By Wells Tower
Sunday, May 13, 2007
ONE SATURDAY EVENING IN MARCH, the first night of the Kennedy Center's weeklong "Jazz in Our Time" celebration, nearly every living jazz titan who could spare the time and was feeling hale enough to make the trip gathered in an upstairs lounge to pose for a group photograph. The guest list included pianists Dave Brubeck, Ahmad Jamal and Hank Jones, trumpet players Donald Byrd and Clark Terry, saxophonists Ornette Coleman and Benny Golson, vocalists Nancy Wilson, Al Jarreau and Abbey Lincoln -- along with 22 others. The Kennedy Center's PR corps dubbed the occasion "A Great Day in Washington," a calculated hat-doffing to a legendary photograph of a similar gathering nearly 50 years before, which ran in Esquire magazine and became the subject of a documentary, "A Great Day in Harlem." The first "Great Day" portrait shows 57 jazz musicians shouldered together on the stoop of a soot-streaked Harlem brownstone one summer morning in 1958, five years before the Beatles' first record. If a cathedral is ever raised for the worship of jazz music, a stained-glass reproduction of the Esquire photo will probably glow above the pulpit. The photo encapsulates or foretells just about everything you need to know about the golden century in the greatest musical tradition born on American shores:
There's trumpeter Red Allen, who played with Jelly Roll Morton, the composer loosely credited with jazz's invention at the turn of the century, squeezed in with 1930s swing legends such as drummer Gene Krupa and Count Basie, alongside Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk, who set fire to the old traditions and forged swing into bebop, standing within spitball range of post-bop composer Charles Mingus, not far from cool jazz saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, who played with the late Miles Davis, whose "Kind of Blue" reissue would be America's top-selling jazz album in 2001, a century or so after jazz had blared its birth cry in the saloons of New Orleans. Looking at it now, the "Great Day" photo seems somehow implausible, less a record of an actual event than a giddy, era-garbling collage, like the cover of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," where Bob Dylan poses cheek by jowl with Sigmund Freud.
Much has changed in 50 years. Jazz has come a long way from that anonymous stoop on 126th Street to one of the nation's loftiest marble troves of high cultural treasure. Beyond the photograph, the jazz luminaries gathered here at the Kennedy Center had a grand evening ahead of them -- a concert in their honor and a ceremony, complete with gold medals, dubbing them "Living Jazz Legends," the proceedings emceed by the heavyweight champion of the venerability circuit, James Earl Jones.
The Esquire shoot was a casual, chaotic affair, the musicians wearing suits or shirtsleeves, shades or porkpie hats or toking on cigars. The photographers couldn't keep Harlem out of the shot, and a dozen or so gangly neighborhood kids elbowed their way amongst the musicians, taking up spots beside Basie on the curb. Tonight's event, held in the elegant gloom of the Kennedy Center's jazz club, was invitation-only, mandatory black-tie. As the honorees filed in and the room grew dark with evening dress, it was hard not to note a funereal air in the room. While jazz had gotten respectable, it had also gotten old. The roster of titans, with a couple of exceptions, were on the far side of 70, driving home the uncomfortable truth that the days of jazz superstardom slipped by some time ago. If the Harlem portrait captured the music's noble history alongside the younger generation who would carry the tradition forward, one couldn't help but notice in the present cast a distressing paucity of celebrated heirs.
By 6 p.m. or so, most of the living legends had arrived. Brubeck, squinting bonhomously under a blowsy wealth of white hair, loitered by the stage with pianist Chick Corea, who got his start with Miles Davis, and who flouted the black-tie edict with a belted samurai-ish smock. Wynton Marsalis stood near the refreshment table, administering a vigorous massage to the upper arm of singer Jon Hendricks.
"Hey, aren't you too young to be here?" someone chided Marsalis, who is 45, and the only invitee shy of retirement age.
The singer Al Jarreau strolled in, wearing a beret and a tracing of lipliner.
"We were just talking about you," a woman said to him.
"As long as someone's talking about me," Jarreau said.
At the front of the room, where two rows of leather-upholstered chairs were arrayed on a low stage, a Kennedy Center representative stepped to the microphone. "On behalf of the Kennedy Center, we cannot thank you enough for coming to this historic occasion here this evening," he said. "But before we go any further, I have to credit the man who made it all possible. This is the man that says to me too often [that] in the world of jazz, people are only recognized -- you know when. . . Ladies and gentlemen, Dr. Billy Taylor."
The applause surged, and Billy Taylor came forward, beaming a panoramic grin. "Everybody I'm looking at tonight I've known for more years than I even want to think about," said Taylor, who is usually introduced, after a deep breath, as a pianist, composer, educator, music advocate, media personality and the Kennedy Center's artistic adviser for jazz.
