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Billy Taylor, revered musician, broadcaster and spokesman for jazz, dies at 89

Dr. Taylor, one of the musical treasures of Washington and the world, died of a heart attack Dec. 28 at a hospital in New York City.

"There's no question that being an advocate eclipsed my reputation as a musician," Dr. Taylor said in a 2007 article in The Post Magazine. "It was my doing. I wanted to prove to people that jazz has an audience. I had to do that for me."

Soon after moving to New York in 1944, Dr. Taylor became part of the bebop movement, led by saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. Bebop brought advanced harmonies and rhythms to jazz, but few musicians were comfortable speaking about its complexities to the uninitiated. Dr. Taylor stepped in to fill the void.

"People were asking serious questions about jazz and seeking serious answers," he told Melody Maker magazine 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."

In 1949, he published his first book, about bebop piano styles. In 1958, he became the musical director of NBC's "The Subject Is Jazz," the first jazz series on network television.

He became a DJ and program director at New York radio stations and gained a national profile on "The David Frost Show" from 1969 to 1972 as the first African American bandleader on a network talk show.

Dr. Taylor later was music director for "Tony Brown's Black Journal Tonight" on PBS and had his own local TV show in New York. By the late 1970s, he was on the NPR series "Jazz Alive!," and for seven years he was the host of the weekly "Billy Taylor's Jazz at the Kennedy Center" on NPR.

After being the subject of a profile on "CBS Sunday Morning" in 1981, the network signed Dr. Taylor as its jazz correspondent. For more than two decades, he recorded memorable interviews with musicians, often sitting down at the keyboard to perform with them. In 1983, he won an Emmy Award for an interview with Quincy Jones.

"I found I had a knack for explaining things," Dr. Taylor said in 2005. "My mother was a schoolteacher, and my father was a dentist and choir director, so I guess I learned from them how to be articulate."

William Edward Taylor Jr. was born July 24, 1921, in Greenville, N.C. He was 5 when his family moved to Washington to a street near Howard University.

An uncle introduced him to jazz at a young age, and Dr. Taylor began playing piano at 7. He had his first professional job at the Republic Gardens on U Street when he was 13.

"I was so proud," he told The Post in 2005. "I made a dollar, then came home and gave it to my mother."

At Virginia State University in Petersburg, he studied sociology for two years but switched to music when he realized he spent most of his time playing in jazz bands and working at the radio station. He graduated in 1943 and received a doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts in 1975.


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