NPR Remembers Billy Taylor

The Billy Taylor trio i i

hide captionThe Billy Taylor Trio: Taylor, piano, with Winard Harper on drums and Chip Jackson on bass.

Jimmy Katz/courtesy of the artist
The Billy Taylor trio

The Billy Taylor Trio: Taylor, piano, with Winard Harper on drums and Chip Jackson on bass.

Jimmy Katz/courtesy of the artist

For many NPR employees, past and present, the late Dr. Billy Taylor was more than a widely-admired jazz pianist: He was a close colleague and friend. Taylor hosted several programs for the network over several decades; he was integral to putting jazz on the public radio map, and to putting public radio on the cultural map at large. Our Felix Contreras reached out to many of Taylor's former colleagues for their memories of working with him. Here are a few recollections. —Ed.


Tim Owens, producer of Jazz Alive! and Billy Taylor's Jazz at the Kennedy Center:

Billy Taylor was a colleague, mentor, role model and friend. He and I spent a considerable amount of time together at NPR — first with the pioneering Jazz Alive!, the Peabody-Award-winning series which ran from 1977 to 1983, and later with Billy Taylor's Jazz at the Kennedy Center from 1995 to 2001. Billy served as host for each of these series and I was the producer.

I have so many fond memories of Billy both personal and professional. He was a gentleman 'til the end, bringing class and dignity to the music he was so impassioned about. From our first days together at NPR, Billy patiently guided me through the rich cultural legacy of jazz, and much of what I know about the music is through his eyes and the musicians he introduced me to. We should all be so lucky to encounter such a guide.

When we were getting Jazz Alive! off the ground in 1977, musicians were reluctant to let us record their performances — until they learned that Billy Taylor was the show's host. "I'll do it for Billy," many would say. The success of that series, which paved the way for jazz formats on public radio and other jazz performance series such as JazzSet, was largely due to Billy Taylor.

Billy really surprised me at one point by showing up at my wedding in 1978 with his wife Teddi. During the afternoon event on Long Island, he slipped in next to Sir Roland Hanna, our pianist for the occasion, and proceeded to dedicate "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free" to me. We had many laughs together. I loved his incredible sense of humor.

When we produced Billy Taylor's Jazz at the Kennedy Center together, I would always tease him by saying, "Is there a doctor in the house?" So, it saddens me to think about the Doctor no longer being there.

My life is much richer for having known Billy Taylor. Suffice it to say that he is one of two people who helped launch my career in public radio (the other being Steve Rathe). To quote one his most often used expressions about the musicians we featured on our shows, Dr. Billy Taylor was indeed "very special."

Stephen Rathe, executive producer, Jazz Alive!:

Billy Taylor was THE voice of jazz that I grew up with on WLIB, and later WNEW. He was such a jazz activist (forming Jazzmobile, defining Jazz for his Ph.D., being the first to call it "America's classical music," teaching, lecturing and performing) that he was an obvious choice for host of our then-new Jazz Alive! series.

Throughout our work, Billy was an educator for us all: How many hosts can tell you what really was like to play for Ethel Waters, or Ella Fitzgerald, or with Charlie Parker? And a real broadcasting pro — he'd been a jazz program director at WLIB radio while we were still in grade school, music director for public TV's first jazz series "The Subject is Jazz" and bandleader for David Frost's nightly TV program.

All of us who worked with the man learned about more than jazz and broadcasting though. We learned what it was to be passionate and professional.

Mark Greenhouse, former NPR audio engineer:

As Dr. Taylor's personal concert recording engineer for years, one remembrance I have of him — aside from being his articulate, steady, gracious self — was the fact that he'd travel alone and arrive at the concert site (somewhere in the U.S.) around 2 p.m. His rider called for a piano to be in his dressing room (which at times was nothing more than the gymnasium locker/shower room), where he would sit alone and practice for two hours until soundcheck. There he'd play a full hour until everyone — technicians, musicians and himself — was completely satisfied. Then he'd return to his dressing room and practice another hour-and-a-half until dinner. After that, back to his private space to dress and practice another half hour; then appear onstage bright, personable and inventive and host a fabulous two-and-a-half-hour show with special guest stars that he and his drummer Steve Johns (replaced by the delightful, intense Winard Harper) and bassist Chip Jackson would accompany.