Taylor (at whose behest the center had built the suave grotto of the Jazz Cafe itself) had both organized the event and was to be one of its most rigorously feted honorees. In terms of lifetime achievements, few in the room could top him, whose career plaudit load includes an Emmy, a Grammy, two Peabody awards, the National Medal of the Arts (bestowed on him by President George H.W. Bush) and enough honorary degrees to clothe a good-size village in doctoral hoods. Nor are there many professional résumés out there to best that of Taylor, who has shared stages with Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and pretty much everyone who mattered in the age when jazz mattered most. But despite all that, Taylor remains an obscure, if beloved, figure in the world of jazz. Taylor is probably Washington's second-most prominent contribution to jazz history, outranked only by Ellington, yet you generally can't find his albums at the local CD shop.
Taylor's peculiar obscurity owes itself in part to the quest he'd already taken up when the shutter winked on the famous Harlem tableau (he did not appear in that photo). As America began to turn away from jazz toward rock, folk, Motown, and Sinatra and the Rat Pack, jazz musicians weathered the approaching blight in all sorts of ways. Some quit, or changed their sound, or left for Europe, or simply shut their ears and played on against the mounting chorus of critics who asserted that jazz was dead. Taylor did something few other musicians wanted to attempt. He put the music ahead of his artistic ambitions and became jazz's first career educator and public evangelist, laboring for six decades in the conviction that mainstream Americans can be taught to go on caring about a musical inheritance that they seem determined to neglect.
After the applause subsided, a stage manager took the microphone and explained to the honorees how the shoot and the award ceremony were going to unfold.
"What we want to do. Is bring all the honorees on stage. In as smooth a fashion. And as quick a fashion. As possible," he said, in the maddeningly slow and loud locution of someone addressing the lunchroom at a nursing home.
The stage manager explained that the honorees would stand in a straight line. Then it was picture time, and the titans were called forward. With varying degrees of ease, the 32 mounted the dais.
The cast would not immediately come to order. Marsalis was teasing Brubeck. Ahmad Jamal was caught up in a bout of horseplay with Jarreau and Hendricks. Corea wouldn't look at the camera. "Look at me, Chick," the photographer called. "Ornette Coleman, a little to your right. Smiling is a good thing, Freddie," he said to Freddie Hubbard, master of the hard-bop trumpet, famous in his prime for pitching foul-mouthed, tearful tantrums in the middle of his sets.
Through a lightning storm of camera flashes, Taylor, sitting in the front row, wore an unflagging grin, even though singer Little Jimmy Scott, who was looking quite tired, was listing into Taylor's left shoulder. "Billy Taylor, perfect smile every time," the photographer said.
"You got about two more minutes," someone called.
After another shot or two, the photographer gave the legends leave to go. "It's a great day in Washington," the photographer called out. Yet as the legends stepped down from the stage, a question seemed to hang in the room: Fifty years from now, and the next "Great Day" shoot, would there be flesh-and-blood players filling out the frame, or just photo plates from a history book propped on a music stand?
BILLY TAYLOR IS A TALL MAN, hunched only slightly by age. His expression, even in repose, is a smile of a high, uncasual wattage, the expression of someone who has spent so much time beaming into camera lenses that the smile has been permanently scribed into his muscle memory. He is 85 years old, with a somewhat dubiously thick head of red-brown hair, and a face still so youthful that a scrupulous box office clerk would be within his rights to card Taylor for the senior citizen discount. He favors Ralph Lauren buttoned shirts and loafers, though his most distinctive accessory is his glasses. He has two pairs at least, and both are large apparatuses of beveled plastic with lenses the size of soap dishes. His showier pair, which he wears for public occasions, has little gilt embellishments on the temples, and could be melted down and minted into a handsome, spacious jewelry box.
Taylor was raised in Washington, but for the last 30 years, he has lived in a five-room apartment in Riverdale, N.Y., with his wife, Theodora. A library of vinyl albums and CDs fills one wall of the living room, which otherwise is the domain of a sleek, black Steinway baby grand, its wheels bedded in the wall-to-wall carpet. The carpet is a striking shade of red, lending Taylor's apartment the atmosphere of a perpetual awards gala.
One chilly afternoon in late winter, Taylor sat playing the piano. The tune was a jouncing stride number, a tripping melody in the upper keys and chunky quarter tones in the bass. The movement of his hands was a sight of startling effortlessness. He held his fingers straight and flat. They appeared too placid, too easeful to be responsible for the fusillade of tones burbling from the Steinway. It looked as though he was doing a poor job of miming along with a player piano.
