gerry Mulligan), 'It’s A Matter Of Pride,' and 'Homage.' In 1997, his first CD
for Arkadia Jazz was released, entitled 'Music Keeps Us Young,' which features his
trio of the past four years, bassist Chip Jackson, and drummer, Steve Johns. In 1998, his
second Arkadia CD, a solo recording, 'Ten Fingers, One Voice' was released.
Author & Composer
In addition to playing and recording, Taylor is a gifted writer of and about music. By the mid 1940s he had begun to compose the first of what was to become a body of nearly 300 songs. Then, in 1949, he wrote the first book ever published on the subject of be-bop, 'Billy Taylor’s Be-Bop for Piano.' His 'Taylor Made Piano' (1982/ McGraw Hill) is a staple among Jazz students, having sold over 10,000 copies. His newest book of piano transcriptions, 'The Billy Taylor Collection,' (January 1999/Hal Leonard) features many original compositions, including 'Early Bird' which was written for and performed by Charlie Parker. Also contained in this book is the
popular 'I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free.' Billy wrote this tune in the
1960s to help explain the issue of civil rights to his young daughter. Selected by the 'New
York Times' as "one of the great songs of the sixties," this Taylor composition was
featured as the theme over the opening and closing credits for Rob Reiner’s feature
film, 'Ghosts of Mississippi.'
The range and depth of his work in the Jazz arena has spawned numerous symphonic works for Jazz piano; his 'Theme and Variations' was commissioned by the Kennedy Center to be performed by the National Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Leonard Slatkin. 'Step Into My Dream,' the richly interactive trans-media collaboration between David Parson’s Dance Company and Taylor, was commissioned by the Krannert Center for Performing Arts at the University of Illinois.
Taylor’s score was inspired by his time on the New York Jazz scene from the 1950s to
present. 'Homage,' which later went on to be nominated for a Grammy Award, was
commissioned by the Madison Civic Center, Madison, Wisconsin, in honor of the
Center’s 10th anniversary. His 'Peaceful Warrior,' is a work he wrote
and dedicated to the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King. It was commissioned by Robert Shaw
for the Atlanta Symphony. With 'Make A Joyful Noise,' a six-part suite commissioned
by Tufts University and inspired by the 97th Psalm, Taylor follows in the
tradition set forth by Duke Ellington in his Sacred Concerts. In March of 1998, he was
invited to collaborate with choreographer Trisha Brown to create a work that debuted in
the spring of the year 2000. Taylor is one of the six distinguished recipients of the
Doris Duke Millenium Award for Modern Dance and Jazz Music, whose creations will celebrate
the dawning of a new century.
Other notable composition credits include 'For Rachel,' a dance suite which resulted from a collaboration with choreographer Rachel Lampert, (commissioned by the University of New Hampshire), the score for Wole Soyinka’s Off-Broadway hit, 'The Lion and the Jewel,' and 'Suite for Jazz Piano and Orchestra,' Taylor’s first major composition for an orchestra, which was commissioned by Maurice Abravenal for the Utah Symphony.
Accomplished as he is on the piano, as a recording artist and as a composer, Taylor is perhaps best known as the public face and voice of Jazz. During the 1960s, alarmed by the attention being paid to rock and roll by his then record company, Capitol, Taylor decided to forget recording for a while and devote himself to radio and television instead. He began as a summer `fill-in’ on New York’s WLIB, all the while continuing to play with his trio on the New York club scene. His easy,
conversational tone combined with his obvious love and knowledge of music gained him
popularity, but more importantly, Taylor effectively changed the listening habits of Jazz
radio audiences in New York City. Three years later, he accepted a post at the top-rated
WNEW, but was soon lured back to WLIB, where he was appointed Program Director and later
on, General Manager.
In the 1970s Taylor turned his talents to television, finding a new home at the 'David Frost Show,' where he served as Musical Director for three years. Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Benny Goodman and Buddy Rich were a few of the Jazz legends who came to play on the show. Taylor found time to produce yet another show, aptly titled the 'Billy Taylor Show,' which aired on New York’s Channel 47 and featured talents such as Kenny Burrell and an unknown guitarist by the name of George Benson. Some time later he served as Musical Director for Tony Brown’s 'Black
Journal Tonight,' which aired weekly on PBS. Taylor also hosted his own Jazz piano show
on TV’s Bravo network entitled 'Jazz Counterpoint.' Then, in 1981, after
appearing as the subject of a profile for the popular CBS program, 'Sunday Morning,'
he was tapped by CBS to be an on-air arts correspondent, a post he holds today, seventeen
years later. To date he has profiled more than 250 artists. For his segment on the
multi-talented Quincy Jones, Taylor received an Emmy Award.