After the show, he'd receive dazzled strangers into his dressing room and address each one until the room emptied, then take a taxi to his hotel and fly out in the morning. He was in his mid-70s at the time.

Whatta guy.

Brian Jarboe, NPR audio engineer:

I worked with Dr. Taylor for the NPR show Billy Taylor's Jazz at the Kennedy Center for almost six years. They were some of the happiest times of my life. I was able to record him and his trio at the Kennedy Center, and at venues all over the country, and also was able to hear some of the best jazz musicians in the world as his guests. Not only was Dr. Taylor a great pianist, but he was also a great person. He took the time to talk to me to ask me my opinion on the recordings I did for him, and sometimes just simply would talk to me and ask me how I was doing. I was really touched by his humility. Here was this great musician with loads of history and knowledge, and it seemed like all he wanted to do was to share that knowledge with the world, and make people smile.

One very poignant remembrance of him I have is a show we did the week following Sept. 11, 2001. It was a Monday night, and nobody really thought the show was going to happen. He insisted that the show should go on, to help people start the healing process. The guest artist that night was saxophonist Gary Bartz, and it was an amazing show. The tune that struck me most was "Come Sunday," by Duke Ellington. It was just Dr. Taylor and Gary Bartz playing a duet. It truly is some of the most haunting music I have ever heard. I listen to it often. Both of them playing so sublime, in the wake of the tragedy. It was magical.

I will miss him terribly. His kindness, his warmth, his heavy left hand on the piano, his thick glasses, the way he gently snorted when he laughed. I will miss him more than I can say.

Dave Creagh, former NPR producer:

Billy Taylor and Marian McPartland

hide captionNPR jazz royalty: Billy Taylor and Marian McPartland.

courtesy of the artist

I worked at NPR in its first decade and produced a number of jazz programs with Billy hosting. Long story short, I took a job afterwards as general manager at KLON-FM in Long Beach, Calif. and turned it into a mostly jazz station (which is still doing fine, now known at KKJZ).

I phoned Billy and asked him if he'd fly out and meet some well-heeled folks who like jazz, a fundraiser of sorts at a wealthy friend's home. He agreed.

He was brilliant. He played for us, met and mingled, spoke eloquently about the importance of public radio in keeping jazz alive in the U.S. The silver bowl filled up with checks and cash for the station. It was amazing.

He was a thoughtful and remarkable symbol and an icon for jazz, even in this small way for a struggling young public radio station, and I mourn his passing.

Right now I'm listening to Jessica Williams' brilliant tribute to his music with a lump in my throat. A giant has passed.

Paulette Kernis Pewsey, Jazz Alive! production assistant:

I had the pleasure of working with Dr. Taylor on Jazz Alive! during the late 1970s. I was production assistant to the show's producer, Tim Owens. As Jazz Alive's host, Billy would come in from New York every couple of weeks to tape all the commentaries. He had amazing background knowledge of all the musicians and groups we recorded from all over the U.S. He would come in, sit in the recording studio and take our basic copy and add his own — in longhand — just minutes before we recorded.

Billy had an easy ability to describe each musician's style; how it developed and how it fit into jazz history. Usually he included some personal reminiscence of performing with them, or hearing them in person. Dr. Taylor was a very gentle man with a deep, lush voice. He was extremely gracious and gave us a standing invitation to visit him at the hotel in NYC where he and his trio performed regularly — which we did.

I especially remember being struck by how other jazz musicians spoke about Billy: with great respect and pride. For them, to have Dr. Billy Taylor as their spokesman was an honor. In an amazing coincidence, one of my oldest friends became his producer on CBS Sunday Morning. She would often tell me that he had asked after me, many years after I had left NPR. He was a true gentleman and someone who taught me a great deal about jazz.

