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Transcript from May 4, 1999
Jazz With Dr. Billy Taylor

npr_host: Hello everybody. Welcome to another NPR Online live chat. Tonight we have esteemed jazz pianist, composer and educator, Dr. Billy Taylor. Dr. Taylor is host of NPR's Billy Taylor's Jazz at the Kennedy Center. After the chat, you should check out NPR's Web site at to learn more about the program.

npr_host:By the way, Dr. Taylor recently released a great solo jazz piano record called "Ten Fingers--One Voice"--available on Arkadia...maybe he will answer some questions on that.

npr_host: Dr. Taylor will be joining us in about ten minutes. Send in your questions now! Don't forget to check out Billy Taylor's Jazz at the Kennedy Center on National Public Radio. To learn more about this entertaining and enlightening program visit After the chat, of course.

npr_host: Dr. Billy Taylor is a jazz pianist, composer, arranger, conductor, lecturer and author and the host of National Public Radio's 26-part series Billy Taylor's Jazz at the Kennedy Center. In each show of the series, recorded live at the Kennedy center, Dr. Taylor leads a performance, demonstration and discussion of jazz music and is joined by a notable guest artist.

npr_host: Dr. Taylor has been a performer since moving into the New York club scene in the 1940s. He has also dedicated much of his career to music and jazz education. An eminent jazz educator and performer, Dr. Taylor has led a distinguished career. He has been an arts correspondent for CBS News' Sunday Morning for 14 years. He has also hosted several television and radio programs, including "Jazz Alive!", and "Taylor Made Jazz," and "Dizzy's Diamond for NPR" and "Jazz Counterpoint" for Bravo TV. In addition, Taylor has been host, pianist, and deejay on two influential New York radio stations.

npr_host: Send in your questions for Dr. Taylor now! He has just entered the room? Welcome to the show Dr. Taylor.

Dr_Billy_Taylor: It's nice to be here.

npr_host: One of your mentors was your fellow DC native-Duke Ellington. You paid tribute to the 100th anniversary of his birth on your show last week. Can you tell us about that?

Dr_Billy_Taylor: I thought it would be nice, since he was a mentor of mine, to pay a personal tribute to him. I got John Hasse, curator of jazz at the Smithsonian and director of the Smithsonian repertory jazz orchestra, he also wrote a fine book on Ellington. He was my guest on Billy Taylor Jazz at the Kennedy Center. Normally, my guest is another player -- a saxophonist, a singer, oboeist -- someone who does his or her own thing.

npr_host: Did you play music?

Dr_Billy_Taylor: Yes it would be a good opportunity for me to pay a tribute to Duke Ellington on a personal level. He was one of my mentors, and I realized that over the years, I had not spoken of that as much as I had spoken of Art Tatum, or Eddie South, or Ben Webster.

npr_host: Speaking of Ellington, I noticed you did a very unique solo rendition of "In a Sentimental Mood" on your recent record, "Ten Fingers-One Voice". Does that song have any special significance for you?

Dr_Billy_Taylor: Yes, it was one of the very songs that I ever learned, an Ellington song. I think about why I learned it. There was a saxophonist a little older than I when I was a student in DC, his name was Billy White, he played clarinet and alto saxophone. As a teenager, he wanted desperately to play with Duke Ellington. Since I looked up to Billy as a musician, I welcomed any opportunity to perform with him. So I began to learn a lot of Ellington's songs.

npr_host: I noticed that Russell Malone is on this week

Dr_Billy_Taylor: I love playing with guitarists. Malone is a very special young man. He is highly influenced by my all time favorite guitarist John Collins. Collins was the guitarist who was with Nat Cole for the last 15-20 years of his life. One of the principal members of the Nat King Cole trio

Apricot2000_19B asks: I just got accepted to a Jazz School in Toronto, can you recommend any good jazz pieces to blow away my profs?

Dr_Billy_Taylor: No. I don't think that's the place to start. The place for you to start is to think about what it is that you play best. So that you can show off your strength as a musician, and your potential as a musician.

npr_host: Can you tell us about the Jazzmobile education program?

Dr_Billy_Taylor: I was one of the founders of Jazzmobile, yes. It is an outreach organization, that takes music to people, rather than making people come to the music. What we tried to do since its inception was to expose as many people as possible to the finest musicians who were available to us. And we started with people like Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, Art Blakey, Buddy Rich, Irving Mann, and many other artists of that caliber.

