Billy Taylor - piano
One of nine solo pianists on a program dedicated to the legendary Art Tatum, Billy Taylor blends his classical background with his command of jazz vocabulary in this loving tribute to his one-time mentor. "I was Tatum's protégé for three or four years, traveled with him, stayed with him on the West Coast, where he lived," Taylor tells the Carnegie Hall audience after a sparkling rendition of "Body and Soul," a Tatum favorite that the blind piano virtuoso often opened his sets with. Taylor, who performed at the very first Newport Jazz Festival in 1955, then dedicates his serene original composition, "Aviento," to Tatum before unleashing his own prodigious technique on an interpretation of "Stella By Starlight," which has him applying his classical technique to this jazz standard while throwing in flashes of improvisational daring along the way. Throughout his stellar career, Taylor represented the next link in the great piano lineage from James P. Johnson and Fats Waller to Earl Hines and Tatum. This Saturday evening concert on July 7, 1973 captures him at the peak of his pianistic powers.
A stalwart on New York's famed 52nd Street scene at the height of the bebop era, Taylor won the respect of fellow scenesters like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Ben Webster, Stuff Smith and others with his solidly swinging accompaniment and dazzling soloistic abilities at the keyboard. Following in Tatum's imposing footsteps, Taylor could summon up dazzling right-hand facility on single note runs that rivaled his mentor. But it was Taylor's tasteful accompaniment and harmonic invention, along with his ability to play ballads with deep feeling that secured him a spate of early sideman gigs on 52nd Street.
A native of Greenville, North Carolina (born July 24, 1921), Taylor graduated from Virginia State College in 1942 and moved immediately to New York, where he immersed himself in the jazz scene. He recorded with Stuff Smith in 1944 and by 1951 became the house pianist at Birdland. Taylor released his first trio album in 1953 on the Prestige label and later recorded for the Impulse and Concord labels before starting his own Taylor Made label in 1988. A recipient of the prestigious National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Award, Dr. Taylor has been an articulate spokesman for jazz music for more than 50 years in his capacities as a player, composer, bandleader, educator and pioneering broadcaster.
The first to call jazz "America's classical music," Taylor played a key role in disseminating jazz through the airwaves, first as host of The Subject Is Jazz, the first-ever television show focusing on jazz. The 13-part series was produced by the new National Educational Television Network (NET, a predecessor of PBS) and featured a wide range of guests including Duke Ellington, Aaron Copland, Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley, Jimmy Rushing and Langston Hughes. Taylor worked as on-air host and program director on radio station WNEW in New York during the 1960s and at station WBAI during the 1970s. In 1969, he became the first African American to lead a television talk show band when he was hired as music director for The David Frost Show, a position he held for three years.
In the 1970s, Taylor also served as host-director of the NPR syndicated Jazz Alive radio series. He later became an influential advocate for jazz on TV through the 1980s and into the 1990s by conducting more than 250 interviews with prominent musicians for CBS's Sunday Morning. He received an Emmy Award for his segment on the multi-talented Quincy Jones for that program. In 1994, Taylor became artistic director for jazz at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. His syndicated NPR radio series, Billy Taylor's Jazz at the Kennedy Center, was broadcast from that prestigious venue. In 2009, to celebrate his 88th birthday, Dr. Taylor released 88 Years…88 Keys…88 Videos, a project showcasing 88 different videos from his remarkable life in jazz.
Taylor died from a heart attack on December. 28, 2010 at age 89. But during his illustrious and lengthy career he embodied the epithet given to him by eminent critic Leonard Feather as "the world's foremost spokesman for jazz." (Milkowski)