‘Jazz on the Elevens’: Kennedy Center pays tribute to the late pianist Billy Taylor


Billy Taylor. (JOEL RICHARDSON/TWP/TWP)
November 4, 2011

A familiar figure will be missing this week as the Kennedy Center opens a two-week festival devoted to jazz and swing. For the first time since 1994, Billy Taylor will not be there.

The multifaceted jazz pianist, educator and broadcaster, who served as the Kennedy Center’s artistic adviser for jazz, died last December at 89. He was such a constant, affable presence that it’s easy to forget how much he changed the musical life of Washington.

“For years, the Kennedy Center didn’t have any regular way of presenting jazz,” Kevin A. Struthers, the Kennedy Center’s jazz programming director, said last week. “The year before Dr. Taylor started in 1994, there were four jazz concerts. Now there are hundreds.”

This week, one of those concerts will pay tribute to the man who got it all started. “Jazz on the Elevens” — presented at the Eisenhower Theater on the 11th day of the 11th month of 2011 — will bring together many of Taylor’s musical friends, as well as his former bassist and drummer, for a night devoted to his music.

It will be the opening-night concert of a 16-day festival devoted to swing that features an eclectic blend of performers, from established jazz stars Jon Hendricks and George Benson to Israeli hip-hop violinist Miri Ben-Ari, the Western swing band Asleep at the Wheel and Afro Blue, a Howard University vocal group that has become a nationwide sensation with its appearances on the NBC talent show “The Sing-Off.”


A 1994 photo of Jazz pianist Billy Taylor rehearsing for his new radio show at the Kennedy Center. Taylor died December 28 at the age of 89. (Keith Jenkins/KEITH JENKINS)

“We are looking at different types of music that swing,” said Struthers, who joined the Kennedy Center in 1995 and began working alongside Taylor a year later. “He and I would always talk about the importance of swing as a rhythm. He was adamant that jazz is a dance music. That’s how this came about, this whole swing event.”

In a first for the Kennedy Center, dance floors will be placed near the Millennium Stage — dubbed the “KC Dance Hall” for the occasion — and free swing dance classes will be offered. The D.C.-based Eric Felten Jazz Orchestra will perform at three of the dance sessions, including an appearance Nov. 25 with the eclectic singer Nellie McKay.

The swing festival was one of the last Kennedy Center programs that Taylor helped plan. He reached his musical maturity in the Swing Era of the 1930s and 1940s, when the jazz of Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Jimmie Lunceford and many others was the dominant form of popular music.

But for Taylor and other musicians, swing was more than a musical artifact. It is the elusive rhythmic bounce that creates the unmistakable feeling of jazz. It’s easier to feel, or to dance to, than to describe.

“It’s the way notes are put in motion,” said Chip Jackson, Taylor’s longtime bassist. “The way the notes are put in motion creates the emotion.”

Jackson and Winard Harper, Taylor’s former drummer, will form the rhythm section for a revolving group of performers on Friday, including saxophonist Frank Wess and pianists Geri Allen, Cyrus Chestnut, Toshiko Akiyoshi and Danilo Perez. The concert will highlight what is probably the least-known part of Taylor’s career: his composing.

The best-known of his 350 works was “I Wish I Knew What It Means to Be Free,” which became something of a civil rights anthem in the 1960s. It was a favorite of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s, who often stopped by a New York club where Taylor was playing to request “that Baptist gospel tune.”

When Taylor was growing up in Washington, he met Jelly Roll Morton — the self-proclaimed inventor of jazz — and studied with Duke Ellington’s piano teacher. Later, in New York, he became a protege of Art Tatum, the pianist who is still universally considered the greatest keyboard talent in the history of jazz.

As a teacher — he had a doctorate in education — Taylor considered it his duty to pass along the lessons he learned from the masters who came before him. In the last five years of his life, he became a mentor to a teenage piano prodigy from Connecticut named Christian Sands, who will perform at Friday’s concert.

“He said he saw a little of me in him,” said Sands, now 22 and a rising star in jazz. “A lot of times, we would just hang out, and I would listen to stories he would tell and listen to him talk about the world.”

Sands learned many of Taylor’s tunes and absorbed musical lessons — including the use of richly voiced harmonies in a pianist’s left hand.

“Modern pianists use the left hand almost like an anchor,” Sands said. “Dr. Taylor was a master at playing thick harmonies and thick chords.”

They also spoke of travel and painting and of Taylor’s apprenticeship with Tatum and his friendships with the great figures of jazz.

Sands acknowledges other influences on his musical life, from Cecil Taylor to Richard Wagner, but he also recognizes that he has been handed a special legacy to preserve the memory and music of Billy Taylor.

“He’s helped me develop my sound and influenced me as a person,” Sands said. “He really touched me. I will never let his name die.”

Check out the schedule for “Swing, Swing, Swing” at the Kennedy Center.

For ticket information, go to www.kennedy-center.org.

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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