Portrait of Billy Taylor

Photo by Tom Pich/tompich.com

Billy Taylor

Pianist, Composer, Educator, Broadcaster


Although well respected for his tasteful, non-intrusive accompaniment as a sideman, Billy Taylor was known for his championing of jazz music, especially through his various broadcasting and educational ventures.

After growing up in Washington, DC, and studying music at Virginia State College, where he earned a degree in Music in 1942, Taylor moved to New York. He spent the 1940s frequently playing the clubs on New York's famed 52nd Street, performing with greats such as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Ben Webster, Stuff Smith, Machito, Slam Stewart, and Don Redman. His adroit abilities enabled him to freely cross over from swing to the then-burgeoning modern jazz called bebop.

In the 1950s, he served as the ideal sideman, finding work with Roy Eldridge, Oscar Pettiford, and Lee Konitz while employed as house pianist at Birdland in 1951. Beginning in 1952 he became a bandleader, primarily heading trios with bass and drums.

Taylor started in radio with a program in the 1960s on WLIB in New York. From 1969-72 he was house bandleader for the David Frost television show, and in the 1970s also served as host-director of the NPR syndicated Jazz Alive radio series. Since 1981, Taylor has profiled some of the biggest names in jazz as an interviewer and reporter for CBS television's Sunday Morning program.

As a jazz educator, Taylor's experience was vast, starting with authoring a series of beginning piano primers. He was a founder of New York's successful Jazzmobile community performance and school-without-walls, which debuted in 1965. He earned his doctorate in music at the University of Massachusetts in 1975, with a dissertation entitled The History and Development of Jazz Piano: A New Perspective for Educators. Taylor subsequently taught at Yale, Manhattan School of Music, Howard University, University of California, Fredonia State University, and C.W. Post College. His experience at the University of Massachusetts led to a lead faculty position at the university's annual summer intensive program, Jazz in July.

As a composer he wrote a number of commissioned works, his most well-known composition being "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free." In the 1990s, Taylor became artistic director of the Jazz at the Kennedy Center program in Washington, DC, from which he launched his syndicated NPR radio series, Billy Taylor's Jazz at the Kennedy Center. He was the recipient of two Peabody Awards, an Emmy, a Grammy, and a host of prestigious awards, such as the Tiffany Award, a DownBeat Lifetime Achievement Award, and the National Medal of Arts (1992).

Selected Discography

Cross-Section, Original Jazz Classics, 1953-54
My Fair Lady Loves Jazz, Impulse!, 1965
White Nights and Jazz in Leningrad, Taylor-Made Music, 1988
It's a Matter of Pride, GRP, 1993
Live at the IAJE, New York, Soundpost, 2001

Interview by Molly Murphy for the NEA
January 12, 2007
Edited by Don Ball, NEA


Q: Tell me about your early experience with music.

Billy Taylor: I grew up in a musical family, and so everybody in my family on my father's side was a musician. My dad was a dentist, but he sang. He had a wonderful voice, which I didn't inherit. He played the piano, played several instruments and everything. He was the conductor at his father's church of the choir. All of his brothers and sisters played piano and sang, so I wanted to play piano like my Uncle Bob, who was a ragtime piano player, played stride piano. And I said to my dad, "I want to play like Uncle Bob." So he sent me to a music teacher and I was playing the usual stuff. It didn't sound like Uncle Bob to me, and I'm saying, you know, "Hey." I'm fooling around with the piano, trying to do it myself. And ultimately, my uncle came to my rescue, because I listened to him play all the time. And I liked this kind of stuff. He gave me my first Art Tatum record. He gave me my first Fats Waller record. And I was hooked; I mean, that was when I said, "Oh, I'm going to do that!".

Q: What was it about their sound and about their playing that really got your attention?