Five years ago, Taylor suffered a stroke that temporarily crippled his left hand. He feared he'd never play again, but he committed himself to a vigorous therapy of five-finger exercises and, within two years, won back the use of his hand. That afternoon in his apartment, the pianist seemed restored to the fullness of his powers, or close to it, anyway. "I can't practice like I used to, though there's not the need to practice now," said Taylor, who officially retired from the concert stage two years ago. "I'm still in the process of just repairing whatever I have left, trying to make sure that I can play as best I can for as long as I can."
He pinched off the song with a tidy flourish. "I wrote that song for my Uncle Bob," he said. "He was a great stride player. When I was a kid, I wanted to play just like him."
Taylor was born in Greenville, N.C., in 1921. His father was a dentist, like his father before him, who was the first African American dentist in Greenville. Both of Taylor's parents were pianists, and he started lessons at age 7, by which time the family had moved north to Washington, to a house on Fairmont Street, near Howard University.
In his free time, Taylor haunted the Library of Congress, browsing through the records and scores of the musicians he admired -- Fats Waller, James P. Johnson, Willie "the Lion" Smith and the piano virtuoso Art Tatum -- though the musician he most admired was Ben Webster, Duke Ellington's saxophonist, whose velvet-throated horn was famous for its sensual immensity. "He had this big, incredible sound," Taylor said. "You could hear him breathing when he played. If he had four bars on an Ellington record, I'd go out and buy it."
Jazz was in full ferment in Washington in the 1930s. U Street, known then as "Black Broadway," thrummed with clubs and dance halls. Taylor played his first gig there at age 13, and earned 50 cents. But the heart of the D.C. jazz scene was the Howard Theatre, where Taylor went nearly every week to hear the world's biggest names in jazz -- Cab Calloway, Basie, Louis Armstrong, Holiday -- for a door charge of 40 cents.
At Dunbar High School, Taylor played in the orchestra. He also took private lessons with Henry Grant, who had taught Ellington. After graduating in 1938, Taylor enrolled at Virginia State University (then Virginia State College), his father's alma mater. Taylor wanted to pursue music, but his father had other ideas, so Taylor majored in sociology, which he studied disinterestedly, reserving his energies and passion for his music. "My sophomore year, a professor of mine, the composer Undine Moore, she called me into her office. She said, 'Billy, what's your major?' I said, 'Sociology.' She said: 'Wrong. You're wasting your time with sociology. Change your major to music.' I said, 'Okay.'"
Taylor's father, to whom he hadn't mentioned switching majors, wasn't happy when he got the next tuition bill, and he told Taylor he could finance his own education from then on. So Taylor paid his way through college gigging with a five-piece combo, sometimes playing as many as three shows a week at black dances and clubs throughout the mid-Atlantic. Some nights, Taylor and his band would pull all-night drives to make it back to Petersburg in time for morning classes.
He graduated from college in 1942, at a time when most men his age were heading overseas to fight in World War II. Taylor assumed that he, too, would be shipped off to combat, but the physical exam revealed that he'd contracted tuberculosis. "I'd been abusing my health, trying to make the band work and pay my bills," Taylor said. "The doctor said: 'Four-F, man. You need to get yourself together.'"
On a Friday night in the summer of 1944, he caught a train to New York. He went to his uncle's house in Harlem, staying only long enough to drop off his bags.
In the 1940s, 20 or more clubs lined 52nd Street, the thriving epicenter of what was then the most important jazz scene on the planet. But Taylor went instead to Minton's Playhouse, a smoggy dive on 118th Street, where a few years earlier trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker invented the strident phonic language the critics were calling bebop. Taylor walked through the door around 9 p.m. He told the bandleader he was a piano player, just in from D.C., and that he'd like to sit in. The bandleader told Taylor to wait. Taylor went to the bar. He nursed a drink, and kept nursing it until 3 in the morning, when he was finally offered a turn at the keys. He hadn't been playing long, when he looked up to see Ben Webster on the bandstand beside him.
Webster had just gotten off from his regular gig at the Three Deuces on 52nd Street, and when the tune wound down, Webster approached the young pianist. He liked the unconventional way Taylor voiced his chords. Webster's pianist had just left the band, and Webster asked Taylor if he'd like to audition for the job the following Sunday at the Three Deuces.
Taylor's 60-year career proceeded from the set he played that night at the Three Deuces. Webster not only offered him the job, but Art Tatum, another of Taylor's idols, was sitting in the audience. In the months that followed, Tatum, arguably the finest virtuoso that jazz piano has ever seen, took him on as a protege, proclaiming Taylor to the press as "the greatest young jazz pianist in the world."
That same year, Taylor married Theodora Castion, whom he'd met on a visit to New York a couple of years before, and the young couple moved into an apartment in Harlem.
