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Throughout the years Taylor has been friends with another pianist, Ramsey Lewis.
"Oh my goodness, I've known him since he was a kid," Taylor says. "They [the Ramsey Lewis Trio] were really into their collegiate thing -- three young guys playing for all the college kids. They had a very youthful approach to jazz that was working, swinging, similar to what the Modern Jazz Quartet was doing and what I was doing."
While Taylor was establishing a reputation as a musician and broadcast personality in the '60s, Lewis was enjoying commercial success with jazz covers of the rock 'n' roll hits "The 'In' Crowd" and "Hang On Sloopy." But Taylor and Lewis didn't begin touring together until the late '80s, when Taylor was hosting a show on the cable channel Bravo. Jazz Counterpoint featured performances and conversations with stars from the jazz world, and Lewis suggested that he and Taylor do something for two pianos. Taylor brought Lewis on the show and says they were both amazed with the results.
"I knew that there were certain aspects of what he did that would be compatible with my style," Taylor says. "He likes to play blues, he had a gospel thing I liked very much, and he had some classical in his playing. We were much more compatible than we envisioned. From the beginning, people who knew both of our work came to listen to the tapes and said, 'Oh man, Billy, you sure sound good.' And I said, 'That's Ramsey.'
"I've led several big bands and larger ensembles and usually prefer trio settings, because it gives me more chance to play. Playing in a duo setting offers much more freedom, because rhythmically we can do things, put in subtleties that would be lost if we were locked into having bass and drums accompany us. As a duo you're required to state certain things clearly so the other guy and the audience knows where we are."
Taylor uses his concerts as yet another way to educate the public about the history and the current state of jazz. The music has been an endangered species for many years, and Taylor blames that partly on the recording industry and partly on cuts in government funding for training programs. Yet he also feels that jazz aficionados are sometimes their own worst enemies.
"We have to stop being so snobbish and stop thinking, 'If someone is not as hip as I think I am, then I don't have time for them,'" he says. "Jazz is a part of our culture that we should appreciate at least as much as the Japanese do, as least as much as people in Europe and Cuba and other places around the world. Jazz speaks to the kind of individual freedom we say we admire, but we need to pass this feeling on to our children.
"Everything I have done in the last ten or fifteen years has been toward the end of demystifying the process of creating jazz, and helping people understand that not only is it music on its highest level, but it's ours."
Billy Taylor and Ramsey Lewis perform at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, February 17 in Dreyfoos Hall at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach. Call 561-832-7469 or 800-572-8471.
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