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.
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.