Billy Taylor: 1921-2010

Scholarly jazz ambassador considered D.C. home

Billy Taylor made the Kennedy Center a premier concert location for jazz.
Billy Taylor made the Kennedy Center a premier concert location for jazz. (Helayne Seidman)
By Matt Schudel
Thursday, December 30, 2010

Billy Taylor, one of the most versatile, influential and revered figures of the jazz world, who left his mark as a pianist, composer, educator and broadcaster and made Washington's Kennedy Center one of the nation's premier concert venues for jazz, died Dec. 28 at a hospital in New York. He was 89 and had a heart attack.

Dr. Taylor, who grew up in the District and derived his early musical education from local teachers and from jazz shows at the Howard Theater, had a career that spanned nearly 70 years. He collaborated with almost every significant performer in jazz, from Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker to Wynton Marsalis, but he had an even rarer gift for explaining his music and drawing people to it.

Beginning in the 1950s, Dr. Taylor was a pioneering television and radio host and continued in that role for decades, bringing the joys and complexities of jazz to countless viewers and listeners. With a doctorate in education, he was a scholar as well as a performer and was considered perhaps the foremost jazz educator of his time. He taught in colleges, lectured widely, served on panels, traveled the world as a jazz ambassador and organized clinics and concert programs that took renowned musicians directly to the streets.

For more than 20 years, Dr. Taylor appeared as the Emmy Award-winning jazz correspondent of "CBS Sunday Morning," interviewing and performing with hundreds of artists. He was among the first to popularize the phrase "jazz is America's classical music."

"It is almost indisputable," critic Leonard Feather once wrote, " that Dr. Billy Taylor is the world's foremost spokesman for jazz."

When Dr. Taylor became the Kennedy Center's artistic adviser for jazz in 1994, he helped bring his music into the mainstream of classical culture.

"Before Billy was here, the Kennedy Center would have four performances a year in jazz," Darrell Ayers, vice president for education at the Kennedy Center told The Washington Post in 2005. "Now, we're over 150 performances."

Although he lived in the Bronx, N.Y., Dr. Taylor considered Washington his home town and was the presiding spirit of jazz at the Kennedy Center, both as an impresario and as a musician who performed until months before his death. He launched the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival at the Kennedy Center in 1996 and introduced several other concert series.

As a youngster growing up in Washington, Dr. Taylor met Jelly Roll Morton, often called the father of jazz, at a club on U Street NW. His music teacher at Dunbar High School, Henry Grant, had taught Duke Ellington two decades earlier.

"And every week we had a different band playing at the Howard," Dr. Taylor said in a 2005 interview with Jazz Times magazine. "You talk about an education: I heard Earl Hines, Chick Webb - people who looked like me and could play so well. I wanted to be one of them."

Dr. Taylor gained his credibility from his impeccable musicianship, his long-held friendships and his love of jazz history. As a result, when he began to write about jazz and conduct interviews for radio and television, he had immense credibility with musicians.

In some ways his wide-ranging promotion of jazz came to overshadow his primary career as a pianist. Younger generations came to recognize his beaming smile, oversize glasses and rich baritone voice more than his accomplished work at the keyboard.

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