Billy Taylor: Fats Waller was the one that sort of helped me focus, because he was much more accessible, what he played was much more accessible. And he was the preeminent stride pianist of those days. When I heard Fats Waller, it was funny, it was good. I mean it was the music of the day, because when I was growing up, that was the pop music of the day. And the way he presented it, it was good-time music and it was something that resonated all through the community that I lived in. I mean it was really the same way you hear rock and roll and things like that; that was the way I heard jazz.

Q: Tell me a little bit about the community you grew up in.

Billy Taylor: I grew up in Washington, DC. I was born in North Carolina -- my father was from North Carolina, so he wanted to go back and start things there. But when I got to be close to school age, my mother, who was a teacher, said, "No, we have to go back to Washington, DC" -- where she grew up -- "because the school's better." And so she convinced him to move back to DC and so I came here. And going to school in Washington, DC was a trip. I mean it really was just beautiful. I got lifelong experiences. I mean I heard all kinds of wonderful people. Washington, DC, because it was segregated, was a very closed society, and yet, I had everything in there I needed. I had wonderfully trained classical musicians, who played all of the classical repertoire in church. I lived two blocks from Howard University and so I heard really first-rate artists when I was a kid. I didn't know it, you know. That was just what I heard. And then you turn on the radio and then I heard Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington, and all of the great artists of the period, and so I thought, that's the world. It's the way things go. And only when I grew up did I realize there were other things, and that wasn't as clear as I thought it was when I was young. But it very clear to me when I grew up, I mean there was good music and there was other music, and I didn't have to bother with that.


Q: When you went to New York, as most of those Washington, DC musicians did, I understand you ran into Ben Webster almost immediately.

Billy Taylor: I had graduated from college and I took a year off for health reasons. I stayed in New York and I saved my money and everything. I had a job and I came to New York. I said, well, I have enough money to support myself. And I came to New York, dropped my bags and decided that I would go directly to Minton's [Playhouse], because in those days, Minton's was the place to go and sort of see what the other jazz musicians were doing and so forth. It was very open and the word was around. Everybody knew that. All the musicians knew that. So I went directly to Minton's. And in those days, you could sit in. It's not like today, unfortunately. I mean people invited you to come and share the bandstand, because they wanted to hear each other, as well as perform. And it was a contest. I mean, you had to be able to play, because there was somebody else that might be able to play a little better and he was going to get an opportunity to do that.

At any rate, I went to Minton's and I asked the resident pianist -- I don't even remember who it was in those days -- if I could sit in. And he was nice enough. He said, "Yeah, sure." But I had to sit around all night, because in those days, it was kind of a pecking order. And there were a couple of other guys who were there when I got there, and these were guys who he knew, so they got to play for us, because he knew they could play. He didn't know whether or not I could play. And so to make a long story short, I sat around all night. I got there about nine o'clock. About three o'clock in the morning, I got a chance to sit in, because you know, now he figured well, I don't know how this guy plays, but whatever, it can't hurt me. So he said, "Come on." Well by that time, we had a whole bunch of guys that had gotten off from work, and so whereas there were five or six musicians when I got there and for most of the early part of the night, when I actually got a chance to play, the bandstand was full of the guys who had come from after the clubs and all that stuff. They were walking in as I was playing, you know. And so that's the piano player, so I'm the accompanist. I'm not going to get a chance to play any solo.

I look and I see one of my idols. When I was growing up, I wanted to play tenor saxophone. And as a matter of fact, I actually played in the school band. And I wanted to play like Ben Webster. I mean I said, "Oh man, this guy with Duke Ellington, I mean that's the way I want to play the saxophone." So I'm sitting there playing the piano and Ben Webster walks in. And I said, "Wow! Oh, man!" I mean how lucky can you be? But now I'm perturbed, because I'm not going to get a chance to play any of these solos. I mean the bandstand is full. You'd get eight bars here or an introduction over there. You don't get to play a chorus, something like that. So anyway, the guy's playing and I finally got through that, but Ben had come over and he was standing by the piano. So when the set was over, he asked me who I was and he struck up a conversation. So I said I'd just gotten in town and he said, "Well that's interesting." He said, "I'm looking for a piano player. So come down to the Deuces on 52nd Street and you sit in and, you know, I'll hear what you can do and we'll talk." I said, "Wow," you know, so yeah, okay. Saturday went by as slow as you can imagine. I mean, is it ever going to end? When am I going to get to go to 52nd Street? I got to audition for Ben and I got the job. You know, I still don't believe that. I mean I came in, the third day I'm in town, I had a job.


