R.I.P. Dr. Billy Taylor

Portrait of Billy Taylor (William P. Gottlieb Collection, Music Division)

Pianist, composer Dr. Billy Taylor did so many things so well for so long, it’s hard to believe he’s now gone. Taylor grew up in Washington D.C. and told me a story about being 11 years old and seeing his hero Fats Waller at the Lincoln Theater. He waited around backstage to say how much he loved it, but when he came face-to-face with his idol he was dumbstruck and just stared with open mouth. It was probably the last time Taylor was at a loss for words.

If he spent his entire career just playing and writing, he would be an important figure in jazz and American music. Taylor was a protégé of the virtuoso pianist Art Tatum, and he spent his formative years working the clubs along 52nd Street with Ben Webster, Eddie South, Charlie Parker and many others during the transition between swing and be-bop.

But Billy Taylor had a second, possibly even more important career as jazz ambassador, helping to popularize jazz for the mass media audience. He was the musical director of a ground-breaking 1958 television series called The Subject Is Jazz. On numerous episodes (clips available on YouTube), he explained in a clear, articulate way how jazz musicians improvise, and by doing so he de-mystified the art form and taught America what to listen for. It was a role that he continued during his time as radio host in New York City, music director for the David Frost television show and arts correspondent for CBS Sunday Morning. In more recent years, Taylor served as Artistic Advisor in Jazz for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Arts.

Portrait of Billy Taylor (William P. Gottlieb Collection, Music Division)

Billy Taylor’s collection came to the Library in 2001. It is a deep, rich collection for scholars, musicians and fans, and it includes sheet music (1535 items), writings (845), business papers, correspondence, photographs and sound recordings. Among the many treasures in this collection is a holograph manuscript score for strings of his most famous composition, the 1954 civil rights anthem “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free”.

Billy Taylor died of a heart attack on Tuesday Dec. 28. He was 89.

4 Comments

  1. Phil N
    December 30, 2010 at 2:15 pm

    A very nice obit. I saw Dr. Taylor once, about 20 years ago–I remember thinking what a beautiful pianist and human being. He witnessed tremendous changes in jazz and seemed open to it all.

  2. Wallace X. Conway Sr.
    December 30, 2010 at 6:05 pm

    Currently I am a 90 year old museum curator and childhood friend of the man I knew as Billy Taylor. Our families, particularly Billy’s mother and my mother were close friends. His brother Rudolph, Billy, and I often spent summers together at Colton, MD, at my family’s summer cottage. My father and mother were classmates of Duke Ellington, opening the way for my early introduction to jazz, while Billy was beginning lessons in piano. We attended different high schools, he at Dunbar, I at Armstrong, and different colleges as well. Billy attended Virginia State while I attended Miner Teacher’s College. I developed into a jazz aficionado and avid record collector following in my father’s footsteps. As my father collected Ellington, I collected Billy Taylor. As mentioned I am Billy’s senior by one year. After following his performing career so closely; his jazz mobile in Harlem, his lectures, one of which I attended at Princeton University, in which he extolled the musical virtues of Oscar Peterson and Errol Garner; his passing has saddened me deeply. He was truly a great talent.

  3. Lisa W
    January 3, 2011 at 5:18 am

    Dr. Taylor was a class act! He will be greatly missed in the music world! Proud that you were part of the Trojan Nation at Virginia State University! Peace & Blessings!

  4. Mike Turpin
    January 4, 2011 at 12:06 pm

    Very nice obit Larry…I love the photos.

    I was very saddened to hear of Billy Taylor’s passing. I have several fond memories of Dr. Taylor: first, meeting him when I was a student at UMass, Amherst, where he earned his Doctorate. This was in the mid-’70’s and the great drummer Max Roach was on the faculty. They teamed up for a concert one night and it was one of the most exciting jazz performances I can recall. I was also a huge fan of the NPR series “Jazz Alive”, which Taylor hosted for several years. Finally, Larry and I had the pleasure of working with Dr. Taylor here at the Library when he hosted a special radio program on Duke Ellington. This was in the early ’90’s when the Library got the Valburn collection of Ellington recordings.

    Billy Taylor was a great artist and ambassador for the music we call jazz. He was also a very kind and gentle man who will be greatly missed.

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