Dr Billy Taylor was one of the last in a generation of classic jazz musicians who thrived in the bebop era. A distinguished ambassador for our music, he was a recording artist for six decades and probably most famous for his stirring composition ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free‘. Written for his daughter Kim in 1954, the gospel-tinged tune was memorably recorded by Nina Simone on her 1967 Silk And Soul album. It also became an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement in the late-’50s and 1960s.
Billy Taylor was born in Greenville, North Carolina, but grew up in Washington DC in a middle-class neighbourhood. His mother was a teacher, his father a dentist. He moved to New York in 1942 after graduating from Virginia State College with a music degree and took an intensive course of piano lessons with stride maestro Art Tatum. He began playing professionally in 1944, getting his start in the most auspicious of circumstances with saxophonist Ben Webster‘s Quartet at The Three Deuces on New York’s fabled 52nd Street. Dizzy Gillespie, playing across the road, also got wind of young Taylor’s talent and offered him a gig to replace the gifted but unreliable Bud Powell. Taylor also played in Gillespie’s big band from time to time.
Taylor also formed his own very popular trio during this time and became good friends with fellow bebop piano pioneer Thelonious Monk, writing ‘Mad Monk’ in 1944 by way of tribute. He claimed Monk was one of the first people to embrace and accept him when he first came to New York. Taylor once said of the tune, ‘It was really the first bebop tune that I tried to write. The idea was based on Monk’s “52nd Street Theme”‘. Monk apparently commented to Taylor that he especially liked the idea of someone playing stride piano and bebop at the same time, something he obviously took to heart. Taylor’s trio would work opposite Monk’s various bands regularly throughout the rest of the ’40s, including a famous double header at the Village Vanguard in October 1948.
In 1951, Taylor snagged the dream gig of house pianist at the legendary Birdland club where he backed up such masters as Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Gerry Mulligan andMiles Davis. He also began to lecture at music schools, a naturally gifted communicator and educator. In 1958, he started an alternative career as a disc jockey on a Harlem radio station with his own daily show. Later that year, he became musical director of a weekly NBC television programme ‘The Subject is Jazz’ and contributed regularly for 20 years to ‘CBS Sunday Morning’. During the ’60s, Taylor moved to National Public Radio, where he worked for 20 years presenting ‘Jazz Alive’ and later ‘Billy Taylor’s Jazz at the Kennedy Centre’. Taylor was instrumental in founding the Jazz Mobile in 1965. This presented free outdoor jazz concerts by eminent jazz musicians in deprived black neighbourhoods of New York City.
Taylor was also the musical director for David Frost‘s US talk show from 1969 to 1972. He taught jazz courses at Long Island University and at the Manhattan School of Music. In 1975, he gained a doctorate in music education from the University of Massachusetts, eventually amassing an incredible 23 doctorate awards.
He gave up playing regularly in 1981, aged 83, when a minor stroke affected his right hand, but was still performing in an occasional capacity up until 2008. In 2006, an acclaimed documentary was made about him, ‘Billy Taylor: American Hero‘.
William Edward ‘Billy’ Taylor Jr., pianist, educator, broadcaster: born Greenville, North Carolina 24th July 1921; married (Theodora), one daughter (Kim Taylor-Thompson), one son (deceased); died New York 28th December 2010.