Q: Which brings me to talking about your sound -- what were the components of your sound?

Billy Taylor: I play ballads, one of the things that I pride myself on, as a musician. I can play a ballad. That's the best thing I do. I learned to play a ballad from Ben Webster. I wanted to make the piano sound like he made the tenor sound.
My approach to the piano had been shaped by Teddy Wilson, and by Art Tatum, and by Fats Waller, and by people who played -- Nat Cole. You know these were all people who I liked who played different things, and they had things that I liked and I was trying to -- I wanted to swing like Nat Cole. I mean this is a guy with just a trio, and boy, he just really swung and I really liked that. Teddy Wilson had another kind of swing, but because of the way he used his left hand that was apropos for all of the swing things that everybody was doing. And that was interesting. I wanted to be able to do that. Fats Waller and other people had other elements that I wanted to kind of put together and say it in my own way, but using an element of this and an element of that, and it took me a while to kind of organize that.

Well I felt that I had something to say very early in, because I led the college band and when I was in college, I sat in with the Count Basie band. That was the first time I met Jo Jones and he was one of my mentors.


Q: Tell me about Jo Jones.

Billy Taylor: When I first came to New York, that year with Ben Webster, he came by to see the guys in the band. And I had reminded him that, through him, I got to sit in with the Count Basie band. And he took to me right away. He took me around to 52nd Street and introduced me to Coleman Hawkins and to Cootie Williams and a whole bunch of other guys that were there that I had never met personally. And boy, I mean it was like having a guided tour through the history of the music for me. As of that part of my life, he appointed himself my guardian. Whiskey was the main narcotic of that particular time, and guys got drunk all the time and drank too much. Tatum, that's what killed him. But Jo tried his best to protect me from that. When he introduced me to Coleman Hawkins, at the White Rose Bar around the corner from the Three Deuces, he said, "Hawk, now this is a young friend of mine that just came in from Washington DC." He said, "A young piano player, a young talent and everything. I want you to check him out. This is Billy Taylor, he can't drink." Now that was all one sentence. I wondered why he said that, you know. Now I'm in college. You know I'm a frat man. I'm hanging out with the guys on Saturday night. I could handle it, you know. But he knew I couldn't, and nobody could, really, under the circumstances that most of us worked in.

A couple of times, he came in and he saw me taking a drink and he gave me a spanking. The way he did that -- this was later -- he saw me working, I was working on 52nd Street with another group. He saw me taking a drink and so the next night, he came in and he had brought Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum in to hear me. Now I had been drinking. With both of them there, I'm nervous now. And because I had been drinking, I didn't feel that I was in control, you know, and I was embarrassed. I said, "Geez, you know, why?" Never again, I said, "Jo Jones, you made your point. I will never take another drink if I'm going to play the piano. I won't do that." And that's what he did for me. I have to tell students this, because you know, here's a guy who was one of my elders who really did that for me. I didn't know I needed that and he did, and he did it. And he drank and Tatum did, all those guys drank, you know, but they wouldn't let me do that.

Q: There seems to have been a strong camaraderie in those days.

