Jazz has a host of friends in Billy Taylor.
There's Billy Taylor, the elegant, buoyant pianist.
Billy Taylor, composer of pop melodies and orchestral suites.
Billy Taylor, frequent trio leader and occasional guest conductor.
Dr. Billy Taylor, educator, author and founder of Jazzmobile.
Billy Taylor, radio and television host.
Billy Taylor, jazz lobbyist as a member of the National Council on the Arts.
Billy Taylor, American Jazz Master, so certified by the National Endowment for the Arts.
And Billy Taylor, 69, an honoree tonight for "incalculable contributions to the field of jazz" at the International Association of Jazz Educators conference at the Sheraton-Washington Hotel.
No matter what the role, Taylor has been a congenial and articulate advocate for jazz since the '50s, when he signed on as a deejay at New York's WLIB.
"I'd always bought into the myth that the jazz audience was small until I got on this tiny radio station that came on at dawn and went off at dusk," Taylor recalls. "And yet my numbers were so good, the support so strong, that I was hired away to WNEW, a 50,000-watt, clear-channel station heard up and down the seaboard.
"What that said is that here is a man playing John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Thelonious Monk and Cecil Taylor and he has a big enough audience to make a dent in the specs of a major radio station. And that gave me the strength and belief that an audience was there."
Having traveled through the airwaves, Taylor gained visibility as musical director of "The David Frost Show" from 1969 to 1972, and he has been a hardy perennial in the medium, including hosting illuminating jazz profiles for the past 10 years on Charles Kuralt's "CBS Sunday Morning." Taylor hardly abandoned radio, hooking up with National Public Radio where his long-running "Taylor-Made Piano" series won a Peabody and where he hosted "Jazz Alive" for five years, during which the only shows that were more successful were "All Things Considered" and "Morning Edition."
Music is sometimes hard to talk about, and musicians are sometimes hard to talk to, but Taylor, who has defined jazz as America's classical music, has never seemed to have problems on either front. He manages to make challenging music accessible without diluting its integrity and to draw very personal responses from his compatriots.
"People don't look at me as an interviewer but as a colleague," Taylor says. "Most of my interviews are really conversations. If I'm talking with Oscar Peterson, we're talking from the point of view of two piano players. If I'm talking with Sarah Vaughan or Ella Fitzgerald, I'm talking to people I've accompanied, so it's another kind of relationship.
"And I like to keep things simple," Taylor says. "I found out a long time ago that I enjoy talking about music to people who are not musicians."
Some of these skills were developed while Taylor was the house pianist at New York's Birdland and would sit in one of that club's booths while more famous musicians -- Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and the like -- were being interviewed. "Whatever they had to say I was interested in," he explains.
Taylor began looking for ways to reach out to people who are not musicians and found himself talking to youngsters in New York schools. "When you begin to talk to kids at the fourth- or fifth-grade level, you have to be able to communicate not in the language you would communicate with another adult, but 'this is what this is about, this is why I love it, why I think it's important and if you check it out, you might like it.'
"And kids are very open, much more so than many people realize," Taylor adds. "They're curious, and until you turn them off, they'll give you a shot at it."
His own enthusiasm was kindled here in Washington, where he grew up after his family moved here in the early '20s. Taylor started studying music at age 7, moving from piano to guitar to tenor saxophone and back to piano, the last change settled when he heard fellow Dunbar High School freshman Frank Wess warming up one morning.
"He's the reason I don't play the tenor saxophone," Taylor chuckles. "Even as a 13-year-old kid, he played so beautifully, with a big sound. I said, 'Man, I'm doing something wrong, I can't make the tenor sound like that.' I was looking for something easy. But all of the instruments are hard and when I found that out I went back to piano, figuring if I'm going to scuffle with something, I'm going to scuffle with something I think I can do."
(Wess has had his own brilliant career and will reunite with several other "David Frost Show" alumni, including trumpeter Jimmy Owens and saxophonist Seldon Powell, at tonight's tribute concert at the Sheraton. The Billy Taylor Trio will also play.)
In Washington, Taylor studied with Henry Grant, who also taught Duke Ellington, but when Taylor went to college at Virginia State, he found that "you really were not supposed to play jazz in the practice rooms."
