Music Articles


It is probably easier to list the things that Billy Taylor did not accomplish than what he did.


He was a pianist, composer, arranger, actor, author, educator, television personality and host of several NPR programs about jazz.

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Man: It's "Billy Taylor's Jazz at the Kennedy Center."

CORNISH: Billy Taylor died of a heart attack at a New York hospital last night. He was born in 1921 in Greenville, North Carolina, and raised in Washington, D.C.

SIEGEL: Taylor made his name in New York in the 1940s playing with some of the biggest names in jazz. He made his own recordings.

(Soundbite of music)

CORNISH: And he composed. Taylor told NPR in 2005 that his best-known tune came from teaching his young daughter about jazz rhythm.

(Soundbite of archived interview)

BILLY TAYLOR: One of the things I teach young kids, you know, I say, okay, you pat your foot on one and three and clap your hands on two and four like this: one, two, three, four, you know?

So I was trying to pass this on to my daughter in the early stage. And I'm trying to show her what I was talking about. I went to the piano and did this, and I played the first part of this. And I said that sounds pretty good.

(Soundbite of song, "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free")

SIEGEL: "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free" became an anthem of the civil rights movement.

Billy Taylor's greatest contribution was as a teacher. In 1961, he founded the Jazzmobile educational program in New York City. It featured the most respected names in jazz performing on a converted flatbed truck, offering workshops and lectures. The program continues to this day.

He was actually Dr. Billy Taylor. In addition to many honorary degrees, he earned a combined master's degree and doctorate from the University of Massachusetts.

CORNISH: Dr. Taylor went on to teach at colleges and universities around the world. Jazz is about a feeling, he said in 2003, and that's something you can't teach.

TAYLOR: But you can teach people how to do things in the same way that you can teach someone to speak. You can't tell them what to say, but you can teach them how to say musically some of the things that are on your mind.

SIEGEL: The countless students and fans who benefited from Billy Taylor's time and kind attention are the legacy of his lifelong enthusiasm for jazz.

Billy Taylor was 89 years old.

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