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The Bridge: Billy Taylor, 1921-2010

As a performer, composer, educator, media host, and advocate, Billy Taylor built a boulevard of jazz for listeners around the world to travel.

Billy Taylor

Photo: Album cover art

Jazz master: Billy Taylor

It’s hard to imagine the jazz world without Billy Taylor in it. Taylor, who passed away Tuesday at the age of 89, got his start on New York’s famed 52nd Street in the 1940s and became not only a master pianist, but perhaps the greatest spokesperson that jazz has ever had.

Peter Keepnews’ obituary in the New York Times gives a strong summary sense of Taylor’s career and his impact upon both audiences and his fellow musicians. A few highlights:

  • He was the house pianist in the early 1950s at the legendary New York City jazz club Birdland
  • He started the Jazzmobile, a free outdoor jazz concert series in New York City, with a special emphasis on bringing jazz to young African-American audiences
  • His trio recordings with musicians such as Candido and Machito in the 1950s helped further the emergence of Latin jazz
  • He wrote “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” which became a civil-rights anthem in the 1960s for singer-pianist Nina Simone
  • He was a prominent New York City jazz DJ in the 1960s who went on to work as a jazz host for National Public Radio for many years
  • He was a longrunning cultural correspondent for the CBS television program Sunday Morning

Taylor’s legacy as an educator, advocate, performer, and composer (the last of which will grow beyond “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free”) adds up to more than the sum of its parts. He was a bridge not only to jazz history, but to the enjoyment of jazz in the present moment. As Doug Ramsey noted last night, “Taylor’s playing and relaxed explanations dispelled for many listeners and viewers the notion that jazz was remote, impenetrable and difficult.” He also helped raise the image of jazz musicians from the junkie stereotypes of the 1940s and 50s to the more common representations today of disciplined, hard-working artists. Think about how jazz was perceived when Taylor started out, and the way it’s perceived now–he played a significant part in that change.

On top of all of that, just about everybody who seems to have known or encountered Taylor liked him. In the end, he wasn’t just an ambassador for jazz; he was an ambassador for humanity. Thanks for all of it, Dr. Taylor.

Billy Taylor Remembered Around the Jazz Blogosphere

Watch Billy Taylor talk about improvisation and play “Groovin’ High” on a 1958 episode of “The Subject Is Jazz”:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YXJI9O2D7c4&NR=1

Watch Taylor peform his composition “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free”:

Watch Taylor performing with Candido:

(All of these videos originally posted on YouTube by Bret Primack, aka Jazzvideoguy

David Brent Johnson

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, David Brent Johnson moved to Bloomington in 1991. He is an alumnus of Indiana University, and began working with WFIU in 2002. Currently, David serves as jazz producer and systems coordinator at the station. His interests include literature, history, music, writing, and movies.

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