dr. billy taylor, 1921-2010

dr. billy taylor

dr. billy taylor

We wind down the last hours of 2010 with a remembrance of one of jazz music’s greatest friends.

For the better part of his career, Dr. Billy Taylor, who died Tuesday of heart failure at age 89, vigorously promoted jazz through the media, through educational programs and, of course, through performance. He was also a lecturer, journalist and disc jockey – occupations he used to further enlighten the world around him to the music he was so  devoted to.

Though possessed with piano style built upon scholarly tradition (a January 2000 performance at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, with a trio that sported a very young Winard Harper on drums, featured elegant readings of Body and Soul, Confirmation and a sublime half-hour medley of Duke Ellington compositions), Taylor made some of his greatest artistic achievements offstage.

Few artists prior to the reign of Wynton Marsalis were so consistently active and visible in educating audiences on jazz history through the media. Taylor hosted numerous programs on jazz for National Public Radio and was a frequent contributor to the CBS news/variety show Sunday Morning. He was an avid educator, as well, who taught jazz classes in several universities. But perhaps his most vital educational project was Jazzmobile, which presented free jazz performances by major artists in housing projects and less affluent areas of New York City.

Sometimes it was easy to lose track of Taylor’s own distinctive jazz voice in the midst of his tireless championing of the music itself. His compositions were much like his personality: soft-spoken but demonstrative, yet heavily traditional, especially when it came to reflecting the inspirations that developed into jazz. A highlight of the Frankfort concert, and many of the other frequent performances Taylor gave in the region during the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, was the gospel-inspired civil rights movement anthem I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free. The tune has been rightly cited by many critics cite as a benchmark work for the pianist.

“In many places outside the United States, in many countries that are vastly poorer, we don’t see the prejudices, the mind set that says, ‘The arts are not important,'” Taylor told me in an interview prior to the Frankfort performance. “What jazz does, as people outside this country have discovered, is that it helps even more than other types of music to develop individuality.”

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