Courtly, clean-cut and bespectacled, Taylor often cut an unlikely figure among the men with whom he shared the bandstand. Heroin was coming into vogue, and Taylor's colleague Charlie Parker was the renowned avatar of addiction chic. While Taylor's mentor, Tatum, was no junkie, he was a prodigious alcoholic, ultimately drinking himself to death in 1956. Webster, too, was one of jazz's more unpredictable celebrities. Nicknamed, "the Brute," Webster was a fearsome drunk with a reputation for violence, rumored to have once thrown a woman from a hotel window.
Taylor, when he first arrived in New York, might have gone the way of his hard-living associates, if it weren't for Jo Jones, Basie's drummer. "Whenever Jo would introduce me to people I admired, people like Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, he'd say: 'This is Billy Taylor. He doesn't drink.' By which he meant, I shouldn't drink. And that was fine. So I didn't drink whenever Jo Jones was there, but when he wasn't around, I'd be knocking them back. But one time, he gave me a spanking I'll never forget. I was playing at this club on 52nd Street. I'd had a couple of drinks, feeling pretty good, and I look up, and Jo is sitting there between Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson, the most important guys I knew. He just sat there with his arms crossed, giving me this very reproachful look -- I couldn't play, one of the few times I really got stage fright. I thought, 'Oh, man, why did I take that second drink?' After that, never again. You couldn't force me to have a drink if I was going near a piano."
Taylor's consumption habits weren't the only thing that set him apart in the smoke-veiled lounges of 52nd Street. "It was hard, sometimes," Taylor said. "People would see me and say: 'Look at him, he looks like a professor. Isn't he straight?'" In 1949, Taylor's reputation as a gifted, eminently versatile player landed him a job as house pianist at Birdland, the nightclub named for Parker, and America's hottest venue for avant-garde jazz. Taylor would enjoy the longest tenure on Birdland's bench of anyone in the club's history.
But Taylor stood apart from Birdland's hipster crowd. In 1951, the differences between Taylor and the clannish clique of narcotics-users he played with at Birdland came to a head. One night, the band was taking up a collection for a heroin score. When Taylor refused to chip in, the band voted to cut him from the group.
Taylor also had his differences with musicians such as Parker and Gillespie, whom he felt weren't doing enough to educate audiences increasingly alienated by the rancor and difficulty of the bop sound. Listeners accustomed to the pop sensibilities of swing music were buffaloed by bop's preference for blistering solos and jagged departures from standard harmonies. "People were asking serious questions about jazz and seeking serious answers," Taylor told Melody Maker in 1971. "It bothered me when Diz and Bird would start talking bebop and giving nonsensical answers to what they were intelligent enough to know was a seriously meant question . . . It bothered me so much that every chance I got, I tried to set the record straight."
Jazz needed a spokesman, Taylor felt, someone who could explain the sometimes challenging music to audiences without resorting to elliptical hipsterisms, such as Louis Armstrong's claim that, "man, if you have to ask what jazz is, you'll never know." But no one seemed interested in the job, and so Taylor volunteered. He delivered lecture-performances explicating jazz at Yale and colleges throughout the Northeast. He narrated the music's journey from plantation fields, through ragtime and stride, to swing and bop. He unlocked for audiences the black box of jazz improvisation, explaining how musicians transform chords and melodies into spontaneously composed solos. He laid bare the mechanics of chord voicings, harmony, of bop's intricate dissonances and rhythms, of the musical interplay in ensembles, and anything else audiences and young players wanted to know.
In 1958, he took a position as on-air musical director for "The Subject Is Jazz" on NBC, a 13-episode series chronicling the music's history and anticipating Ken Burns's documentary by more than 40 years. In addition to playing regular local club dates, he held down a daily DJ slot spinning jazz records at a black-owned radio station, WLIB (AM).
"Billy Taylor's radio show was very important," said critic Gary Giddins, who grew up in New York in the 1960s. "For the few of us who were jazz fanatics during the height of the Beatles thing, Taylor's show was it. He was very good. He was very likable on the air, he and [his colleague] Ed Williams. They would zone in on a record, and they would pick a track and play the track over and over again. They were treating it like pop music. They brought people into the music, and I'm sure they sold records."
Taylor's recording career, however, was slipping into the doldrums, in part, he said, because his label, Capitol, had trained its promotional energies on Taylor's rock-and-roll labelmates, the Beatles among them. "If they couldn't make you into the next Elvis Presley," Taylor said, "they didn't want to waste time on you."
Musicians were suffering across the jazz pantheon. Big bands had fallen out of vogue. Armstrong and Ellington retreated to their tour buses, driven to earn a living before live audiences rather than in the studio. Benny Goodman started adding Stravinsky and Mozart to his repertoire. Others, such as Webster, Chet Baker, Don Byas, Stan Getz and Bud Powell, left for Europe, where audiences held jazz in more abiding esteem than those in its native land. Miles Davis, who by the close of the 1960s had abandoned acoustic jazz for electrified fusion, grew so embittered at the record companies' treatment of jazz artists that he said that to call him a jazz musician was akin to calling him "nigger."