Bettina Fisher (nee Owens), associate producer of Billy Taylor's Jazz at the Kennedy Center:

For over seven years I had the distinct pleasure of working on NPR's Billy Taylor's Jazz at the Kennedy Center with Dr. Billy Taylor. While he was considered by many as a jazz giant, he was also just Billy to me and I loved and respected him more than I can ever say. A lover of people, a dedicated educator and a tireless ambassador of jazz, he was also humble and understated, always with a kind word to say. Those who knew him were always greeted with that warm smile and a big hug.

Working with Billy and his trio (bassist Chip Jackson and drummer Winard Harper) was a dream come true for me. Our list of guests for "Billy Taylor's Jazz at the Kennedy Center" over the many years read like a who's who of jazz. I learned so much from him and heard so much great music and conversations about life and of course about jazz.

I can remember being on the road for the first time with Billy and doing a show with saxophonist Nick Brignola in Troy, N.Y. Billy drove up a couple of hours from his home and I can remember him getting out of his car with perfectly pressed tan slacks, a bright red sweater with a white shirt underneath and a big smile on his face. He checked in and then we went to the venue where he practiced before soundcheck while Tim Owens, our executive producer, and I worked on the script. Once we completed soundcheck, we recorded station breaks and ate a quick dinner. Billy then changed into his suit, and went back to practicing before the gig that night. After the performance, Billy stayed and took pictures and spoke to everyone until the last guest had gone home. When Billy was on stage, talking to his guest and playing music, he was in his element. He had an abundant amount of energy and playing jazz was something that he enjoyed immensely and it showed every time he hit the stage.

Over the last few years, I didn't get to see Billy as much as I would like, but whenever I did it was like no time had passed. He was always just as kind and thoughtful as ever. While my heart is heavy now, I know Billy is up in heaven making it just that much more beautiful and I truly believe that he now knows "how it feels to be free." I will miss him but I look forward to seeing him again one day. RIP Dear Billy.

Susan Stamberg, NPR special correspondent:

As a college student in my hometown of Manhattan, I regularly went to hear Billy Taylor at the Hickory House. His trio always seemed to be having a grand time, and they played well enough to silence the noisiest club visitor. I bought his LPs too. (For some Billy celebration I gave him an album I'd kept for years — the vinyl, in a sleeve frayed from sliding the LP in and out so often, putting it on the phonograph.)

Jump cut to NPR, and the wonderful work he did for us. He had a joyful quality, which was catching. You could tell music was in his bones, and was giving him an inner, upbeat rhythm. We last spoke just this past spring, when he was in Washington for a Kennedy Center celebration of Ella Fitzgerald. I interviewed him for a story on Fitzgerald — part of our 50 Great Voices series. Billy had accompanied Ella in the 1940s, and spoke of her great musicianship — "the feeling of music that she brought — you had to swing, you had to go along with the music." Much the same can be said about Dr. Billy. He gave so generously of his many musical and humanitarian gifts.

Jim Anderson, former NPR audio engineer:

Billy Taylor at the Kennedy Center Honors

hide captionBilly Taylor arrives at the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony in 2004. Taylor was the artistic adviser for jazz at the Kennedy Center since 1994.

Evan Agostini/Getty Images

I worked with Dr. Taylor from the beginning of jazz on NPR, from Jazz Waves, through Jazz Alive!, to Taylor Made Piano and later into live performances and commercial releases. He was very sensitive to the quality of sound and its importance, and I felt honored that he asked me through the years to help present him in the best possible light.

When Jazz Alive! began in 1977, Billy was a big deal! He was on television! CBS Sunday Morning! That was A Big Deal!

All of us at NPR watched CBS Sunday Morning, with our mimosas and our Sunday New York Times and Sunday Washington Posts, since there was no NPR show on before 5 p.m. on a Sunday. And Billy's jazz pieces would be the show's highlight for many of us. Billy would come down to D.C. to track the narration for a Jazz Alive! program every week or two and the best part was the dinner break where he would hold court (hold court in a good way). And, we would listen to his every fascinating word. I remember him telling us about being on the front line reporting for WBLS in the '60s and marching with Dr. Martin Luther King in Mississippi.

