Remembering Billy Taylor, Jazz Artist And Educator
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
(Soundbite of music)
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News, and you are listening to just some of the extraordinary talent that was Billy Taylor.
The jazz pianist was more than a musician, more than a kind and generous man. He was a music educator, an ambassador for jazz. Billy Taylor died Tuesday at the age of 89, reportedly from heart failure.
We've asked two people who were touched by Billy Taylor to join us. Dee Dee Bridgewater is a jazz artist, a jazz singer, someone who has picked up the mantle of jazz ambassador. Like Taylor once did with his NPR show, Billy Taylor's Jazz at the Kennedy Center, Dee Dee Bridgewater does NPR's JazzSet program. It's heard on many member stations around the country.
Also with us, Marc Fisher, who spent many years writing for the Washington Post where he's written about radio and jazz among other things. He's now enterprise editor for that paper working on long-form reporting projects, and he just reprised a column he wrote about when Billy Taylor personally ignited for him a lifelong passion for jazz.
And I welcome you both, and I'm so sorry for the loss for all of us.
DEE DEE BRIDGEWATER: Well, I can say, Michel, thank you very much for inviting me to be a part of the show honoring Dr. Taylor as I loved to call him. So I'm very happy to be here and also in the presence of Marc. Hello, Marc.
Mr. MARC FISHER (Enterprise Editor, Washington Post): Hi.
MARTIN: Now, I just want to mention, he did like to be called Dr. Taylor because, in fact, he did have a doctorate in music education from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
But Dee Dee, I wanted to ask you about - he literally got you started. Can you talk about that?
BRIDGEWATER: Well, when I first moved to New York City, I was hired by Dr. Billy Taylor to work at an organization that he started in Manhattan called Jazzmobile. I was hired as a secretary, and he also was responsible for putting together the first trios that I performed with, which included Monty Alexander and Paul West.
And took me on several private jazz concerts that he would do around the greater New York area, and basically told me a lot of very, very important things about being a jazz musician, and how important it was to respect the audience, to keep myself facing forward at all times looking at the audience. That it was all right to have fun while performing because Dr. Taylor was also known as a jazz entertainer, which is something that I pride myself in being.
MARTIN: That's wonderful. So he was a great mentor?
BRIDGEWATER: Yes, he was.
MARTIN: Marc Fisher, do you...
BRIDGEWATER: And even more recently, he turned over the hosting of the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz to me. And he would sit on the side of the stage and give me comments when I would come off.
MARTIN: Okay. Now, Marc Fisher, you write about his inspiring you when you were very young. Tell us a little bit about that.
Mr. FISHER: That very same Jazzmobile that Dee Dee spoke about, drove up to the junior high school in the Bronx that I was attending, and I had - my exposure to music had been AM Top 40, and the classical music that my parents played at home.
And then all of a sudden this trio took the stage. A huge audience of screaming kids, totally unruly, and this trio starts playing this very cool jazz. It was the Billy Taylor classic, "I Wish I Knew How It Felt To Be Free," and he then handed out 45s of that very same tune that he wrote, which has become this great jazz classic.
And then he explained as he played what was going on, and what each instrument was doing. And it was like this limousine had driven up to me and delivered jazz, and that's what the Jazzmobile was about. He went out across the city to school after school doing what doesn't exist anymore, which is bringing this, you know, the one art form that this country has created, to people who would otherwise not be exposed to it.
And that, you know he's a terrific player and he, you know, you read the jazz books and the encyclopedias, and there's a little segment about Billy Taylor's playing. But his playing is terrific, but what he will really be remembered for is this evangelical zeal that he had for the music and this incredible knack for explaining it.
MARTIN: He clearly infected you with that zeal for, and knack for, explaining the art form. And I wanted to ask, where do you think it came from in him?
Mr. FISHER: Well, I think he - what he understood growing up here in Washington, was that this was the music of the nightclubs and the bars that had a kind of down home nitty-gritty feel to it. On the other hand, it was also a highly intellectual form. And what he - he managed to marry the two.
He came from a background where both of his parents had professional backgrounds, one was a teacher, and so he had that teaching in his heart. And he was also one of the few jazz artists of prominence from that period who never had a struggle with drugs, and who had an educational bent. And so all of that came together in this desire he had to get out and take this music to people who would otherwise never be exposed to it.
