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Posted at 4:14 PM ET, 12/29/2010

How Billy Taylor sparked a love of jazz

By Marc Fisher

Billy Taylor, the jazz evangelist and piano man who led the Kennedy Center's jazz programming for many years, died Tuesday night at 89.

A D.C. native who went on to play with the likes of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, Taylor was a sparkling player, but made his greatest impact by spreading the gospel of jazz to a far broader audience than the art form might otherwise have reached.

Hard as it may be to believe in this era of homogenized, dumbed-down popular tastes, it was once possible to hear jazz, classical, show tunes and other non-pop forms of music on network television and to learn about those genres in public school. In each of those cases, it was often Billy Taylor who was behind those efforts to popularize music that requires active listening and even a bit of understanding about how music works.

In my own case, a lifelong passion for jazz began with a visit Taylor made to my school in The Bronx when I was in sixth grade. Here's a profile I wrote about Taylor for The Post's Show section in 1999:

By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer

He's one of the best-known faces in jazz, yet few know his work. He's done more than nearly anyone else to spread the music's message, yet he's barely mentioned in the big jazz histories.

At 77, Billy Taylor is the only jazz player with a regular gig on network TV, host of one of the few national jazz radio programs, Washington's leading jazz advocate, teacher of college courses and a Kennedy Center lecture series--and leader of his own trio.

A gentle-voiced pianist known as much for his trademark windowpane eyeglasses as for his work with everyone from Duke Ellington to young lions like James Carter and Terence Blanchard, Taylor is the public face of a marginalized art.

From 1958, when he served as host of "The Subject Is Jazz," the first educational TV series on the music, through his 1970s stint as leader of the band on TV's "David Frost Show," and on to his video portraits of musicians that have aired on the CBS program "Sunday Morning" since 1981, Taylor has sold the nation not on his own fluid, graceful playing, but on jazz itself.

"He's really been the premier champion of the music, standing at the pulpit, calling for all to hear," says Chip Jackson, the bassist in Taylor's trio for the past six years. "Billy's advocacy doesn't diminish his playing, but it has overshadowed it."

For more than half a century, Billy Taylor has found a place in jazz by being the ultimate adapter. He could play with anyone, any which way. He proved it during his very first weekend in New York, in 1944, after he realized he'd done all he could in Washington and needed to test himself against the bebop pioneers in the Big Apple. He arrived in Harlem on a Friday night, dropped his bags, and "immediately went to a place where I knew I could sit in."

Taylor found Minton's--the 118th Street club where Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk conducted their endless symposiums, the club Ralph Ellison called the place "where the dark and the light folks meet"--and asked the piano man if he could play. And Taylor sat and waited his turn. The crowd on the bandstand grew all night, so that by the time dawn was stretching, there were 10 or 15 players--enough talent to cover in case the new kid on the piano turned out to be an embarrassment. And Taylor began, accompanying only, because to take a solo in such a setting would have been the height of arrogance, to say nothing of risk.

Ben Webster, the legendary saxman, walked in. He heard Taylor, and he liked what he heard. "Come down to 52nd Street and sit in with my group Sunday night," Webster told the 22-year-old from D.C.

Two nights later, Taylor got the job with Webster's band at the Three Deuces. He parlayed that into a spot as house pianist at Birdland. No job on the planet provided a closer view of the revolution in sound that was jazz at mid-century.

And now, at century's end, Taylor is an elder, one who discovers and blesses new talent, and yet his role is different from the bop giants of the '40s and '50s, just as the music is different. With fewer outlets and a stagnant fan base, jazz is in danger of becoming a fossilized music of museums, subsidized concert halls and college campuses, rather than an art that percolates up from clubs, living rooms and the street. Like jazz itself, Taylor is caught between being a curator of past glories and the evangelist for an uncertain future.

He has helped to establish the music as a staple of academia, a commonplace in the top concert venues, a recipient of federal grants and foundation largess. And yet that is as much the problem as the success: Will jazz survive as an organic music that captures the hearts of the young, or has it evolved into an art appreciated mostly by the mature?

Taylor wants to have it both ways, and Washington is the laboratory of his experiment.

In any given month, he will lead a couple of his Monday night performance and conversation sessions with players young and old in the Terrace Theater, lecture on the elements of improvisation to 100 local adults in a Kennedy Center rehearsal room, go online to answer questions from Prince William County high school students, tape his TV and radio appearances, work on his forthcoming jazz series with the National Symphony Orchestra and tour the nation with his trio.