Rather than continue making records, Taylor quit recording altogether and devoted himself to trying to persuade American audiences that jazz was not a dying form. In 1964, Taylor raised $10,000 from a beer company and commissioned the construction of a New Orleans-style rolling bandstand, pulled by a truck, which Taylor dubbed the "Jazzmobile." If black listeners were no longer coming out to hear jazz, he would bring jazz to them, free of charge. Every weekend in summer, the Jazzmobile trucked in luminaries -- Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers, Brubeck, Milt Hinton -- to some of the poorest neighborhoods in Harlem and the Bronx. Along with the concerts, the Jazz-mobile sponsored free music instruction at local schools to anyone who walked in the door.
Taylor also tried to pitch jazz to the next generation of listeners. He appeared on the PBS children's programs "Sesame Street" and "The Electric Company." In 1969, he spent a week as guest host of "Captain Kangaroo," where he introduced a nation of perhaps bewildered children to the music of stride piano hero Willie "the Lion" Smith and Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji.
In 1969, Taylor landed a job as bandleader for the "David Frost Show," a nightly talk and variety program hosted by the arid British journalist. In getting the job, Taylor had made broadcast history as the first African American bandleader on network television. The Cleveland Plain Dealer noted Frost's new hire with the headline, "David Frost Musical Director is BLACK."
In the same era, Taylor was commuting regularly to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where he was working on a doctorate in musicology. In 1977, he was hired to host the NPR program "Jazz Alive," syndicated to more than 200 stations, in which he conducted interviews and offered commentary on jazz performances. "He really knew how to sell the music," said Gary Giddins. "He's not the deepest thinker when he talks about the music because he doesn't want to get over anybody's head. And that's a gift, that's a gift. He brings everybody in with him."
In 1981, eight years after the Frost show had gone off the air, Taylor was hired as arts correspondent for "CBS Sunday Morning," regularly hosting profiles of jazz musicians, carrying his message of the music's importance and vitality into millions of American homes. Not long after Taylor was hired by the network, Mayor Marion Barry proclaimed a "Billy Taylor Day" in Washington.
In the 1970s, he rededicated himself to performing, sometimes leaving home for months at a time. By then, Taylor's children, Kimberly and Duane, were nearly grown, and Taylor had been around for precious little of their childhood. Taylor's wife, Theodora, told an interviewer not long after he was hired for the Frost show, "I've raised two children, almost by myself."
TAYLOR'S DOCTORAL THESIS, which he finished in 1975, can be summed up in what is probably the most widely bruited sentence in today's jazz community: "Jazz is America's classical music." And while it was partly through the efforts of people such as Taylor that jazz has at last found its way into America's uppermost preserves of high culture -- the Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center and endowed chairs from Harvard to UCLA -- the motto also speaks to the unhappy destiny jazz would share with classical music near the end of the 20th century. "What nationalist boosters of jazz never expected when they struck gold with their classical allusion is that the two veins of music would end up suffering similar fates," wrote Richard Woodward in the Village Voice in 2001. "For many of the same reasons, jazz and classical music find themselves limping into the millennium under the burden of a glorious but sclerotic sense of tradition, and supported by an aging audience base that shows no sign of rejuvenating anytime soon."
One of jazz's bestselling albums, Miles Davis's "Kind of Blue," hit the charts in 1959, and the four decades that followed would witness the music's fitful recession from mainstream listenership. With a handful of notable exceptions, instrumental jazz failed to win back audiences that had started to stray at the onset of the bop era. Riven by new categories -- free jazz, Latin, fusion, acid jazz, smooth jazz -- consensus as to what jazz was or wasn't began to disintegrate. Even the music's most commercially successful incarnation in years, smooth jazz, posed an artistic quandary. A heavily pasteurized, atmospheric music that favored listener-friendly melodies over improvisatory prowess, smooth jazz, in the 1980s, revived the music's presence on mainstream radio. But the hard-core jazz establishment largely dismissed the new genre as a commercial abomination. In 1992, saxophonist Kenny G lofted smooth jazz into the Top 40 with "Breathless," which, with sales of more than 15 million copies, is the bestselling instrumental album in recording history. Yet no one has deplored his success more venomously than the jazz community.
"You're in a room with Hitler, Stalin and Kenny G, and you've got a gun with only two bullets. What do you do?" asks a bitter joke circulating widely on jazz chat sites. "Shoot Kenny G twice."
