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.
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.