Dr_Billy_Taylor:Jazzmobile was one of the premier organizations in the 60s that worked with major jazz artists as teachers. We felt that their experience was their academic degree. So as far as we were concerned, musicians who taught for us all had doctorates. When you think of who they were -- Frank Wess, Frank Foster, Ned Dunbar, Paul West -- I think most people would agree.

Michigan1State1Spartans asks: My school has a jazz program. What do you feel about Music Programs?

Dr_Billy_Taylor: The programs vary from school to school. In the universities where program is supported by the music dept., by providing regular professors and a good curriculum, the students are well-prepared to come out into the world of music. There are many schools like this around the country. I won't drop names because I don't want to forget anybody.

npr_host: Send in your questions for Dr. Taylor now!

npr_host: I understand you're involved in a jazz conference promoting a greater role in jazz for women

Dr_Billy_Taylor: Starting on Thursday of this week, we are presenting at the Kennedy Center the Mary Lou Williams Jazz Festival. This festival celebrates the "leading ladies" of jazz. We have seminars, events, a couple of workshops, because we find that women are still not given the exposure and the kind of support that their talents deserve.

Dr_Billy_Taylor: One of the things that we try to do at the Kennedy Center education resource program, we'll do a workshop on the business of jazz. We'll talk about the Internet and avenues and advantages of the Internet as it relates to women. That's on Friday morning. Then, on Saturday, we'll do one called "making the Web work for you." Women need to know these kinds of things so they can proceed and not be held back because of gender bias.

npr_host: Glad that the Internet is helping out. Who are some of the women that have appeared on Billy Taylor's Jazz at the Kennedy Center?

Dr_Billy_Taylor: I had Karen Briggs, Jane Ira Bloom - We always have a lot of women singers, but we try to have women instrumentalists also.

Nero6955 asks: How can you hook yourself up with some jazz gigs these days?

Dr_Billy_Taylor: It's very difficult to find consistent places to play jazz. I would suggest that anyone who is trying to make a name for him/herself is to look in the area near where you live. Use alternate spaces and develop your own places where you can convince people that what you play will bring people in to listen. Not ideal, but better than sitting around waiting for the phone to ring. Some of the places I suggest, is developing your own gig in say, a library in your town. Or, Sunday afternoon in a church that's hospitable, working with the teachers and parents and others in schools after class time. And figuring ways to play in parks and other public places where you can attract a crowd.

npr_host: Where have you been playing lately?

Dr_Billy_Taylor: I took the Kennedy Center program on the road. We were just out in San Luis Obispo a few weeks ago. On the west coast, we played in Olympia, Washington, in a beautiful concert hall. We - the trio - did a week residency in Seattle at the University of Washington.

pammontana asks: do u plan to do a performance in Montana anytime soon

Dr_Billy_Taylor: Not until next season. We're supposed to come out there in January or February, I believe.

Apricot2000_19B asks: Have you been inspired by any female jazz vocalists? I noticed you named a lot of males

Dr_Billy_Taylor: Of course, I had the privilege of working with Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Carmen McRae, Billie Holiday. Saying that in no way demeans the singers I have worked with recently: Diane Reeves, Ernestine Anderson, Marlena Shaw, and other people I really admire.

Apricot2000_19B asks: At what age did you start playing? And were your parents an influence?

Dr_Billy_Taylor: I come from a musical family. Every one played church music and classical music. My uncle, Robert Taylor, played jazz piano. And I wanted to play like him.

FlagshipOnionhead asks: Mr Taylor! When did your jazz career begin?

Dr_Billy_Taylor: Depends on where you want to start. I played my first job in DC when I was 13. I made a dollar.

npr_host: Didn't you move to New York?

Dr_Billy_Taylor: I came to NYC and worked with Ben Webster, my first job was on 52nd street working opposite Art Tatum.

ssjazz asks: You've talked on your radio show about the influence of other pianists. How would you characterize the influence of Nat Cole on other pianists.

Dr_Billy_Taylor: Nat Cole influenced everybody in my generation. He was the one person who had a trio that seemed to sum up the way small ensembles should present their music. It was tasteful, melodic, exciting. He was a pre-bop influence. His piano playing has been overlooked by researchers and historians when they deal with 1938 to about 1946.

npr_host: His brother Freddy will be on your show in the near future. Freddy Cole. How is his style different?

