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Suite Goodbye: Billy Taylor's Jazz Sendoff

By Mike Joyce
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, April 2, 2005; Page C01

Wouldn't you know it: Pianist Billy Taylor ended his seven-decade-long career as a performing artist at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater on Thursday night without even hinting at the concert's significance or saying a word of farewell.

Instead, he saluted a jazz giant and shared the spotlight with a well-known musician he helped nurture. It was strictly business as usual for Taylor -- yet another opportunity to champion the cause of jazz.

Taylor paid scant attention to his long career in his final performance. (Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)

The capacity crowd, however, was acutely aware that this was the last chance to hear a concert by the 83-year-old jazz musician-educator-broadcaster-artistic adviser-evangelist. A rousing standing ovation greeted Taylor, who stood still just long enough to flash a smile that put the stage lights to shame. Then he went to work, sitting down at the piano and illustrating how a few notes inspired his delightfully swinging and swaying composition, "C-A-G."

The effects of a minor stroke in 2001, which hampered Taylor's right hand, seemed almost inconsequential throughout the early show. It began with trio performances featuring bassist Chip Jackson and drummer Winard Harper. Taylor has never had any use for polite accompanists, and as the group moved through a brief set of Taylor-penned tunes, Jackson and Harper punctuated the arrangements with distinctive and vibrant solos -- spirited, witty and playful.

The pianist's melodic finesse was also showcased, along with his formidable left hand. In fact, during a movement from the expansive "Suite for Jazz Piano," Taylor displayed the kind of southpaw muscle and autonomy that surely would have delighted his all-time keyboard hero, Art Tatum.

Part of the Kennedy Center's ongoing series, "A New America: The 1940s and the Arts," the concert then turned into a Dizzy Gillespie tribute, with guest trumpeter Jon Faddis joining the trio. Old friends, Faddis and Taylor spent a little time reminiscing about Gillespie's genius and legacy. Mostly, though, they played together while demonstrating Gillespie's gift for transforming pop melodies and sophisticated chords into jazz classics.

With his crisp attack and glass-shattering range, Faddis had no trouble evoking Gillespie's bop innovations and early embrace of Afro-Caribbean polyrhythms. Yet the comparatively low-key "Con Alma," with its soulfully muted brass tones, proved particularly expressive.

Inevitably, the show ended as it began, the crowd standing and applauding loudly. Taylor will now focus on other jazz pursuits with the same energy, dedication and sense of purpose. Jazz fans everywhere may have a much harder time adapting.

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