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Happy Birthday Billy!

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Photograph of Billy Taylor, 2007. Photo credit: Larry Appelbaum.

A deep bow of respect for pianist, composer, bandleader and jazz activist Billy Taylor on what would be his 97th birthday. He was born in North Carolina but grew up in Washington, D.C. and studied with Henry Grant, who taught Duke Ellington a generation before. After moving to New York Taylor began working and recording with Stuff Smith and Ben Webster and was mentored by Art Tatum. Billy worked with Machito’s Orchestra and recorded a series of highly acclaimed recordings as leader. His composition “I Wish I Knew How It Feels to Be Free” captured the passion, pain, and longing of the modern Civil Rights movement in the United States in the early 1960s. Through his many television appearances, Taylor became an internationally recognized spokesman for the music he loved. He finished his illustrious career as Jazz Director for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Taylor was gracious enough to do a “Before & After” piece with me for JazzTimes in 2007.

Music manuscript for Taylor’s “I Wish I Knew How It Feels to Be Free.” Billy Taylor Papers, Music Division, Library of Congress.


The Music Division is home to the Billy Taylor Papers, a collection that offers researchers access to music manuscripts, correspondence, writings, scripts, photographs, and more. The music materials (chiefly consisting of manuscript scores, lead sheets and parts by Taylor and other jazz composers and arrangers) are often studied by musicians and scholars in the Performing Arts Reading Room.

Comments (2)

  1. A true and polished statesman of music, an ambassador who made his mark as an articulate jazz ombudsman and the embodiment of the jazz artist-aficionado.

  2. I had the good fortune in the 1980s to be asked by Billy Taylor to serve on the board of Jazzmobie, Inc., his non-profit arts organization. [Others associated with Jazzmobile at the time included the noted jazz trumpeter, Clark Terry, and jazz drummer, David Bailey.] My Jazzmobile involvement allowed me to get to know Billy Taylor well enough to say, more than thirty years later, that not only was Billy a very talented musical artist and jazz activist, Billy Taylor was the living definition of the word “gracious,” and he is truly missed. Thanks to Larry Appelbaum for today’s profound tribute to this elegant and eloquent spokesman for his musical genre.

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