Dr_Billy_Taylor: I really enjoyed working with Freddy. I knew Nat very well, and was highly influenced by him. Freddy, like many musicians who had famous relatives, was pressured, because people expected him to be like his brother. Yet Freddy is his own man. You hear him doing materials different from his brother's. And he also plays the piano differently. One of the things we try to show when he's a guest on my show, is how he handles some of those differences. I have tried in the time that i've been doing Billy Taylor's Jazz at Kennedy Center, to develop a forum from which artists like Freddy Cole can let people know, in their own words and with their own music, who they are and how they do what they do.

npr_host: Looking forward to that. Send in more questions now!

hazelhoney_f29 asks: I don't know much about jazz but love music...would a harmonica fit anywhere in the scheme of jazz music?

Dr_Billy_Taylor: Harmonica fits well in the scheme of jazz.

npr_host: Who are good jazz harmonica players?

Dr_Billy_Taylor: Of course, Toots Theilemans, he's famous for what he's done with the harmonica in terms of making it a visible and viable instrument. There are several other musicians, one of whom records for Concord, a German, I think, who's very good.

davyblueR22 asks: how many instruments do you play?

Dr_Billy_Taylor: one - piano.

npr_host: Why was solo piano your approach on "Ten Fingers--One Voice"?

Dr_Billy_Taylor: I've been playing solo piano since I first started. Most of my solo work has been recorded on radio and TV because that's where I was most often asked to play along, usually for financial reasons, but I love to play solo because it gives me a kind of freedom of expression in jazz that's different from anything else I do.

sweetliljazzychick asks: Do you know Bill Watrous the famous Trombone Player???

Dr_Billy_Taylor: Yes, very well. He's one of my all-time favorite trombone players. When he was freelancing in NYC, I used him frequently in bands I put together. So I was delighted when I was able to get him on my show as a guest. I think every trombonist in a 50-mile radius came to that show.

npr_host: Send in more questions now!

Kind_of_Blue59 asks: Will anyone ever come along that can touch Trane or Monk?

Dr_Billy_Taylor: Jazz is not a contest -- it's not about matching others, it's about expressing one's self. In that way, everybody is special, some people are more visible than others, and we have an opportunity to study their music more carefully, but there are many people who are yet to be discovered who could teach us more.

npr_host: How does it feel different to perform your own composition, rather than another's

Dr_Billy_Taylor: My compositions express something specific, some idea that I have which is either musical or lyrical, or expresses some I'm delighted when I get an opportunity to perform my own music. I'll be doing that in June, when I play with the National Symphony. We will play portions of two of my works. And, I guess we will play two complete versions - one of "suite for jazz piano and orchestra" and the other is "conversations." I get a special thrill when someone else does my music.

Apricot2000_19B asks: what would you say is your favourite piece to perform?

Dr_Billy_Taylor: No,there isn't one, but I enjoy one song I wrote "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free." It's been recorded by many musicians - Leontyne Price, Latin groups have played it, Funk groups, all kinds have played it. I was particularly pleased to hear a gospel group sing it.

hazelhoney_f29 asks: The swing sound is being brought back quite a bit... does it mix well for jazz combinations?

Dr_Billy_Taylor: Swing was one of the most popular forms of American music in the 1930s. Most of the people who play it now, haven't really looked at it musically, so they don't understand historically or musically, what the music is about. I would suggest that anyone who's interested get a hold of some of the records from that period, most of which have been re-released lately, so whether you're talking Benny Goodman or Jimmie Lunceford, or Count Basie, or any of the great bands from that period, you'll hear the difference between Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, for instance, or Harry James and Roy Eldridge. If you look at the dancers, you'll see how they really swung to the music. It wasn't about an attitude, it was about feeling the rhythm

npr_host: Send in more questions for Dr. Taylor now!

Ahhaprod asks: Do you agree with Ed Gordon that most musicians today are better at memorizing and imitating than at playing or composing/improvising creatively, and do you think most jazz musicians are an exception?

Dr_Billy_Taylor: It's hard to make generalizations. There are a number of musicians who are extremely creative. There are just as many, maybe more, who are extremely creative with what they do, so if one looks at other styles like Country-western, or Afro-cuban jazz, or Bossanova one can find an enormous amount of creativity and some really good music. And, the difference in styles doesn't matter

npr_host: You said before rhythm was important to swing. Someone is interested in drummers...

Saltydog000 asks: who are you favorite drummers or ones you have played with?