Billy Taylor: Yeah. From a teenager, Frank Wess used to come to the house, and we would listen to records and we would do all kinds of stuff. And Johnny Malachi, who was Billy Eckstine's pianist and who played for Sarah Vaughan and later taught at Howard University. He was about two or three years older than I. He was older and smarter, took me to see Jelly Roll Morton when we were both kids down on U Street. I mean there was a different kind of a feeling, and the camaraderie of that was that each person had respect for each other. That's what I experience when I meet most of the Jazz Masters now. I mean that's the one place that I feel comfortable like that, because we've been through different things but we have so much in common that it brings us together in a very special way. I hope that the NEA will continue to use it in the way that is most effective. One of the things is we are all teachers, but we all teach differently, because we all learned differently. I was trained as a teacher. I mean I studied music to be a teacher. I thought I would use that to fall back on. I never had to use it until much later, but at least I felt comfortable having studied that. Other musicians, for a variety of reasons, have come to the same thing. John Lewis was a guy that, when he got out of the army, he had a similar experience and so he could use his experience with Dizzy Gillespie and the things that he did and couple that with the fact that he loved Bach and he loved the European classical music that he studied, put those things together and give jazz a totally different focus.


Q: How did you meet John Levy?

Billy Taylor: I was playing at the Royal Roost…and I was trying to put together a quartet. I had a dream quartet for me: I had John Collins on guitar. We had worked together with Slam Stewart, so it was my first choice. And then I had met John Levy who was playing bass with Snuff Smith. And Denzil Best I had met in sessions and things like that. And so that was my quartet. We were together for about five minutes, and then those guys went. John and Denzil went with George [Shearing] and so that's half of it. And before I could regroup from that, Art Tatum took John Collins. I said, "Well, here I am doing a single again." But you know there were so many musicians and those were such wonderful opportunities for those particular musicians. I mean looking at John and Denzil, that changed their lives. It changed John Collin's life, because when Nat Cole hired him, Nat could get up from the piano and John would play such full chords and things like that, and he could stand up and sing. You know, it's fun to look back on things like that and realize that those musicians were everything you thought they were in those days.

I get a big charge out of talking to John Levy, because John Levy, after he left the quintet, he became the manager, and so everybody only knows him as the manager. This was one of the best bass players around in that period. I mean and for him, he and Jimmy Jones were the trio in Chicago when I was with Eddie South, and Eddie South was a violinist who was just classically trained and just unbelievable. And Snuff Smith didn't bow to anybody, so the two of them were very fast friends. And so they came to see each other. I ultimately worked with Eddie for about a year, then Snuff Smith -- after John and Jimmy had left, I became a member of his trio. And so you know to play with these guys after you've seen them in another set of circumstances, and realize that they had everything they needed. Snuff Smith was such a swinging player, he didn't need drums. When I played with him we played at the Onyx Club and we played opposite a six-piece group and we swung them out of the room. I mean Snuff Smith, just everything that he did was so rhythmic, and so much fun.

Q: And you know John is so humble. He says he feels he was an adequate bass player.

Billy Taylor: Many of the musicians of that period feel that, because they can't step outside of themselves. They know how they were trained and how hard it was for them to do certain things that they quickly learned and really mastered. John Levy was the kind of person that was so dependable in terms of playing just all the right notes, playing, swinging, all of the things that you needed to play the bass in those days. I tease him all the time, and he knows that I respect him, because the things that he's done as a musician -- that's why he's such a good manager, because he knows all of the things that he did and that he could do, and he put them all into context so that he could be a manager.


Q: Tell me a little bit about writing the piece and about the process of composing, how you approach it.

Billy Taylor: Well actually, as a musical student, I studied the works of people who were considered the classical composers. Bach, for instance, as a musical student was hard, and it was difficult to do, and I really wasn't doing anything but trying to really grapple with how did this guy do this. How did he take a melody and do something with that? I listened to Debussy and I could hear the kind of patterns that he used, and I could hear some of the things that were in those days quite different in terms of the sounds that they evoked from the piano. So all of those things, for me, as a composer, I started playing before I knew anything. I mean I could barely play the piano and I was trying to compose something, because I was hearing things that I said, "I wonder what would happen if I would do this?" Sometimes it sounded pretty good; sometimes it didn't. But I was always trying to do that, and so I listened to some of the things that I wrote back in those early days, and I had good people to study, because I listened to classical, as I said, when I was growing up. I listened to all kinds of music, so I heard all kinds of patterns, all kinds of rhythms, all kinds of things that were the building blocks of what I wanted to use to play. And so that was my goal to be able to play that, so in order to play it, I had to learn how to do it. And part of playing was being creative, and being a jazz musician, you had to create on the spot.