But it is, perhaps, with National Public Radio that Taylor has found his most supportive and responsive Jazz audience. Over the years, Taylor has presented seven different series of programs for NPR, including 'Jazz Alive,' 'Taylor Made Jazz' and 'Dizzy’s Diamond.' His current series, 'Billy Taylor’s Jazz at the Kennedy Center' is recorded live and features a mix of performances, audience Q & A and conversations with each musical guest, affording listeners a rare insight into the lives of the artists and the way they create their music. Some of the
artists Taylor has presented in this forum include Oscar Peterson, Joe Lovano, James
Moody, Joe Williams, Benny Golson, Arturo Sandoval, Marian McPartland, Stanley Turrentine,
Harry `Sweets’ Edison, Clark Terry, Nancy Wilson, Nicholas Payton, Bill Watrous,
Kevin Mahogany, Diana Krall, Randy Brecker, Nneena Freelon and Dianne Reeves.
From the beginning of his career, Taylor has consistently sought out ways to educate and inform the public about the idiom he loves. His first endeavor in broadcasting was, essentially, an educational one. Aired in 1958, this 13-part series was entitled, 'The Subject is Jazz,' and was produced by the new National Educational Television Network (NET). Guests on this ground-breaking series included such notables as Duke Ellington, Aaron Copland, Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley, Jimmy Rushing and Langston Hughes. After serving as a visiting professor at Howard University, he went on to teach at C.W. Post, the Manhattan School of Music and the University of
Massachusetts, where he earned his doctorate during the 1970s. He holds the Wilber D.
Barrett Chair of Music at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, is a Duke Ellington
Fellow at Yale, and holds nineteen honorary degrees. In 1979 he was honored by the
International Association of Jazz Educators (IAJE) by being named to their Hall of Fame.
In the fall of 1997 he received the New York State Governor’s Arts Award for his
contributions and achievements in the arts.
Dr. Taylor is the proud creator of Jazz awareness and educational programs for students at all grade levels, kindergarten through adult. Through his playing and keen communication skills, Taylor has brought Jazz to the masses at the grass roots level as well as more formal arenas. As Co-Founder and Past President of New York’s Jazzmobile, Taylor has provided free concerts and musical clinics to thousands of people free of charge since 1964. In his capacity as Advisor for Jazz to the Kennedy Center, (a post to which he was named in 1994) Taylor is currently involved in a
co-operative venture with Hylton High School in Virginia’s Prince William County
Public School System. The concept of `Distant Learning’ is explored via the use of
the school’s satellite and a fully equipped (and student run) television studio.
Live, interactive performances, master classes, demonstrations and lectures are provided
to any school with a satellite throughout the country. In sharing their rich artistic and
technological resources, the Kennedy Center thus encourages student interest and
discussion. Audience members can ask questions live via satellite or a special 800
telephone number; and, for up to two weeks following the broadcast they can access via the
Internet. A recent program featuring Taylor and his trio, 'Jazz and the Young
Performer,' was awarded "Best Direct Satellite Broadcast/Special Events" by the
N.A.T.A.S., edging out stiff competition which included the Turner Broadcasting Company.
Beyond the realm of the media, Taylor’s passion for Jazz and his talents as a communicator brought him into prominence in public service circles as well. Dr. Taylor was awarded the National Medal of Arts by former President Bush in 1992. It is the nation’s highest award for distinguished accomplishments in the arts. Dr. Taylor has led State Department tours all over the world and was recognized internationally by the ISPAA (International Society of Performing Arts
Administration) when it awarded him its coveted Tiffany award in 1991. Also during that
year, Taylor received the APAP Award of Merit, which is presented rarely and only then to
those whose talent has had a far-reaching impact on the performing arts world. He is a
two-time winner of the prestigious Peabody Award for excellence in journalism, and the
proud recipient of the NEA’s Jazz Masters Fellowship Award as well. Dr. Taylor has
performed at the White House on eight different occasions and was appointed by the
President to the National Council for the Arts, the first Jazz musician since Duke
Ellington to be so honored. In August 1998, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black
Culture named Dr. Taylor to the '100 Black New Yorkers of the 20th Century,'
an honor bestowed upon those whose contributions have had a major, long-term impact
overall. Among those also named to this prestigious group are Colin Powell, James Baldwin,
Langston Hughes, Louis Armstrong, Quincy Jones, Maya Angelou and Duke Ellington.
With over 50 years in Jazz, Billy Taylor remains as vigorous and dedicated to his music as ever. His passion is very much alive and his piano still sings and swings!