MARTIN: You know, in fact I have a clip from an interview he did in the 1950's. He was talking about the rhythm backing for cool jazz. Let's hear it.
(Soundbite of Interview with Dr. Billy Taylor)
Dr. BILLY TAYLOR (Jazz Musician and Educator): Instead of playing percussive accents as in earlier forms of (unintelligible) and other earlier forms, percussive accents like this,...
(Soundbite of music)
Dr. TAYLOR: ...a cool rhythm section leaves much more of a subtle - or plays in a much more subtle fashion, like this.
(Soundbite of music)
Dr. TAYLOR: Well, now, there's a big difference because as you can see there's a floating sensation rather than a pushing. And instead of playing on top of the beat you are actually riding on the beat.
MARTIN: We're talking about the late, great jazz pianist and educator, Billy Taylor. We're speaking with Dee Dee Bridgewater, who also hosts NPR's JazzSet program, and she's a renowned and loved artist in her own right. And Washington Post writer and editor, Marc Fisher. He's talking about his love of jazz and how he learned that love of jazz from Billy Taylor.
So Dee Dee, can you just talk about what made him distinctive as an artist?
BRIDGEWATER: Well, I feel that what made him distinctive as an artist is the fact that number one, he was a very elegant man. So he projected a kind of class and style that - especially at the time that he first came on the scene wasn't necessarily associated with the music. He was extremely intelligent and well educated, so that too were two other pluses.
And then he presented his music in such an accessible way that people did not have any fear of listening to the music, much as one, you know, would be a little fearful of going to a classical concert or opera if they didn't know about the music. So he made the music seem accessible.
He was wonderful at explaining the music as you just noted with the passage that you just played of his. And I think that those things were what contributed to his success and his notoriety as a pianist but also as an educator.
You have to also remember that he was the first jazz musician to be a part of a national television show, CBS's Sunday Morning.
MARTIN: That's true. That's true.
BRIDGEWATER: You know, he came to Paris, France, when I lived in Paris, and he did a full piece on me in Paris, and he also - he was a very generous human being. He was very, very generous with his music, very generous with his knowledge of the music, very helpful to musicians like myself when we were first starting out.
He loved to embrace new young musicians, and to kind of help get them on their feet so to speak.
MARTIN: And final question, Marc Fisher, to that point from your column - it's a tough question, but I feel like I have to ask it. You write, with fewer outlets and a stagnant fan base, jazz is in danger of becoming a fossilized music of museums, subsidized concert halls and college campuses rather than an art that percolates up from clubs, living rooms and the street. Like jazz itself, Taylor is caught between being a curator of past glories and the evangelist for an uncertain future.
Now you wrote this in 1989, I think. And so - but still, the question has --'99, forgive me, 1999. But I have to ask the question. For all of his efforts, did he succeed in his goal?
Mr. FISHER: Well, I mean, probably not in the sense that jazz is not really taught in most American schools anymore, and it's certainly not played much on the radio anymore in most cities. So it's becoming harder and harder to have that sort of natural occurrence of jazz going on.
You know the current generation of jazz artists, there's extraordinary talent out there. On the other hand, you have people like Wynton Marsalis who has sort of taken over that role as jazz evangelist, but for a very conservative, very limited definition of jazz.
What was great about Billy Taylor is that he was all encompassing. He would take the new stuff, even though he didn't play it, and he would evangelize on its behalf, and he would explain it and try to bring people in however he could. He even had some hip-hop artists come to the Kennedy Center and talked to them about jazz and have them play together with him.
That's the way to bring people in to a music that can be difficult. There's not, you know, it is somewhat fossilized, but I think there's still hope because there's still a young generation of artists out there.
MARTIN: Well, he will be missed.
Marc Fisher is Enterprise Editor for the Washington Post. He has written regularly about radio and music over the years. If you want to read the piece that we're talking about, we'll link to it on our website. Just go to NPR.org, click on the Programs page, and then on TELL ME MORE.
Also with us, Dee Dee Bridgewater, an iconic jazz artist in her own right. She's won two Grammies, a Tony, and a top musical honor in France. She's also host of NPR's JazzSet, and she's with us from her home office.
Thank you both so much for speaking with us.
Mr. FISHER: Thanks, Michel.
BRIDGEWATER: Well, thank you so much, Michel. Thank you for honoring Dr. Taylor and for sharing his music with all of our listeners who support NPR. Thank you so much.
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