As the decades passed, jazz's star-making machinery slipped into disrepair. Record companies signed fewer artists, and though New York clubs such as the Village Vanguard, the Blue Note and Iridium still thrive today, jazz clubs in the rest of America have undergone a massive die-off.
In 1968, the riots waged in the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination shuttered the jazz clubs along U Street, leaving the city of Ellington's birth with only a handful of jazz venues, among them Blues Alley and One Step Down on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, which closed in 2000.
By the early '90s, with the exception of smooth jazz, the music had all but vanished from American commercial radio. But it found new allies in august venues such as the Kennedy Center, which in 1994 brought in Taylor as artistic adviser to help launch its fledgling jazz program.
"It was past time that cultural institutions should recognize jazz as a cultural icon in this country," said Darrell Ayers, the Kennedy Center's vice president for education. "When Billy came on, we saw a huge proliferation in our jazz programming."
Under Taylor's watch, the Kennedy Center's concert series expanded from four per year to more than 50, and in 1997, Taylor launched a radio show, "Billy Taylor's Jazz," at the Kennedy Center. Taylor also expanded the center's education initiatives, including the "Betty Carter's Jazz Ahead" program, a weeklong jazz camp whose alumni include players such as Blue Note recording artist Jason Moran, 32, the most celebrated young jazz pianist in the nation today.
Though jazz vocalists such as Harry Connick Jr., Cassandra Wilson and Diana Krall still sell records in pop quantities, the market continues to be frosty for instrumental stars. These days, even Marsalis, the only household name to emerge from the jazz world in the last quarter-century, is far from commercial viability as a recording artist. Of the dozen records he recorded in the 1990s, none logged sales over 15,000 units.
In 2001, Burns's documentary series "Jazz" inspired a rash of CD releases, with Burns hoping to catch an updraft in sales from this piece of rare publicity. But the documentary, which, to the disappointment of the contemporary jazz scene, chronicled only the music's early history and basically ignored the present, didn't do much to buoy sales of new releases. By 2005, America's classical music would barely register a pulse with the record-buying public. With sales at 1.8 percent of market share, jazz was outstripped not only by traditional classical recordings, which were trickling off the shelves at 2.4 percent, but even by children's music, whose sales beat out jazz by 0.5 percentage points, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.
WHILE TAYLOR IS PROBABLY JAZZ'S MOST relentlessly affable personality since Armstrong himself, he does, from time to time, suffer pangs of melancholy that history will likely remember him as a statesman, not as a musician.
"I have not prospered," Taylor told a reporter in 1983, when he was 61 years old. "I wanted my music played by everybody. I wanted to play it myself in Europe, but I've never been invited to Europe. My name doesn't mean enough at the box office. I used to think there was something wrong with me. But I know I can play the piano. I know I have influenced people. I hear other people imitating me, and their records are the ones played on the air. They've just added some sauce, but it's still me."
In the mid-1980s, Taylor returned to the studio to try to reclaim the reputation as a pianist-composer that began atrophying when he swore off recording two decades earlier. He established his own record label, Taylor Made, and released four albums. Critics received the albums genially if not ecstatically, but by then, the window for opportunity had pretty well been painted shut for jazz artists, at least as far as record sales were concerned.
"I wish, in hindsight, that I had followed my first inclination, to do what a lot of other guys were doing, just going on fighting to get their music out there. But, at the time, it just seemed pointless," he said on the Monday morning after the Kennedy Center event, in a handsome suite at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel on Maryland Avenue SW. Wearing a pink Ralph Lauren shirt, Taylor sat at the folding bench of a black Yamaha electric piano, which the Kennedy Center had rented for him. "Part of it was that I had another choice, so I didn't have to do that. I said, I'll direct my time and efforts to this other direction. It was a mistake, careerwise. I should have done more."
By the 1970s, the critics had mostly made up their minds about Taylor's playing. Though they praised him as a refined and versatile stylist, they tended to fault his penchant for excessive cultivation and charm -- precisely those qualities that made him such an able spokesman for the music.
"He is impressive to those excited by technique, and his touch is polite and polished," wrote one reviewer. "But underneath there is a void."
"Billy had incredible ears and an incredible touch," said critic Giddins. "He was a blessing to everyone because he could play everything. He was a great virtuoso player, and he wrote one of the all-time great [gospel] numbers ever, 'I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,'" later recorded by such disparate artists as Nina Simone, John Denver and Allman Brothers guitarist Derek Trucks. "Billy used to do this left-handed arrangement of 'All the Things You Are.' It was an incredible virtuoso feat, but it wasn't something that really moved you."