Since 1994, Taylor has been the Kennedy Center's jazz adviser, a role in which he has helped to double the amount of jazz programming, from 15 concerts three years ago to 29 this year. The lineup includes a solo piano series, a collection of vocalists, an annual women in jazz festival and Taylor's own Monday night sessions, where the guests range from smooth-jazz sellout Grover Washington to hard-bop purist Phil Woods.

The nature of the music being presented has changed considerably as well. Four years ago, Taylor and the Kennedy Center offered a conservative menu of the tried and true--the music of Woody Herman, a Lionel Hampton salute, concerts by Nancy Wilson and Dorothy Donegan. This year, the lineup is a more adventuresome mix of tradition and exploration--creative young saxman James Carter, legendary guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, piano sensation Cyrus Chestnut, the raucous Mingus Big Band, and a tribute to Thelonious Monk.

"I don't think we're there yet, but we're well on our way," says Derek Gordon, the Kennedy Center's vice president for education and jazz programs. "There is a jazz audience in Washington, but they have not had a very broad selection. It's not always financially advantageous, but we've been able to turn Washington people on to artists who are not really known outside of New York."

"Billy and the center are more willing to take chances because the show is going so well," Jackson says. "He surprises me, man. He's almost 80 and he just loves to play, and he's done a lot to educate the Washington audience, so they're ready for more, even for stuff that's 'out there.' "

Drummer Steve Johns, who has been with Taylor for five years, recalls playing to half-full houses at the Kennedy Center and contrasts that with almost routine sellouts these days--despite the loss of Washington's only all-jazz radio station, a key ingredient in keeping the music alive in any town.

"Billy's been able, in his own non-preachy way, to develop and teach an audience," says Lawrence Wilker, president of the Kennedy Center. "In his four years here, we've taken the jazz program from zero to 60. We've really brought an audience along."

Taylor rejects the stereotype of Washington as a musically conservative city: "As Ellington said, there are only two kinds of music--good music and bad music."

Across the Generation Gap

On a cold March afternoon, Taylor's trio is in rehearsal with Carter, the tenor sax player whose full-bodied sound is as hot and untethered as the Taylor combo's is cool and controlled.

"Hey, all right," Taylor greets the visiting player, who is 47 years his junior. Taylor wears a tweed sports coat, wool slacks and Rockports. Carter is lost in a jumbo powder-blue Hugo Boss warm-up jacket over a black turtleneck with a Playboy bunny on the collar.

Taylor explains the gig. "It's really about you playing," he says. "The audience will ask you all kinds of questions. Really interactive. Very hip audience--they'll ask you very detailed stuff about your instrument."

Carter mumbles his way through the rehearsal, offering little more than grunts and exhalations to Taylor's questions. For his part, Taylor looks skeptical, even occasionally exasperated at Carter's inability to name the keys and tempos he wants for each piece.

But by evening, when a full house gathers at the Terrace to watch the taping of the weekly National Public Radio program "Billy Taylor's Jazz at the Kennedy Center," the two have bridged the generation gap.

Carter is suddenly talkative, funny, charming. When he plays, he tears into the standards that Taylor had seemed to push on him in rehearsal. Carter wails and sings, serenades and agitates. Bassist Jackson breaks out of his cool and matches Carter's emotional swings. And on his own solos, Taylor shucks his burnished, easy-on-the-ears manner and veers--cautiously--toward the avant-garde. Shoulder cocked, a slight smile emerging from under those huge glasses, Taylor is having a ball.

Eminently adaptable, as ever. Taylor can produce cascades of notes, but never in the shocking torrents of a McCoy Tyner. Taylor can lace lightly around a melody, but never as sparely as a Count Basie. Taylor finds a middle course--one that has always kept him from superstardom, but has also kept him employed and respected.

That has been Taylor's way since his early years in Washington, where he hung out at the Howard Theater and the after-hours clubs at Seventh and T streets NW, listening to the piano masters--Ellington, Art Tatum, and local institutions like Louie Brown and Eubie Blake.

Taylor grew up on Fairmont Street NW, near Howard University. Son of a dentist and a schoolteacher, he caught the music bug at Shaw Junior High--"I found out that if you played the piano, pretty girls would come and sit at your stool," he says--and continued at Dunbar High School before leaving the District to attend Virginia State College. But while great music teachers played a role in his education, Taylor also credits a less formal bit of schooling for his early interest: The Taylors had a neighbor whose father had been a partner with Duke Ellington in a sign-painting business, who had an enormous collection of records, and young Billy soaked it all in.

