By LLOYD PINCHBACK
Pianist, composer, recording artist, arranger, conductor, author, teacher and lecturer, radio and television star—William "Billy" Taylor is the consummate renaissance man of jazz. Mr. Taylor recently donated his collection of jazz memorabilia to the Library of Congress on the occasion of his 80th birthday. The Billy Taylor Collection will serve as an invaluable resource for research in jazz history, performance and pedagogy. It will also tell the life story of the man behind the music.
Born in Greenville, N.C., in 1921, Billy Taylor's music education began at the age of 7 in Washington, D.C., under the tutelage of Elmira Streets. The son of a dentist, Mr. Taylor studied saxophone, guitar and drums before focusing on the piano. At the age of 13, he began studying classical piano with Henry Grant. After high school, he enrolled in Virginia State College as a sociology major, but was persuaded by composer and pianist Undine S. Moore that his future was in music. In 1944 he graduated from Virginia State College with a bachelor of science degree in music.
Mr. Taylor moved to New York City shortly after graduation. Within three days of his arrival he was hired to replace pianist Johnny Guarnieri in saxophonist Ben Webster's quartet. The Ben Webster Quartet performed regularly at Three Deuces on the famous 52nd Street—the jazz scene's "mecca" during the 1940s and '50s.
"I was in heaven," said Mr. Taylor. "Fifty-second Street was the living version of jazz history at that time."
From this grand beginning, Billy Taylor proceeded to share the bandstand with other jazz idols of the day, including Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, Eddie South, Stuff Smith, Cozy Coles, Slam Stewart, Roy Eldridge, Jo Jones, Machito and Edmund Hall.
"I had majored in music at Virginia State College, but now I was doing graduate work with the greatest musicians as mentors," recalled Mr. Taylor.
Young and new in town, he was guided through New York's jazz scene by a number of older musicians. Teddy Wilson arranged for him to study piano with his instructor, Richard McClanahan. Before long, he was Art Tatum's protege, with Jo Jones as his self-appointed guardian.
With a support system and an enormous talent, Mr. Taylor's popularity grew rapidly. He toured Europe with the Don Redmon Orchestra, the first American jazz band to tour the continent after World War II. Along with Budd Johnson, he led an all-star group to Haiti. He played on Broadway in "The Seven Lively Arts," a Billy Rose show; opened for Billie Holiday in her show "Holiday on Broadway"; and played in the pit band at the Belasco Theater for "Blue Holiday," a show that starred actress Ethel Waters and featured Mary Lou Williams, the Katherine Dunham Dancers, the Hall Johnson Singers, Timmie Rogers, Willie Bryant and a host of other great artists.
"I played a lot of solo jobs, accompanied a lot of singers and dancers, wrote my first piano instruction books, played the RKO in Boston, the Earle Theater in Philadelphia, the Royal Theater in Baltimore, the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C., and the Apollo Theater in New York," recalled Mr. Taylor.
Billy Taylor was in high demand. In the late 1940s, he was asked to substitute for pianist Al Haig in the group known as "Charlie Parker and Strings." This marked the beginning of his two-year stint as house pianist at Birdland, the legendary jazz club. In 1951 he began a one-year residency at Club Le Downbeat with a trio that included Charles Mingus on bass and Charlie Smith on drums. Mingus left to form his own group and was replaced by Earl May. Drummer Charlie Smith left the group and was replaced with Cuban drummer Candido, who was introduced to Mr. Taylor by Dizzy Gillespie. The newly configured group made one recording and played several club dates before going their separate ways.
In the early 1950s, Billy Taylor emerged as a spokesman for jazz. He wrote about jazz and gave lectures and workshops to music teachers interested in teaching the subject. Yale University invited him to participate in a conference to explore ways to improve the teaching of music in public schools. Among the gathering of musicologists, theorists, composers and teachers, only two jazz musicians attended the seminar: Mercer Ellington and Billy Taylor. The conference, which lasted for two weeks, resulted in a long list of carefully considered recommendations that the group forwarded to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, the federal agency that funded the gathering. Unfortunately, no national action came out of the conference. This was Billy Taylor's disappointing initiation into the realm of government support for the arts and humanities. As a result, he decided to bring his message directly to the people through radio and television.
In 1958 Billy Taylor was appointed music director of the first jazz series produced by the new National Educational Television. The series, titled The Subject Is Jazz, lasted for 13 weeks and featured Billy Taylor leading a band, which included trumpeter Doc Severinsen, reed-man Tony Scott, trombonist Jimmy Cleveland, guitarist Mundell Lowe, bassists Earl May and Eddie Safranski, drummers Ed Thigpen and Ossie Johnson and, of course, Billy Taylor on piano. Some of the guest artists included Nat and Cannonball Adderly, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Aaron Copland, Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, Langston Hughes, Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, Jimmy Rushing, George Russell, Willie "The Lion" Smith and Ben Webster. The series was a hallmark in the annals of televised jazz.
During the 1950s and early 1960s, Billy Taylor recorded for several record labels including Roost, Prestige, Riverside, ABC Paramount, Impulse, Sesac, Mercury and Capitol Records. Other artists sharing the Capitol Records label at that time included Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee, George Shearing and the Beatles. Although the Beatles were the last to sign with the label, Capitol nearly abandoned all other signed artists based on the revenue that the popular British group garnered for the label. This was quite discouraging for Billy Taylor.
"I decided to forget about recording and concentrated on radio and television," he recalled. "I could not compete with rock and roll on recordings, but I was plenty of competition on radio."