People talk about improvisation as though it was something weird. It's no more weird than the fact that we can use the language to talk to one another. And that's what we learned to do as jazz musicians. We learned certain kinds of ways to do things, because they were being done very capably by Coleman Hawkins, or by Art Tatum, or by Teddy Wilson, or by Fats Waller, or by any number of people who were bringing their own touch to whatever the music was about. And the whole idea with a Ben Webster, or with anyone like that, was that here is a melody. This is how I shape that melody. This is how I say what I have to say, using that melody as a starting point. And these are the things that I do, the way the sounds that I evoke playing the piano to help me say what I want to say. And a lot of young people don't seem to understand that, because we're in an age where everyone wants to play very technically proficient and get all over the instrument. Well that's wonderful and that means you have a lot to work with, but it's meaningless unless you're saying something that moves somebody. And so in my early days, luckily, I wrote a lot of ballads. I thought I'd heard melodies and harmonies in that context and so many of the songs that I wrote were based on popular songs and so forth, but I tried to say what I had to say using the harmonic devices or the rhythmic devices that I heard, the people whose work I studied.

Q: With respect to ballads, why are ballads so difficult for so many musicians to play? And why are you able to?

Billy Taylor: Because when you play a ballad, you're naked out there. I mean there's no hiding place. You have to say a melody, and that melody has to say what you want it to say -- "I'm feeling very bad. Something just happened to me and I feel sorrowful." As opposed to "Well man, boy, this is good today and the sun is shining and, hey man, let me get to the piano and get that down." And the moods, the kinds of things that you say, depends. For me, the things that I wrote like "Theodora", which I wrote for my wife, that's one of the best ballads I ever wrote. There are other things that I have. There's another ballad that I wrote called "À Bientôt." When my wife, Jenny, and I were on our honeymoon and I was working with Don Redman (it was the first band -- American band -- to go to Europe), I tried to learn a little French, because we spent enough time there. My French is terrible, but "À Bientôt" means "I'll see you later." And I tried to say that and I used to use it as a closing theme on my radio show. It's not unhappy, but, it's "I'll see you in a while," you know.


Q: You're a composer, player, broadcaster, and educator. Of all of these many different hats that you wear, do you identify more with one of those areas than the other?

Billy Taylor: No. I'm a pianist who writes music, and I'm a writer who likes to say things in words, that I feel that's the best way to say that particular thing. And so I don't separate things. When I was on the air, I did a lot of things which I had to verbalize what I was talking about. And that serves me very well as a teacher now, because I'm comfortable doing that kind of thing with students and working with people, because I always felt as a disk jockey that there is a lot of information that I should be sharing, because people who have not been exposed to many of the things that I've been exposed to just don't have that nose. So if I say well here's something I think you might be interested in knowing, and quite honestly, they are, they say, "Oh yeah, I didn't know that. Oh, that's the way you do that, fine," and then they go on from there. And that's the one really satisfying aspect that I had out of radio. Radio was the one thing where you only had your voice to convey whatever it is, your personal thoughts about music, or art or whatever you were saying on the radio. And I'm very honored that many people have found the things that I said to them over the years were helpful. And I'm so proud of that. It's not like when you're performing in person. You get a lot of applause, and you see that went over fine. I'm okay. But you never know. I mean is there somebody out in that audience that you didn't know you touched, and years later, somebody will come up and say, I'm grateful because I learned this from you. I say, "Oh yeah? I didn't know I taught that."

