Octojazzarians profile: dr. billy taylor

For the first time in jazz’s brief century, many leading artists are staying active beyond their 8th decade. OctoJAZZarians is an on-going series celebrating these living legends, pioneers of the art from who were first hand participants in the evolution of America's greatest art form.

Our debut subject in this series is pianist, broadcaster and jazz advocate Dr. Billy Taylor.

by arnold jay smith

I had a heart attack in March 2001. Among the first phone calls I received, before most of my relatives even knew of my hospital confinement, was from Billy Taylor. As is his wont to so many before me, “Doc,” as I have gotten used to calling him since his PhD, has been friend, mentor and sometimes personal encouragement for many decades. To remember his voice that day still warms me inside. When he had a stroke I was asked to wait a bit before phoning him. Sure I did! We didn’t talk much; mostly he listened for those few seconds. A debt repaid.

                            Dr. Billy Taylor, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

Earlier there was the happy responsibility when I was hired by his long-time publicity firm, Peter Levinson Communications (PLC), and became not only Dr. Billy Taylor’s publicist, but also had the honor of writing the booklet notes for his long-overdue return to a major jazz label. The CD was “Dr. T” (GRP) a sobriquet I mistakenly thought I had given him. (Seems a long-ago student had beaten me to it.) We had become formally engaged.

All of the above was last century. We were to work together again professionally during the current millennium when Doc left PLC to sign with DL Media. What the heck does Dr. Billy Taylor need with a publicist?

In addition to all the information you can access via his website, www.billytaylor.com, he is, after all, DR. BILLY TAYLOR: pianist / composer / bandleader / arranger / author / educator / radio & television jazz evangelist. (I’ve run out of slashes.)

In his 80th (& ½) decade Billy is directing the Kennedy Center’s jazz programming: “Art Tatum’s Piano Panorama,” continuing Betty Carter’s Brooklyn, NY-born youth-oriented “Jazz Ahead,” and the very successful Mary Lou Williams Women’s Jazz Festival.

Looking back -- which Taylor emphatically does not do -- he considers himself, as did Gehrig, one of the luckiest of men. He stepped off a train and onto one of the greatest jazz scenes in history, 52nd St. and into the band of one of his heroes, Ben Webster. That was 1944. A gig-filled decade later he presided over the house band at the first incarnation of Birdland. In between his was the piano heard in the first band to tour Europe after WWII. “It was a totally integrated band,” Taylor said. “Racially as well as musically. The leader was Don Redman. Some sidemen included Don Byas, Tyree Glenn and Quentin “Butter” Jackson. The music was a combination of Swing & Bebop.”

Taylor’s first foray out of NYC was with another of his idols, violinist Eddie South. “That man could swing you into good health,” he has told me on many occasions. Billy had the opportunity of singing South’s praises on one of his radio programs “The Talking Violin.” He has hosted &/or written many programs for NPR, for which he tempers his usual unabashed praise. “NPR had upwards of 250 stations across the country playing jazz in a major way and they let them slip through their fingers due to lack of support or some other manner of canceling the programming.” Some of Taylor’s NPR shows were “Jazz Alive!” (The successor to which, “Jazz Set,” survives albeit abbreviated.) “Billy Taylor’s Jazz at the Kennedy Center,” (“Kennedy Center Jazz” survives on “Jazz Set.”), the “The Talking Violin,” and “Dizzy’s Diamond.”

Billy related some history with the subject of the last show. “I was [on 52nd St.] at the [Three] Deuces with my trio; Dizzy [Gillespie] was at the Onyx. Bud Powell was Dizzy’s first choice as his pianist, but was too young to play in clubs [or tour]. The rest of Dizzy’s group was Don Byas, tenor sax, O.P. [Oscar Pettiford], bass, and Max Roach, drums. Dizzy had decided that if he couldn’t get Bud he would do without a pianist.” Billy saw an opportunity and snapped at it. The vignette continues.

“During my breaks [at the Deuces] I would run across the street [to the Onyx] and sit in with Dizzy. I was late getting back to my own gig too many times and got fired.” There’s a happy ending to that story, “They hired me back,” Billy concluded.

(I’ll tell more about happy-ending conflicts involving Dizzy when OctoJAZZarians chronicles congero Candido Camero.)

About chronologically advancing, Billy never expected to “get this old.” There was long life in his genealogy; his mother lived to 98. “There are certain things one always wants to do over, or make better,” he said. “We no longer have the jazz venues to hopscotch across the country, which were our life-credit schools.” On the other hand, that might be more healthful.

Billy‘s legacy is secure. Not only his name recognition, the teaching, the Kennedy Center programs, but his “stuff,” for lack of a better description. “I have left most of my things to the Library of Congress, which is expanding,” he said. “They have already picked up many cases, which makes Teddi [Mrs. Taylor] very happy.” The WNEW radio shows have been preserved, for the most part; as have the David Frost Shows. As for the CBS News Sunday Morning segments, Billy said that “they are there should I want to edit them.” I immediately offered my services. He hosted a daily broadcast on WLIB in NYC, which were not preserved. “The string group tours [“Turtle Island,” “Juilliard,” others] have all been preserved,” he noted.

What Billy Taylor, musician and clinician, emphasized most was the understanding of the three basic elements of music: melody, harmony and rhythm. “The newer players are losing sight of them,” he lamented “They are what made us personal. They [the players] seem bent on losing their individual voice.”

And leave us not forget Duke’s dictum which ends, “doo wah, doo wah, doo wah, doo wha.”


November 03, 2007 · 1 comment

  • 1 Herbie S. // Dec 19, 2007 at 06:46 AM
    Great story about "Doc." I first heard and learned about jazz from "Doc," although I don't think he had his doctorate back then. I was about maybe 5 years old when I saw "Billy Taylor" perform and speak about jazz music on the Captain Kangaroo Show. I distinctly recall calling my mother over to the t.v. to ask her if she ever heard of this man, and how much his music intrigued me. He was all smiles while playing the piano and speaking about music, and all the while I, too, was all smiles. Dr. Taylor's music, energy, and excitement were highly contagious. I told my mother that day, "I don't know how he makes the piano sound that way, but I want to learn how to play like that." Unfortunately, my father had just lost his battle with cancer 2 years prior, and my family spent most of its savings on his treatment. I could not afford piano lessons, but I did learn to play it by ear and even had a professional career in music as a pianist/keyboardist until I, too, went after a doctorate degree, but mine is in keeping with my mother's influence while growing up: I became a social worker and university professor. However, I still play out whenever I can. I owe so much to Dr. Taylor. He helped to nurture in me something positive in my life during a very sad and dark period for a young boy; something that was always there whenever I was sad, depressed, or needed a friend. It was, for many, many years, my best friend. Thank you, Dr. Taylor. I will always remember you and your influence in my life very fondly. You have given me so much, and continue to give me joy everytime I have the good fortune to hear you play, and to witness how much joy music brings you, and how contagious your joy of music is on listeners. You are truly a blessed man, and we are all blessed to have you and your music in our lives. Sincerely, Herbie S.