Part of what hounded Taylor, Giddins pointed out, was that by the late 1950s, critical appetites had begun to favor wild individualism over pianistic elan. They wanted devastating originality, exemplified by the veering, fitful melodies of Thelonious Monk, or the surging dynamism of pianists such as Ahmad Jamal or, later, Bill Evans, whose playing is so haunted, so gracefully grief-racked that his live recordings at the Village Vanguard conjure an image of the pianist quietly snugging a noose around his neck to the audience's jolly din of table chatter and chiming glassware.
"The good reviews were so few and far between," said Taylor, looking back on the critical response to his playing. "As compared to a lot of friends of mine who really got glowing reviews, I would get a lot of faint praise, and yet people were coming to see me night after night. I couldn't figure that out."
I recounted to Taylor something a jazz critic acquaintance had said while were talking about Taylor's life and work. "He's done great things as an advocate for jazz, but I didn't know he'd had a piano career."
"Yeah, I know," Taylor said. "That's happened to me a lot. There's no question that being an advocate eclipsed my reputation as a musician. It was my doing. When I got into it, people were saying, 'Jazz is dead,' and I said, 'I think you're wrong.' I wanted to prove to people that jazz has an audience. I had to do that for me."
The phone rang, and Taylor rose to answer it. The front desk was calling to let him know that people from the rental outfit were coming by to pick up the piano.
"I did everything I know how to do, both in music and in trying to help people understand what the music was about," Taylor said. "I did my best. I gave it my best shot. Unfortunately, it just didn't work."
EVERY SUMMER FOR THE LAST 25 YEARS, Taylor has returned to his alma mater in Amherst, where he spends two weeks teaching young artists at a program called "Jazz in July." Three years ago, he met a young piano prodigy named Christian Sands, and was sufficiently taken with his playing to invite Sands for a concert at the Kennedy Center last year. One bitter day in February, Sands, 17, was recording a CD at a studio in New Haven, Conn., and Taylor obliged his request to sit in as producer. "I was hoping we'd be able to do something together before I went off to college," said Sands, who was waiting to hear back from the Manhattan School of Music and the New England Conservatory. Taylor is "a very lyrical player. He always tells a story when he plays . . . These days, people don't play with the same feeling that those early cats from his generation did. He was there when the tunes were written."
Sands began playing piano at age 3. At his first lesson, his teacher introduced him to Beethoven by playing "Ode to Joy." The teacher was astounded, according to Sands's father, Sylvester, when the boy, who would turn out to have perfect pitch, wandered over to the keys and tapped out the melody in fluid mimicry. As he was learning classical technique, Sands was also absorbing jazz styles from his father, an amateur jazz pianist. "I remember when he was 6, Christian was in the middle of a classical recital when he stopped reading the music and started doing jazz riffs," said Sylvester Sands. "I said, 'You're not sticking to the music. I think you should be playing jazz.'"
Sands began playing jazz at age 7, and it wasn't long before some of his most eminent forebears began taking note of his gifts. When Sands was in fourth grade, Brubeck's doctor happened to catch one of his recitals. After hearing Sands play "Take Five," he arranged a meeting with Brubeck. Sands impressed Brubeck with a rendition of "Blue Rondo a la Turk," from Brubeck's bestselling "Time Out," and the two became friends. These days, they speak often on the phone, and Brubeck, who lives in southern Connecticut, invites the Sands family to spend his birthday with him each December.
"People [my age] don't even really know what jazz is, or where it came from," Sands said. "They haven't really listened to it. When they think of jazz, they think of elevator music or Kenny G. It's hard to explain it to them."
Sands also plays classical music and dabbles in hip-hop, but he foresees a career in jazz, never mind the challenge of making a living at it. "For me and other young musicians, it's our job to try to make the music popular again," Sands said. "Or at least to try."
Sands, a soft-spoken, light-skinned young man with a fringe of mustache, appears to be heading toward an accomplished career. Last year, after two summers under Taylor's tutelage in Amherst, Sands was selected to perform at the 48th Annual Grammy Awards, where he engaged in a musical duel with piano legend Oscar Peterson. The week before the recording session, Sands had been out in Los Angeles for his second appearance at the Grammys.
While the quintet was setting up in the studio, Taylor and Sands sat in the control room. Taylor asked how he had liked his time in L.A.
"It was a lot of fun," said Sands, who performed one of his own compositions as part of the broadcast. He continued, somewhat glumly: "But they only played, like, three seconds of it, and that was during the applause."
"Oh, that's ridiculous," said Taylor, shaking his head. Though Taylor himself was honored in the Grammys' 2005 broadcast ("They gave me an award for living so long") and was once vice president of New York's chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, which administers the awards, he regards the academy as yet another of the legion of institutions to have forsaken jazz in his time.
