Billy Taylor (July 24, 1921 – December 28, 2010) was an American jazz pianist, composer, broadcaster and educator. He was the Robert L. Jones Distinguished Professor of Music at East Carolina University in Greenville, and since 1994, he was the artistic director for jazz at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
Taylor was born in Greenville, but moved to Washington, D.C. when he was 5. He graduated from Virginia State College with a B.S. in Music in 1942, and later earned a Masters and Ph.D. in Music Education from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. He also served as a Duke Ellington Fellow at Yale University.
Taylor started playing piano professionally from 1944, starting with Ben Webster’s Quartet on New York’s 52nd Street. He later became the house pianist at Birdland, where he performed with the likes of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. He was a protege of jazz pianist Art Tatum. In 1958, he was the Musical Director of NBC’s The Subject is Jazz, the first ever television series where the topic was jazz. He also worked as a DJ on radio station WNEW in New York in the 60′s.
In 1961, Taylor founded New York’s Jazzmobile (in Harlem), which provides arts education program of the highest quality via workshops, master classes, lecture demonstrations, arts enrichment programs, outdoor summer mobile concerts, special indoor concerts and special projects. During the 1960s, the Billy Taylor Trio was a regular feature of the Hickory House on West 55th street in Manhattan From 1969 to 1972, Taylor led the band on The David Frost Show; he was the first African American to lead a talk show band, and in 1967, Nina Simone sang “I wish I knew how it would feel to be free” written by Billy Taylor & Dick Dallas. Originally recorded by Nina Simone in 1967 on her Silk and Soul album (see video). In 1981, Jazzmobile produced a Jazz special for the National Public Radio, and for which the program received the Peabody Award for Excellence in Broadcasting Programs. Jazzmobile’s 1990 Tribute Concert to Dr. Taylor at Avery Fisher Hall, part of the JVC Jazz Festival, featured Nancy Wilson, Ahmad Jamal Trio and Terence Blanchard Quintet.
Among his most notable works is “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free”, composed in 1954, and subsequently achieving more popularity with Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Nina Simone covered the song in her 1967 album Silk and Soul. It is widely known in the UK as a piano instrumental version, used for BBC1′s Film programme, hosted by Barry Norman and subsequently Jonathan Ross. Solomon Burke, Derek Trucks, The Lighthouse Family, Levon Helm and Jools Holland & His Rhythm & Blues Orchestra have also recorded versions.
In 1989, Taylor started his own “Taylor Made” record label to document his own music, releasing four albums, You Tempt Me (1996) is a strong outing by his 1985 trio (with Victor Gaskin and drummer Curtis Boyd) that includes a rendition of Duke Ellington’s “Take the “A” Train”. White Nights (1991) has Taylor, Gaskin, and drummer Bobby Thomas performing live from Leningrad in the Soviet Union, than came Solo (1992), and Jazzmobile Allstars (1992).
Taylor remained active with his educational activities and continued to tour and work into his eighties. He continued to work for over 50 years. He visited the White House several times and he received awards from a President and a New York Governor. Taylor received an Emmy award for his work for television which includes carrying out over 250 interviews on behalf of CBS News Sunday Morning.
Taylor sat on the Honorary Founders Board of The Jazz Foundation of America. In 1989 Billy Taylor, Ann Ruckert, Herb Storfer and Phoebe Jacobs started The Jazz Foundation to save the homes and the lives of America’s elderly jazz and blues musicians including musicians that survived Hurricane Katrina.
Taylor died on December 28, 2010 at the age of 89.
With over twenty-three honorary doctoral degrees, Taylor was also the recipient of two Peabody Awards, NEA Jazz Masters Award (1998) an Emmy Award (1983) for “Outstanding Informational, Cultural or Historical Programming”, a Grammy Award (2004) and a host of prestigious and highly coveted prizes, such as the National Medal of Arts (1992), the Tiffany Award, and the Lifetime Achievement Award from Down Beat Magazine. He was also honored in 2001 with the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) Jazz Living Legend Award, and election to the Hall of Fame for the International Association for Jazz Education.
Check out Billy Taylor’s White Nights & Jazz collectible here.
Check out Greg Thomas’ tribute to Dr. Taylor here.