The Subject Is Jazz
Rock 'n' roll belongs to the young, but in the jazz world, it's the elders who are revered. With 55 years of recording experience and a reputation as one of the highest authorities on jazz music, the 76-year-old pianist Dr. Billy Taylor certainly deserves his props.
Taylor has been an on-air arts correspondent for CBS Sunday Morning since 1981 and has won numerous awards, among them two Peabodys, an Emmy, a National Medal of Arts, and an American Jazz Master Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. His achievements are impressive -- but even more impressive are his stories.
In his long and distinguished career, the man has played with virtually every recognizable name in jazz. Some of the music's most legendary musicians were Taylor's peers, and many of today's veteran players were mere novices when they first met Taylor.
Ira Sullivan, a saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist who's become a staple of the South Florida club scene, owes one of his first recording efforts to a kind word from Taylor back in 1956. Taylor told his record producer he'd just heard a "dynamite" sax player, and the producer agreed to bring the then-unknown musician in for a session.
"That was very exciting for me, because it was only my third record," says Sullivan. "Billy is a very happy individual, always focused, always happy with his playing. Not all musicians are like that. He made me comfortable, made me relax. Billy brings a real dignity to jazz and reaches people that most musicians don't. He's played jazz in the streets, he's done great things on television -- he's done it all. And he has also kept his chops together and become a better player over the years."
Taylor's role as a jazz spokesman has largely overshadowed his accomplishments as a musician, though he's been a steady presence on the jazz scene for some five decades. Taylor has a nimble touch on the keys and lends his melodies a certain optimistic, even joyous, quality. His reputation as a steady, even-handed presence, equally proficient at Latin or bop, gained him a place in the bands of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Gerry Mulligan, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Roy Eldridge, and Lester Young, to name just a few. In the early '50s, Taylor had a regular gig at the legendary Birdland club in New York City.
It was during those heady days of jazz that Taylor came in contact with so many of the musicians that today's fans know only through recordings. Of Charlie Parker, for instance, Taylor recalls, "He would intellectualize the music before it came out of his horn, think about what he was doing. But what he played was not intellectual. To give an example, I was working with him at Birdland. I had just come from a music lesson and didn't want to go home, so I came to the club and ran over what I had learned from my teacher, which was a piece from Debussy. Bird came in and heard what I was playing, and said, 'I like that, that's cool, B.' I said, 'What do you mean you like that? You don't know what this is.' He said 'Sure, that's Debussy.' I said it was a lucky guess, and he said, 'Nah, that's Debussy's "Arabesque."' So I said, 'OK, you know it.'
"So now Bird's insulted. So he takes out his horn and plays the next part, the part I hadn't gotten to," says Taylor. He sings Bird's horn part as if to bring the man back to life for a moment. "He knew it."
Taylor was also fortunate enough to work with Billie Holiday. "I made one record with her," he says, speaking from a hotel room in Bellingham, Washington. "It was a really nice date, just one of those easy things. It reminded me of how easy a record date could be, because she would just come in and call tunes. The tunes seemed so natural and so right for that particular moment. I never thought of it as anything other than that's the way it's supposed to be. I didn't pay any attention to it until much later, when I worked with a lot of other singers who couldn't do that. I loved her. She was a very warm human being."
In 1958 Taylor began producing a TV show called The Subject Is Jazz, his first public effort at educating audiences in the finer points of the music. In the '60s, he established the Jazzmobile, a roving jazz workshop in a converted bus that brought music to underprivileged neighborhoods in New York City. He also began hosting a radio show on WLIB-AM (1190) that, according to Taylor, "made a difference in the way people listened to jazz in New York City. I was on the radio for twelve years. My competition was Elvis and the Beatles, and I had people listening to Cecil Taylor and John Coltrane, all that stuff, on a tiny little station. I'm very proud of that."
In the early '70s, Taylor's schedule actually got busier. He served as musical director of The David Frost Show from 1969 to 1972 and began a broadcasting relationship with National Public Radio that continues to this day with Billy Taylor's Jazz From The Kennedy Center. He's also taught at colleges and universities such as the Manhattan School of Music and the University of Massachusetts, where he earned his doctorate in 1975.
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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