Dr_Billy_Taylor: I've been blessed in terms of drummers I've worked with over the years. On my first job on 52nd street was with big Sid Catlett as the drummer. He was one of the greatest drummers I ever worked with. I think he and Joe Jones were among the most creative musicians I ever met. Buddy Rich was another I enjoyed playing with. He used to come into the Hickory House when I had my trio there, and played the last set with me. I had the good fortune of hiring one of the greatest drummers of the times, his name was Charlie Smith. Most people only know him by the video he did with Charlie Parker playing "Hot House." But he was one of the swingingest drummers I ever worked with. Add to that Denzil Best, Grady Tate, Edmund Thigpen.

tall_tall_guy asks: Do you know Tito Puente?

Dr_Billy_Taylor: I know Tito very well. Years ago, I wrote a piece called "Tiroro," Tito heard it, liked it, and arranged it for his big band. The record company though he had written it, he had played it so well. So they changed the title to "Titoro," the record sold so well under that title, that I left it. Now when I play it, it's called "Titoro."

npr_host: Send in your questions for Dr. Taylor, we still have time for some more!

Shady_Man123 asks: Is jazz at all like rap and hip-hop

Dr_Billy_Taylor: One of the reasons we have Rap as we know it is because musical instruments were taken away from students in the Bronx, many of those young people were from families with roots in the West Indies so they were used to calypso music. As everyone knows, Calypso is not only hip and irreverent, it has its own way of swinging and it's about making social comments. Rap has followed that tradition using street language of the Bronx and dealing with subjects of interest to them. Their music was so relevant, that now everybody is Rapping.

Dr_Billy_Taylor: I had some thoughts about that a couple of years ago and I wished that some of the young people I was listening to had been exposed to some of the poets of the 50s and 60s and even earlier because then I think their music would have taken an even more poetic aura and they could have stood on the shoulders of people like Paul S. Dunbar and other poets who used the vernacular of their time.

npr_host: That's an interesting insight.

ssjazz asks: I don't read music. So I think I'm missing a lot when I read books about jazz. What sort of training should I look for to learn to read music enough to appreciate the examples in your History of Jazz Piano book?

Dr_Billy_Taylor: That's a good question. Jazz started off as an oral tradition, so many great players did not read music, it saves time, and helps one learn more quickly. If one becomes literate in the musical language you can go to almost any music store, and find books that will give you instruction on learning to read music. You can be self-taught

npr_host: Many chatters are interested in getting more does public broadcasting help in this regard...

Dr_Billy_Taylor: Unfortunately, public broadcasting is the only place on the radio dial where one can get information which can give insights on the history of jazz, the mechanics of playing the music, and also how one can avail oneself of the ideas of people who are teachers and mentors.

Dr_Billy_Taylor: Much of the teaching of jazz is in schools around the world - music schools - and many of the people who teach at those schools are highly motivated and excellent teachers. So today, it's possible to learn in school what it took musicians of my generation years on the bandstand to learn. One is not better than the other, but the bottom line is what you're learning as a jazz musician is to be yourself, not somebody else.

npr_host: Well certainly your programs have helped many of us, and others of you might check out Billy Taylor's Jazz at the Kennedy Center at

CoOl_BeAnS_15 asks: I love playing jazz and wish to continue after my high school and college years. How would I get myself noticed to make it into a career?

Dr_Billy_Taylor: There is no door that an aspiring musician can knock on and say, "I'm ready." Any musician who feels that he/she must play jazz - and I mean, MUST PLAY JAZZ -- because if you're not dedicated enough to devote whatever it takes, to get your personal approach heard then you will fail. It's difficult but not impossible. One only has to look at the young players who are succeeding today, many of them are well-trained, and have only experienced the music they play in academic settings. There's a network of musicians that can sometimes be helpful, if there's a part of that network where you live, attach yourself to older, more experienced musicians and let them guide you into the field.

npr_host: Well Dr. Taylor, it has been a pleasure having you here tonight.

Dr_Billy_Taylor: Thank you very much for having me on. It's a pleasure to talk about jazz. I do it anytime I have the opportunity. We need to have much more music played and presented in ways that can reach out to people beyond the jazz fan area. It's great to be a part of the NPR family and to know that over all the years I've been in radio, some of the best shows I've done have been on NPR.

npr_host: Thanks so much for your insights on jazz and music in general. We thoroughly enjoyed having you and learned a lot. Don't miss Dr. Taylor on Billy Taylor's Jazz at the Kennedy Center. Visit

npr_host: Thank you all for joining us as well, and asking many good questions. Don't forget to check out Billy Taylor's Jazz at the Kennedy Center. You should also give a listen to "Ten Fingers--One Voice". Dr. Taylor's playing is outstanding...