When the engineer had dialed knobs and tweaked levels to his satisfaction, Sands retreated to the nine-foot-long Steinway, and the recording session began. The band counted off a solemn mid-tempo ballad Sands had composed. Taylor sat enthroned in an office chair on an upper terrace in the control room. When the music started, Taylor's eyes went wide and his spine straightened, and he listened with the focused scrutiny of a jeweler peering through a loupe.
"How was that?" Sands asked when the take was over.
Taylor leaned into the producer's microphone on the table in front of him. "It was very nice," he said. "Now do another one, and play it like you mean it."
The combo wound through another couple of takes, and Taylor listened with unflagging attentiveness, raising himself out of his seat every now and again to walk -- with some effort and a slight limp -- to the studio to render face-to-face coaching to the horns or to clarify a pianistic detail to Sands. By midday, an upper register F key on the Steinway had gone sour after the morning's drubbing. While the piano tuner did his work, the musicians sat with Taylor in the control room. The drummer, a tall dark man named Jesse Hameen, kept taking a seat next to Taylor to express his gratitude. Hameen is in his 50s, and, as it happened, had played on Taylor's Jazzmobile a few times back in the '80s. "You put a lot of money in my pocket, a lot of our pockets," Hameen said.
"I'm glad," Taylor said.
Hameen mentioned that he was putting together a local program of visiting artists and wanted to know if Taylor would consider making an appearance next year.
Taylor demurred. "Well, I'm not doing a whole lot now, just trying to get my library together. I've spent too much time away from my wife. I've got to come back in now."
"How long you been married?"
"Sixty-five years," Taylor said.
"Wow," Hameen said. "That's a blessing."
"That's right. I was lucky. I met somebody very special. She brought up our kids, while I was running all over the radio, out on the road, trying to pay those bills."
"But see, you were doing more than paying bills," Hameen said. "You paid a whole lot of our bills, everybody's bills. You were the one that God used to set some stuff up for us. Some people, yeah, they are just trying to pay bills, but you set up institutions. The rest of us, we need to be coming together now, sitting with you -- a Billy Taylor summit! -- figuring out how we're going to continue this tradition."
"And that's what I was trying to do, with things like the Jazz-mobile," Taylor said, "but all of my elders drummed it into me: Man, you got to pass it on."
"And you been doing it," Hameen said. "You helped a lot of people, helped a lot of people grow. And that's serious, man. You're a tremendous example. You put so much in motion."
Taylor laughed. "Well, straight ahead, man. That's beautiful to hear."
In the next room, the piano tuner was still plinking diagnostically at the Steinway's ailing F. The morning spent listening so closely to Sands's music had roused in Taylor a desire to share some songs of his own, and so with the aid of his iPod, mainlined into the studio monitors, he treated the room to a brief synopsis of the largely vanished songs he had recorded over the years. A tune he'd recorded back in the 1950s with members from Ellington's band coursed from the speakers -- a languid saxophone breathing out a husky, voluptuous murmur above the limber cadences of Taylor's chords. The room fell silent at the sound of it. After a few measures, Christian and Sylvester Sands and Jesse Hameen lapsed into a simultaneous bout of giggling wonderment. "Man," Christian Sands said, "what a sweet sound. Who's that on the saxophone?"
"That's Johnny Hodges," Taylor said.
"Who's that young guy on the piano?" Sylvester Sands asked.
"Nobody," said Billy Taylor, smiling. "Nobody we know."
"WE'VE COME TO THE SUMMIT OF OUR PROGRAM," James Earl Jones intoned from the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall on the opening night of the "Jazz in Our Time" celebration. "The reason we're all here, to honor the living jazz legends." Jones called the 32 legends to the stage. They stood for a long moment in their medals and red ribbons, blinking and smiling under the stage lights, while the room shook with applause. When the ovations died down, the honorees turned and made their way at a careful pace, into the darkness of the wings.
With the evening almost at its end, the chairman of the Kennedy Center's board of trustees came out to utter praise for "our own living legend, Dr. Billy Taylor." And after the chairman declaimed Taylor's long inventory of achievements and job titles, Taylor was permitted at last to play the piano.
The piece he'd chosen was his most famous composition, "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free," arranged with a full jazz orchestra and a 50-person choir. After an introductory flourish of horns, Taylor played by himself. At the end of a night of brisk ensemble numbers and lush orchestral spectacles, a lonely, pondering elegance emanated from Taylor's unaccompanied piano. The melody was sure-handed but still halting, contemplative, its silences full of the melancholy wisdom of the blues. Even with the bandstand crowded to capacity, never before in the evening's program had the stage seemed as private and solitary a place as it did during Taylor's meandering soliloquy. One couldn't help feeling a kind of grief and deprivation when the band came in and the choir swelled, and Billy Taylor's piano became lost in plain sight.
Wells Tower is a contributing writer for the Magazine and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at noon.