A giant of the early bebop movement, Billy Taylor was born in North Carolina but was still young when his family moved to Washington D.C. His grandfather helped found the Florida Avenue Baptist church and the young boy grew up listening to gospel and secular music, both of which would inform his future music career. While he was listening to records by Art Tatum and Fats Waller the seven-year-old Taylor was also learning to play the music of Bach and Haydn in his piano lessons and getting advice from ragtime pianist Louis Brown. Attending Dunbar High School where one of his teachers, Henry Grant who had taught Duke Ellington two decades earlier, encouraged the youngster and other musically gifted children to play jazz in the school basement. Taylor's love of jazz continued throughout his time at Virginia State University and on graduating with a degree in music in 1942 he went to New York where he went straight to Minton's Playhouse club in Harlem. Getting an opportunity to play the piano in the early hours of the morning he was seen by saxophonist Ben Webster who was looking for a new pianist and invited him to sit-in with his band. The first night he joined Webster's Quartet he was introduced to the legendary pianist Art Tatum and the pair became great friends with the older man serving as Taylor's mentor.
His early career saw him releasing his 1945 debut Billy Taylor Piano cut with Al Hall on bass and Jimmy Crawford on drums, touring with the Don Redman Orchestra, playing piano for Broadway shows as well as working with Dizzy Gillespie, Stuff Smith and Charlie Parker. In 1949 he became the house pianist at Birdland where apart from Parker he backed numerous jazz greats including Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Zoot Sims and Oscar Pettiford. His reputation as a teacher also began in 1949 when he published the instructional book, Billy Taylor's Be-Bop For Piano. In 1952 he released one of his most famous tunes 'I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free' which featured on the following year's Right Here, Right Now, and was famously popularised by Nina Simone and became hugely familiar in the UK as the theme tune to the ongoing BBC TV Film programme presented by Barry Norman. Hugely prolific throughout the 50s he recorded many albums, notable highlights being Cross Section (1954) and The Billy Taylor Touch (1957) and My Fair Lady Loves Jazz (1957) which teamed him with his friend and master arranger Quincy Jones. He also collaborated with other artists including Candido Camero, Erroll Garner, Earl May and Percy Bryce as well as releasing 1959's groundbreaking and ambitious album Billy Taylor With Four Flutes that featured several flautists including Herbie Mann, Seldon Powell, Frank Wess and Jerome Richardson.
He furthered his involvement in education in 1961 with the formation of Jazzmobile that supplied master classes, lectures and musical workshops to promote the form. Having already served as musical director for NBC's The Subject Is Jazz series in 1958 he became a regular performer, presenter and contributor on radio and TV during the 50s and 60s and even became band director in 1969 for the syndicated David Frost Show in the USA. In 1981 he interviewed more than two hundred musicians for the CBS News programme Sunday Morning and was rewarded with an Emmy Award for his interview with his dear friend and colleague Quincy Jones. With the launch of his own record label Taylor Made he released a series of albums that included You Tempt Me (1985), the live White Nights And Jazz In Leningrad (1988), the sublime Solo (1988) and Jazzmobile Allstars (1992). Taylor maintained the quality of his playing and songwriting right through his career and even late albums such as the wholly self-composed It's A Matter Of Pride (1993), Dr.T (1993) which featured baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, Music Keeps Us Young (1997), Ten Fingers, One Voice (1999) and the truly wonderful Urban Griot (2001) are amongst the best recordings in his catalogue. Despite suffering a stroke in 2002 he continued to play until he retired three years later and he died of a heart attack in 2010 aged eighty-nine. The following year he was honoured by friends and admirers at a memorial performance in Harlem where he had first played on his arrival in New York sixty-eight years previous and his trio's rhythm section of Chip Jackson on bass and Winard Harper on drums were joined by musicians including Cassandra Wilson, Frank Wess, Jimmy Owens and Geri Allen.
Billy Taylor's body of work stands as testament to one of Jazz music's all time greats and his influence stretches far beyond his recordings. He was above all else an inspired and respected teacher known as Dr. Billy Taylor, who was compelled to share his love and knowledge of the form to educate and influence future generations of musicians.
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