By 1962 Mr. Taylor had been hired by WLIB, New York's only black-owned radio station, to do a daily program. The program was so successful that he was hired by New York's top independent radio station, WNEW, to play jazz for its affluent, middle-of-the-road audience. Shortly before starting the WNEW assignment, Mr. Taylor served as musical director for the pilot television comedy show created by David Frost called That Was the Week That Was, the American version of a British broadcast of the same title. When NBC finally aired the show as a series, Mr. Taylor was unable to serve as musical director because the new show conflicted with his WNEW broadcast. After two years with WNEW, he returned to WLIB.
In the mid-1960s, Billy Taylor joined the Harlem Cultural Council. When fellow council member Daphne Arnstein proposed a project to take music directly to the people on the streets of New York, Taylor insisted that the music be jazz. The council borrowed a float from the Budweiser Beer Co., converted it to a bandstand-on-wheels, and Jazzmobile was born. Budweiser also donated a grant of $10,000 to the cause. Featuring be-bop by notable jazz artists of the day, Jazzmobile was successful in its goal of delivering jazz to the people on the streets of New York, particularly inner-city youth. Dizzy Gillespie, Carmen McRae, Duke Ellington and Cannonball Adderly were among the many jazz artist who participated in the program. Jazzmobile offered more than free outdoor summer concerts; there were also the lecture-demonstration programs in the public schools, Saturday workshops and many other outreach efforts initiated "to teach students, young and old, about America's classical music—jazz." To this day, Mr. Taylor is proud of the fact that the Jazzmobile concept has been emulated all over the world.
In 1969 Billy Taylor finally had the opportunity to work with David Frost as the first black music director of a major television series, "The David Frost Show." Prior to each broadcast, the studio audience was treated to an hourlong jazz concert by the band. According to Mr. Taylor, the Frost show band was "the best jazz band on television at that time." In David Frost, Bill Taylor found a friend and an advocate for jazz music. Several shows featured special guests like Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Buddy Rich who would perform with the Frost show band and then be interviewed by David Frost. The show lasted for three years, during which time David Frost had recorded two albums with the band.
After the show's demise, Billy Taylor returned to radio WLIB as both disk jockey and station program manager. He hosted two jazz programs on WLIB, and hosted one on WNEW. As the breadth of jazz styles aired on the show grew, so did the audience.
Mr. Taylor recounted, "With the help Del Shields and Ed Williams [we] built the biggest jazz audience in New York. Radio and jazz go together in a special way and we exploited that fact to the fullest."
In 1972 Billy Taylor was appointed by President Richard Nixon to the National Council on the Arts for a six-year term. The council is responsible for advising the National Endowment for the Arts on the distribution of millions of dollars of government funds to encourage and support cultural endeavors in the United States. This appointment, together with his appointments by New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller to the New York State Commission on Cultural Research, and by New York Mayor John Lindsay to the New York Cultural Council, made Taylor an arts adviser on the national, state and city level.
Through the radio and televison media, Billy Taylor continued to be the country's leading spokesman for jazz. To handle this aspect of his business, he formed Billy Taylor Productions. His original compositions could be heard on segments of PBS's "Sesame Street" and "The Electric Company." He was music director on "Tony Brown's Journal" and composed music and served as spokesperson for Peugeot cars, Campbell Soup, Coca-Cola, Canada Dry and L'Oreal hair products. One of his most well-known works, "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free," was composed in 1954 but was not popularized until the civil rights movement of the 1960s. More than 30 different recordings have been made of this piece by such artists as Nina Simone, Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne, blues singer Solomon Burke, the jazz-rock band of the early 1970s Cold Blood, John Denver and Leontyne Price. On CBS's "Captain Kangaroo Show," "Dial 'M' for Music," "Exploring" and "Rainbow Sundae," he reached an even younger audience with his lectures and demonstrations of the art form.
In August 1975, Mr. Taylor added a new title to his name. He became "Dr. William Taylor" with the acceptance of his doctoral thesis, "The History of Jazz Piano," at the University of Massachusetts, an accomplishment that meant a great deal to him.
In 1982 Billy Taylor was offered the job of art correspondent on what he calls "the best show on television—"CBS Sunday Morning."
"This is the most effective presentation that I have been able to make on televison about people that I think are important in jazz," he said. "I'm really proud of it."
On the program, he has presented profiles of more than 125 artists, including Dave Brubeck, Ella Fitzgerald and Quincy Jones. The Quincy Jones profile earned Billy Taylor an Emmy in 1983.
In March 1993 Mr. Taylor was appointed jazz adviser to the Kennedy Center. In this position, which he continues to hold, he has established several performance programs and educational outreach activities at the center. The center's Millennium Stage is only one of his successful projects to deliver jazz to the people.
In 1995 the Kennedy Center commissioned Billy Taylor to compose a work for jazz and symphonic orchestra. The result was "Theme and Variation for Jazz Trio and Symphony Orchestra." The work premiered at the Kennedy Center on April 23, 1995, with the Billy Taylor Trio and the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin.
Through his many outreach programs, his service to numerous national and local arts committees and boards, his literary writings and more than 300 music compositions, his performances and recordings, and through his work at the Kennedy Center, Billy Taylor has duly earned the title of the "Ambassador of America's Classical Music—Jazz."
The Billy Taylor Collection is a recent Library of Congress acquisition and is currently unprocessed. Notification of its availability will be publicized upon completion of physical processing.
Mr. Pinchback is a music specialist in the Acquisitions and Processing Section of the Library's Music Division.