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

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 30, 2010; 12:17 AM

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.

"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.

When he arrived in New York a year later, he went straight to Minton's Playhouse in Harlem, where the heartbeat of bebop was born. In two days, he was working with saxophonist Ben Webster. He befriended piano greats Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson and was known as an affable, bespectacled straight arrow who could play anything on the piano.

Dr. Taylor appeared on hundreds of jazz albums and wrote more than 300 tunes, including "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free," which became an unofficial anthem of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. It was the theme music of the 1996 film "Ghosts of Mississippi."

He received many awards, including the National Medal of Arts from President George H.W. Bush in 1992, and was designated a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1988.

Unlike many jazz musicians, Dr. Taylor was never part of the drug scene. He once was fired from a band for refusing to contribute to a fund to buy heroin.

After a stroke in 2002 affected his right hand, Dr. Taylor underwent therapy and was able to return to the concert stage almost as adept as before. He continued to perform until another stroke this past summer.

He is survived by his wife of 65 years, Theodora Castion Taylor; a daughter, Kim Taylor-Thompson; and a granddaughter. A son, Duane Taylor, died in 1988.

Summing up his ability to bring jazz to a wider public, Dr. Taylor said in 2005: "From my classical teachers, I took ways of teaching technique. . . .

"From my jazz elders, I took ways of teaching the language of jazz. I passed on the stories I had heard, the tricks I had picked up and the lessons I had learned."

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