But my favorite story from Billy, however, is the one about the "classic" recording by Charlie Parker, et. al. at Massey Hall, in Toronto, 1953. Billy told us about how Charles Mingus was disappointed with the sound of the bass on the recording and subsequently rented Carnegie Hall to overdub the bass. This is not such a big deal now, but this was a finished mono recording! And it meant playing the original recording and putting a second bass, although better sounding one, on top of the entire recording. Billy's piano mentor, Bud Powell, was not in such great shape at the 1953 concert and Mingus asked Billy to come to the Carnegie Hall session and overdub some sections where Bud Powell should be playing. This has been subsequently documented, but at the time (the late '70s), this deception was not common knowledge. I got out my copy of "Jazz at Massey Hall" and there you could hear 2 basses, one thin and one fat, and two pianists — one was Billy doing his best impersonation of Bud Powell.

A few years later, Billy called me on a Thursday night in February and asked if I'd like to accompany him, the trio, and the Juilliard String Quartet to Akron, Ohio, the next day. I told him I wasn't crazy about the idea, and he said the following day we'd go to West Palm Beach, Fla. I told him I was interested! The Billy Taylor Trio and the Juilliard String Quartet were performing a piece that he'd written for the two groups together and was touring it all over the country. The concert consisted of the JSQ performing Schumann's "Death and the Maiden," followed by the piece with the trio and quartet titled "Homage" composed by Dr. Taylor. In the pre-concert soundcheck, we were going over house sound levels and on-stage monitor levels, since it's a delicate balance between a jazz trio and a string quartet. With the opening piece by the JSQ being 45 minutes of classic Schumann, I wasn't about to start cranking up the PA when the "jazz" part of the concert began, and I found myself in a slightly heated conversation (bordering on argument) with the leader of the JSQ asking for more of himself in the monitor. That type of request ("More ME!") is typical of a pop musician in a live situation and I remember walking down the aisle of the concert hall thinking to myself, "I'm having a conversation with first violinist, Robert Mann of the JSQ, about monitor levels! What has this world come to!?!"

When we recorded Billy's narration for the first episode of Taylor Made Piano, it was a bit of a struggle. The book, of the same name, was based on his doctoral thesis: Jazz is America's classical music, etc., and the show was to illustrate the history of jazz through different performers' piano stylings. The congenial fellow that we knew wasn't there. Billy was stiff (in fact, I think another station had tried to do this project and failed) and the narration for the first program came in at something like 2.5 hours to be whittled down to around 40 minutes, leaving room for examples.

Well, Fred Borque and I got through the first episode and the second one might have been a little better. But at some point early in the process, someone, probably Fred, came up with the idea that Billy should have someone to talk to when he was in the studio. This worked! So for the remainder of the series, Fred planted himself across the piano from Billy and Billy simply told his story of the history of jazz to Fred. Fred sat and silently nodded to Billy for the remaining 11 weeks. The nodding helped the project win a Peabody (take that Colbert!). I think I also abandoned the required NPR narration microphone, a Neumann U87, for a Sony ECM50 lavalier microphone. The compromise in quality was more than made up by the naturalness in Billy's performance, and he was used to doing that for television.

A few years later, Minnesota Public Radio was doing a series of artist profiles, of either an hour or two in length, and Billy wanted to get his group in the studio to record an album, since he had no deal with a label. At this same time, Billy had a gig in Minneapolis-St. Paul at that time, so I contacted Tom Voegeli to see what we might be able to put together. Tom said if Billy would do the artist portrait for MPR, Billy could get a couple of days recording in their studio. This would be Billy's first digital recording (1985, maybe?). Well, I said to Tom, here's how we can make Billy relax: "Give me a chair in the studio and he can tell me his story." So, this time I sat and silently nodded, in place of Fred. So when people would say to Billy, "I feel on the radio that you're talking to me," he wasn't. He was talking to either Fred or myself! The magic of radio.