By the time he was a teenager, he was a regular on U Street, where he once saw a competitive "cutting session" between famed trumpeter Roy Eldridge and a Washington favorite, a fellow known only as Georgetown who sold peanuts at Griffith Stadium by day and spent nights swinging the blues. In Taylor's memory, Eldridge was so challenged by the local phenom that he literally blew apart the bore of his horn, the very metal splaying before the stunned crowd.

Taylor would find his future in New York. Indeed, from the moment he left Washington, he would make only rare appearances back home over the next few decades, in part because there was another Billy Taylor who had a trio here, the son of an Ellington bass player who had stayed home.

"When I would come to Washington, I would advertise and nobody would come see me because they thought it was the other Billy Taylor," Taylor says now. The two Taylors have been so mixed up that one prominent jazz encyclopedia lists the New York Taylor as having died 13 years ago, when it was the D.C. Taylor who actually passed away.

Established in New York with his Birdland gig, Taylor nonetheless had to scramble for work as rock supplanted jazz as the nation's popular sound in the late '50s. But he was as eager and flexible socially as he was musically, and he made friends with the disc jockeys who played a powerful role in those days when jazz was all over the radio dial.

In the early '60s, Taylor got his first radio show, on New York's WLIB, first as a summer replacement for famed deejay Dr. Jive, and then as host of his own program. Soon he was as well known for his broadcast work and teaching and writing as for his playing.

In 1964, in the wake of street violence in Harlem and cuts in school music programs citywide, Taylor launched the Jazzmobile program, whose portable stages roamed New York City neighborhoods and visited schools with a cargo of top jazz musicians. "We'd take the vehicle into a neighborhood, playing as we went in a 10-block circle," Taylor recalls. "The kids would follow us and then we'd stop and play a concert. I'd have Dizzy or Buddy Rich or Lionel Hampton. One time, Duke brought his whole band."

D.C. Mayor Walter Washington, who knew of Jazzmobile from his time at the New York Housing Authority, briefly imported the program to the capital, but the schools here resisted jazz education, just as they have ignored Taylor's current offers to bring jazz into the schools. "I'm not dissuaded," says Taylor, who enjoys his work with the Prince William schools but wants to get into the city as well. "I know they're focused heavily on the basics. But you can teach those better if you also teach the arts."

These days, Taylor is out trying to persuade a new generation of teachers and students that jazz can offer something extra. Taylor has written tunes inspired by hip-hop, but he has also debated rap artists: "My question to them is, haven't you heard any of the black poets? And they haven't. I want to show them that you don't have to rhyme on 2 and 4."

Taylor's is a lifelong battle against ignorance. His targets these days are his TV network and the recording companies, both of which he says have been taken over by people who don't know a thing about the music. CBS has tried to get him to profile musicians he simply cannot take seriously--the New Age composer Yanni, for example. And the record companies don't push jazz because they don't know the music well enough to know what to push, Taylor says.

The answer, he believes, lies in education, in creating new audiences. "The Washington audience has proved to me that I can now do the same thing I used to do on WLIB in the '60s, playing anything from Ornette Coleman to James P. Johnson," Taylor says. "Give people a bridge, and take them with you on your trip."

Jazzmobile did create a new generation of fans. I know this; I went along for the trip. In 1969, with the New York City school system in chaos, teachers striking for months on end, 45 kids to a classroom, music education consisted largely of gray-haired teachers force-feeding kids patriotic 1930s tunes about one-world government.

And then one day the Jazzmobile arrived at JHS 141, my Bronx school. Taylor brought his trio into an auditorium packed with wild, screaming kids. And suddenly the piano did things I'd never dreamed possible; the bass took me to places beyond my limited universe of Beethoven and the pathetic pop of the time. After the concert, the trio handed out 45s of Taylor's own "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free." I haven't received a better gift since.

By Marc Fisher  | December 29, 2010; 4:14 PM ET
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Thanks for posting this gracefully written profile, Mr. Fisher. I was not exposed to much jazz growing up, but I started to become interested in it as a young adult in part by listening to Taylor's Jazz at the Kennedy Center show on Saturday nights on NPR, which along with Ken Burns's PBS series introduced me to the music and its deep heritage. Taylor was a versatile, unflappable player and outstanding ambassador of the music he played.

Posted by: DrewDC | December 31, 2010 8:37 AM | Report abuse

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