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Jazz Pianist, Composer Billy Taylor Dies At 89
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Jazz Pianist, Composer Billy Taylor Dies At 89


Jazz pianist Billy Taylor has been a familiar voice to NPR listeners as he shared his deep knowledge of jazz with generations of Americans. On Tuesday, Billy Taylor passed away at the age of 89. NPR's Walter Ray Watson has this remembrance.

WALTER RAY WATSON: Billy Taylor was one of the first to call jazz America's classical music. He meant it should be taken as seriously as concert music. He devoted his life to spreading that word and his earliest vehicle was radio, as he told NPR in 1996.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Mr. BILLY TAYLOR (Musician): I backed into radio. I used to do a lot of appearances on radio. And early in my recording career, I wrote theme songs for disc jockeys who had asked me to write a theme for them. Biddy was a disc jockey, and I wrote this theme originally as his theme song.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. TAYLOR: The thing I found on being on the air was 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.

WATSON: That was in New York in the early 1960s. Taylor carried that asset to the streets of Harlem. He co-founded Jazzmobile. One of the many top-flight jazz musicians Taylor got to participate was saxophonist Jimmy Heath. He says the program gave children their first exposure to jazz on a stage with wheels.

Mr. JIMMY HEATH (Saxophonist): The children who weren't exposed to jazz music would say to us sometimes, you know, they're always sending Bach and Beethoven and stuff, but we never heard no brothers coming in and playing jazz. So this is an important thing that Billy did.

WATSON: Taylor took his message to television. He was the music director for "The David Frost Show" and later a correspondent for CBS's "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 the news magazine shows.

In 1996, he explained to the MORNING EDITION audience what made Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life" so remarkable.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Mr. TAYLOR: I started in D-flat; he's now in E. And then it goes back, he's back to D-flat.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. TAYLOR: He's in F.

WATSON: He was a musician who demystified jazz with the ease of a passionate and beloved math or science teacher.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Mr. TAYLOR: He's in D.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. TAYLOR: He's back in E-flat. I mean, it's unbelievable. I mean, this guy does all this in a 32-bar song.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WATSON: Billy Taylor was born in 1921 in Greenville, North Carolina. He grew up in Washington, D.C., where he studied piano with Duke Ellington's high school music teacher. He recalled moving to New York City in 1944.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Mr. TAYLOR: I went to a jam session. 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, 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 and if you sound OK in my group, we'll talk.

WATSON: Webster hired him and Taylor found himself in the cauldron that was cooking up the new style called bebop.

(Soundbite of music)

WATSON: 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 the first of several strokes.

(Soundbite of music)

WATSON: 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 duets with his mentor.

Mr. RAMSEY LEWIS (Musician): He taught by example. And not that there was any specific thing that he said do it like this, but Billy showed me to how to become comfortable with who I am as a musician, who I am as a piano player.

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

(Soundbite of archived recording)

MR. TAYLOR: 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 (unintelligible) where we say every individual is important. And jazz reflects that.

WATSON: And Dr. Billy Taylor did more than his share to help people understand that. Walter Ray Watson, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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