Billy asked me to produce the recording sessions at MPR and I had Tom Voegeli as my engineer. Tom Mudge was our recording assistant. Our couple of days of recording went well, except for a couple of bass solos. I had the pieces to put together a good arco bass solo that never would have existed otherwise, and Billy indulged me. It would have been painful if he hadn't. On another tune, there was was a superior take with a better bass solo and feel. Billy insisted on the previous take. He said to me: "When it's the bass player's album, use take two. When it's the pianist's use take one." We used take one.

Billy was also ahead of the curve; with no recording contract, Billy self-released the project, so it could be sold on gigs. It was a cassette. Vinyl and CDs were out of the question at the time. The album eventually was released as You Tempt Me on Taylor Made Records. There's also a tune that was named in the studio: "Tom, Vaguely," named after our engineer.

One more story: I was producing the soundtrack for an educational video on the history of jazz that featured Billy and the trio. The film researcher found a clip in the Library of Congress that was tagged "Girl vocalist scatting and musicians." The girl vocalist turned out to be Ella Fitzgerald and the musicians were Ray Brown on bass and Billy on piano. He hadn't seen the footage since it was shot in New York and I clearly remember sitting there with him in the video editing suite watching his ever-present smile get oh so much wider at the viewing of that footage.

There are many, many, more stories and remembrances that I have from my 34 years of working with Dr. Taylor. When I heard his voice on the All Things Considered obituary, I couldn't believe that I wouldn't have the opportunity to hear him or speak with him again. He was always so alive and vibrant.

Murray Horwitz, former NPR Vice President of Cultural Programming and Executive Producer of Billy Taylor's Jazz at the Kennedy Center:

It's curious to me that the most outstanding memory I have of the man who I came to know simply as "Billy" is not related to public radio. It's the memory of the first time I ever saw Billy in person, and it was an astonishing appearance.

In 1977, the new St. Peter's Church at Citicorp Center in New York City was under construction. Rev. John Gensel –- the jazz pastor -– had taken his Jazz Vespers and other programs to another house of worship nearby (maybe Central Synagogue). In a basement room there, he held a memorial celebration in honor of Erroll Garner, who had just died. The room was packed, it was a bitterly cold (and, as I recall, stormy) January night, and a variety of musicians were playing in what I remember as a rather desultory tribute.

Suddenly, in from the cold came Dr. Billy Taylor, for whom room was immediately made in the program, because he had hurried over between sets at a club, and had to get back to the gig. Billy sat down at the piano, and very quickly talked and demonstrated what had made Erroll Garner so special (an adjective, it now occurs to me, that was Billy's favorite). "Erroll Garner came along at a time when most piano players were trying to sound like Charlie Parker's horn," he said, and proceeded to show us what that sounded like. Then he talked about the different direction Garner had taken, and what was great about it, and how it exploited the range of the piano, and then he demonstrated that. And then he played something in his own style, in tribute to the master, and -– just as suddenly as he had arrived -– he split.

It was amazing. In a matter of minutes, he had breathed life into the evening, taught us something, and conjured up the presence of Erroll Garner for the first time that night –- and he had done it all by combining information and music. It's a powerful mix –- entertaining, expressive, educational and enjoyable. That was Billy's personality.

If he were able to, I wonder how Billy Taylor might breeze in to a packed basement room this January, to demonstrate what was so special about another pianist: himself. He might say, "Billy Taylor came along at a time when many jazz musicians were ignoring the audience. They were aloof and uncommunicative, and –- although it was maybe the greatest era in all of jazz –- not enough thought was being given to how the music would continue." Then he might talk about the other direction Billy Taylor had taken in response: Virtually starting his own radio station, WLIB, and changing the sound of the New York City airwaves forever; starting Jazzmobile, and taking jazz to the people –- particularly young African-American people -– in the neighborhoods of New York; getting a Ph.D. and delving into education professionally; co-founding the International Association of Jazz Educators; throwing in with the start-up National Public Radio; appearing on network television; serving on the NEA's National Arts Council -– wait! He has to get back to the gig. Okay, so he plays a solo version of "All the Things You Are" at a breakneck tempo, to demonstrate not only his own recognizable style, but to remind you why all this is important.

And then he splits.

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