Jazz Pianist, Composer Billy Taylor Dies At 89

Billy Taylor i i

hide captionDr. Billy Taylor.

courtesy of the artist
Billy Taylor

Dr. Billy Taylor.

courtesy of the artist

Dr. Billy Taylor — jazz pianist, educator and regular voice on NPR for many years — died Tuesday night after a heart attack. He was 89.

Taylor was a pioneer in jazz education when there was no model for it in this country. He shared his deep knowledge of jazz with generations of Americans through lectures, performances and recordings — in person, on television and on radio. Many of those programs were heard on NPR.

Billy Taylor was one of the first to call jazz "America's classical music," by which he meant it should be taken as seriously as composed concert music. He dedicated his life to spreading that message, and his earliest vehicle was radio, as he told NPR in 1996.

"I backed into radio," he said. "I used to do a lot of appearances in radio, early in my recording career. I wrote theme songs for disc jockeys who had asked me to write themes for them. ... The thing that I found on being on the air was that I had the ability to communicate with people and let them in on what we as musicians did. And this, I found out in the very early days of my radio career, was a very valuable asset."

That was in New York in the early 1960s. Taylor carried that asset to the streets of Harlem.

He co-founded Jazzmobile, a traveling series of concerts and workshops in New York City. One of the many top-flight jazz musicians Taylor got to participate was saxophonist Jimmy Heath, who says the program gave children their first exposure to jazz on a stage with wheels.

"The children who weren't exposed to jazz music would say to us sometimes, 'You know, they always send in Bach and Beethoven and stuff — we never heard no brothers coming in and playing jazz,' " Heath says. "So this is an important thing that Billy did."

Taylor took his message to television: He was the music director for The David Frost Show and, later, a correspondent for CBS' Sunday Morning, producing more than 200 interviews on jazz.

Then there was his work with NPR: his numerous series, starting with Jazz Alive! and his appearances on NPR news programs. He was a musician who demystified jazz with the ease of a passionate and beloved math or science teacher.

Billy Taylor was born in 1921 in Greenville, N.C. He grew up in Washington, D.C., where he studied piano with Duke Ellington's high-school music teacher.

Taylor recalled moving to New York City in 1944. He'd learned so well that he had a job within three days.

"I went to a jam session," Taylor said. "In those days, you could just sit in. So I got a chance to sit in on the last set. And, luckily for me, Ben Webster was one of the players. Ben liked my playing — he asked me my name, what I was doing. I told him I just got into town. He said, 'Come down on Sunday to The Three Deuces. If you sound okay in my group, we'll talk.' "

Webster hired him. Soon, Taylor found himself in the cauldron that was cooking up a new style called bebop.

Taylor went on to lead his own groups, and to compose more than 300 pieces, including "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free," a song made popular by singer Nina Simone. He played the piece for NPR in 2005, two years after suffering his first of several strokes.

Billy Taylor's ability as a musician, and especially his willingness to share what he knew, inspired countless younger players, including Ramsey Lewis, who sometimes performed piano duets with his mentor.

"He taught by example," Lewis says. "And not that it was any specific thing that he said, 'Do it like this.' But Billy showed me how to be comfortable with who I am as a musician — who I am as a piano player."

Billy Taylor became Dr. Billy Taylor after earning a doctorate of music education from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He was also the recipient of more than 20 honorary degrees as recognition for what he did to promote "America's classical music."

"The one thing that jazz does that no other indigenous music does to the same extent, is that it allows a certain personal freedom that we hold very dear in our culture — where we say every individual is important," Taylor said. "And jazz reflects that."

Dr. Billy Taylor did more than his share to help people understand that.

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