I'm grateful of the fact that a lot of people are very aware of who I am and what I've done, simply because I've been so visible, and I'm proud of that. And I'm grateful for the people who have given me that opportunity. I did a lot of things for radio, which I'm sorry to say, didn't go where I think they should have gone. I've had wonderful opportunities in television. When I worked on [CBS News's] Sunday Morning, I got a chance to talk to millions of people and do a lot of things that really made a big difference. That was the most effective thing I've ever done in my life, when it came to sharing the things that I felt were important in jazz. I was lucky enough to be there with Charles Kuralt and other people who really felt the same way and we all pulled together to make that happen, not just for what I did, but for what we all did in terms of sharing the information that is a part of who we are and what we're about. This is being put under the rug or something now. Its not being done as well as it could be done. It's not being done as effectively or often as I would like.

Q: There are so many people who are not exposed to jazz. They don't get jazz. It's just not part of their world.

Billy Taylor: It's our fault. It's our fault. We have the teachers. We have the know-how. And we've been very successful in teaching jazz, I mean all over the world. We literally have taught people all over the world what our music is about. I've been in India and I was playing at a soccer field out there. And there were about 25 people on the bandstand with my trio. None of the other people spoke English, and yet we played and the audience loved what we played together. Now these were people that I could not speak to in English, I mean you know, really have a conversation with. They spoke English, but you know I couldn't converse with them as I'm conversing with you, and yet we could converse musically and the audience could get the message. And that's amazing. I look at other people in other places. I look at what happened in South Africa when they got the freedom to come and study here with people. I was talking with Darius, Dave Brubeck's son, yesterday, and when he went to South Africa, that's at a time that I wouldn't have gone to South Africa because of the way things were going politically and all the way they were treating Africans there, South Africans. I didn't want to be a part of that. And he was strong enough to go out and begin to work as a white guy in that kind of thing, and take a message to jazz that some of his students are here now. He's on the board of things that we do now. And I mean that's just one example of how the message of jazz has been spread musically. And of course it changes when it goes to Brazil or when it goes to somewhere else. They speak the language differently. You know I speak differently. So everything is very exciting to me -- to know that we can do this. I think we should be able to do it better at home, because this is where we live. This is where we operate from and we have to do that better. The reason it's not better known is because we're so commercially oriented now, and the businesses have been run on a non-artistic framework. Everything is the dollar. Everything is how many people can you get. How big can you get. And that is not really what our society is about. It's not what we're about and it's changing us for the worse.

Q: If you're talking to someone who really doesn't know much about jazz and doesn't listen to jazz, what do you tell them? What can they learn from listening to jazz that might be different from listening to other types of music?

Billy Taylor: Well the quality of the music is different. When it's well played, there's not a lot you have to say, because if you play it right, then people get that melody, the rhythm, or whatever the aspect of the music is that is attractive to them. But one of the things that we have not done is to put jazz in the position that it deserves in our society. I mean, all of the years in the past century that went by, all the music for the whole 20th century is an encyclopedia on what America is about. If you really listen to that, study that, everything you need to know about America is right there, and it's up to us who've experienced much of that to be able to share that.

When jazz musicians go on the stage, and there'll be five or six of us on the stage, we've probably never physically met one another and we can go on and say something that reaches out and touches a whole audience. I mean that's a powerful way to communicate. Eubie Blake was 100 years old and he was still doing it, you know. I mean the history of the music is so vibrant. There's so much to learn from it. Who we are and what we are about is something that jazz musicians say over and over in many, many different ways.

One of the things that I remember was the tribute to Duke Ellington. And I was so amazed at one element of that show was Max Roach coming out with a small combination and really doing something with a dancer. And you know most people who knew his bebop work and knew what he was about were not aware that this was something that he did with equal facility and enthusiasm. And you know, it is amazing when you put together someone who does one thing, and you put him with someone who does something else very well, and you put them in a situation where they can both do what they do together. it's very exciting and really showcases the best of who we are and what we're about.