Even his father tried to dissuade Taylor from his enthusiasm. "He was a dentist with a very nice practice in D.C., and he felt I should either be a dentist, a lawyer or a doctor," says Taylor, who now has a number of doctorates, earned and honorary. In fact, when Taylor switched his major from sociology to music, "my father was furious and he told me he would not pay tuition for my junior and senior year, so I paid my own way. I didn't know he'd told the treasurer of the school that if I defaulted he would pay it, because he never told me until much later."
After graduating in 1942, Taylor achieved his jazzman's master's by moving to New York and becoming a fixture on that city's fabled 52nd Street, landing his first job in two days playing with Ben Webster at the Three Deuces, sharing the bill with the Art Tatum Trio. For several years, Taylor was the house pianist at Birdland, performing in different settings and working with just about every major jazz star of the '40s and '50s.
"I was fortunate in that one of my principal mentors was Art Tatum," says Taylor. "I was his protege for a couple of years -- I hung out with him, took him around town, went over to his house and heard him play classical music. I heard him under a lot of different circumstances and benefited from his counsel and support."
Taylor also studied with Rich McLanahan, who taught another of his major influences, Teddy Wilson. He also points to Webster, Eddie South and Stuff Smith as major influences, adding that "the one thing they taught me is that everybody should make his own statement, and I took that to heart." Among the Taylor-ed sounds are his ballad style -- "it has to do with touch and melodies I develop when I improvise in that style" -- and complex contrapuntal things "where I'm playing two or three voices at the same time. There are other people who do that, but not quite the way I do it," Taylor notes.
The pianist has also made his mark as a composer, and on a number of levels. "Peaceful Warrior" is an extended work commissioned by the Atlanta Symphony in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.; "Suite for Jazz Piano and Orchestra" was commissioned by Maurice Abravnel for the Utah Symphony; the Juilliard String Quartet commissioned Taylor for a piece for quartet and jazz trio to celebrate its 10th anniversary at the Met next week.
Taylor also has written hundreds of shorter works, the best known of which is the spiritual-rooted "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free."
"I'm amazed," says Taylor. "That's the most-used piece of music I ever wrote -- it's just a 16-bars melody but it's in hymnals and schoolbooks, and it was picked by the New York Times as one of the great songs of the '60s. It wasn't a throwaway but I didn't spend nearly as much time writing that as I did writing other things."
The Juilliard work represents a further recognition of jazz in the classical and academic communities, Taylor says. "It's had legitimacy but it wasn't recognized because it comes out of an oral tradition, as opposed to a written tradition."
Ironically, he says, "just prior to Beethoven, improvisation was an important part of the European tradition. If you were a great concert musician, you were expected to improvise your cadenzas, that was part of your training. It got so out of hand with the virtuosi that Beethoven said, 'Hold it, the cadenza's longer than the piece. Play this cadenza.' And so he wrote them out, as did other people, and slowly that tradition began to change until in the 19th and 20th centuries it was no longer expected of musicians to be able to improvise.
"The result is that people who are well-trained and wonderful musicians now don't necessarily have that as a part of their experience," Taylor adds, "so it's only natural that when they can't understand it, they don't teach it or support it."
Recently, Taylor joined forces with Murray Sidlin, former conductor with the National Symphony, for a two-hour NPR program that looked at "the process of improvisation as it is practiced by jazz musicians and as it was practiced by people such as Bach and Mozart and some of the earlier musicians in the European tradition." It was well received.
All this represents long-term progress. Taylor remembers a time in the mid-50s when he and band leader Stan Kenton addressed the Music Educators National Conference, which was focused strictly on European classical music: "We got a pat on the head, 'don't call us, we'll call you,' " he recalls. "So Kenton came home and used lab bands to get into the schools, as well as jazz camps, and I did the same thing with small combos and Jazzmobile."
Jazzmobile was begun in 1964 to present free outdoor concerts in Harlem and has developed into far-reaching enrichment programs in music, dance, drama and poetry, with youth workshops taught by professionals. A few years later, the IAJE was formed to bring jazz into the academic curriculum. "It gives me great hopes about what can happen in the future," says Taylor.