Written by Grant Jackson from NPR
Born in 1921 in Greenville, N.C., Billy Taylor moved to Washington, D.C., at age 5. He grew up in a musical family and tried his hand at various musical instruments, including guitar, drums and saxophone, but was most successful at the piano.
Taylor graduated from Virginia State University with a degree in music in 1942, then made a beeline for the bebop scene in New York City. Taylor quickly became entrenched in the city’s hothouse jazz community: Within one week, he was invited to join Ben Webster‘s group, and also played with Oscar Pettiford, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach and the legendary Art Tatum, who became a mentor to the young pianist.
After a brief tour of Europe with the Don Redman Orchestra, the first by a jazz band post-WWII, Taylor was hired as the house pianist at Birdland in New York. The gig afforded him the ultimate jazz education, as he was able to sit in with all of the jazz greats who performed at the legendary venue. He stayed on at Birdland longer than any other pianist in the history of the club. During this time, Taylor also began his long career as a composer and recording artist: He wrote more than 300 songs and recorded as a leader on labels including Savoy, Prestige, Riverside, Impulse! and later his own Taylor-Made label.
Billy Taylor made jazz education a central part of his life. Early on, he began publishing instructional books on jazz, and earned a Ph.D in music education from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. In the early 1960s, he founded the Jazzmobile, a program which provided arts education via workshops, master classes, lecture demonstrations, arts enrichment programs, outdoor summer mobile concerts and special projects. He produced a Peabody Award-winning special based on the Jazzmobile for NPR in 1981. Taylor also did extensive work in television: He was the music director for NBC’s The Subject Is Jazz, and he led the band on The David Frost Show.
In his lifetime, Taylor received 23 honorary doctorates for his work as a jazz educator and ambassador. He also earned an Emmy, a Grammy, two Peabody Awards, the National Medal of Arts, the Tiffany Award, a Lifetime Achievement Award from Downbeat magazine, and election to the Hall of Fame for the International Association for Jazz Education. He served as the artistic director for jazz at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and was one of only three jazz musicians to be appointed to the National Council of the Arts.
Dr. Billy Taylor died after a heart attack on Dec. 28, 2010, at age 89. His life and legacy were honored in a memorial service at Harlem’s Riverside Church on Jan. 11, 2011, which featured performances by his bassist Chip Jackson and drummer Winard Harper, along with trumpeter Jimmy Owens, tenor saxophonist Frank Wess, vocalist Cassandra Wilson and fellow pianists Geri Allen and Christian Sands.
On this episode of Piano Jazz, recorded in front of an audience at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Taylor performs a set of mostly original tunes, including “In Loving Memory” and “If You Really Are Concerned.” Host Marian McPartland performs her “Portrait of Billy Taylor,” and joins him for duets on the standards “Lullaby in Rhythm” and “These Foolish Things.”
Originally recorded March 4, 2007. Originally broadcast Oct. 2, 2007.