Dr. Billy Taylor, (Born July 24, 1921, Greenville, NC; died December 28, 2010, New York, NY) was the distinguished ambassador from the world of jazz to the world at large, served as the Kennedy Center's Artistic Director for Jazz since 1994. Ongoing concert series that Dr. Taylor developed for the Center include the "Art Tatum Piano Panorama" named after Dr. Taylor's mentor, and "Louis Armstrong Legacy Vocalists." With the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival in 1996, now an annual event that celebrated its 15th anniversary in 2010, Dr. Billy Taylor created the first comprehensive festival of this kind to be presented by a national arts organization. In 2002 he created the KC Jazz Club where artists are presented in an intimate club atmosphere, and developed the Discovery Artists series for rising stars on the jazz scene. His own "Billy Taylor's Jazz at the Kennedy Center," a series of sessions with a variety of well known and rising guest artists who performed and engaged in musical discussion with audience members, featured Dr. Taylor as host and pianist, with the members of his Trio backing the artists. These live sessions were produced and recorded by the Center and National Public Radio for later release to NPR member stations, and they formed the basis of an eight-year series of radio programs that were broadcast throughout the United States. The format was inspired by Dr. Taylor's "Jazz Models and Mentors" series at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, when, over 25 years ago, Dr. Taylor began to play a little and talk a little with jazz artists. The Billy Taylor Trio inaugurated the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage on March 1, 1997, giving the first of the daily 6 P.M. free programs that have since become one of the leading destinations for tourists and Washington area residents alike. In October 2001 the Library of Congress presented the Billy Taylor Trio and the Juilliard String Quartet in a special concert, in celebration of Dr. Taylor's gift of his jazz collection and memorabilia on his 80th birthday. The collection, assembled by Dr. Taylor over more than 65 years, is the largest and most inclusive jazz archive ever acquired by the Library. The Kennedy Center celebrated Dr. Taylor's 80th year on January 20, 2002, with an all-star celebration in the Eisenhower Theater.
Billy Taylor was born in Greenville, North Carolina, in 1921. His musical education began seven years later in Washington, D.C. where he began studying music with Elmira Streets and soaked up the jazz in clubs along U St. At age 15 he enrolled as a sociology major at Virginia State University and graduated in 1942. In 1944 he moved to New York City where he made his first professional jazz appearance was with Ben Webster. Throughout the 1940s, Billy Taylor played with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Machito, Coleman Hawkins, Eddie South, Stuff Smith, and Slam Stewart. As the house pianist at Birdland (1949-1951) he supported many of that era's jazz standouts, including Dizzy Gillespie. Since then he has performed predominantly as the leader of his own trios, which have, over the years, featured such great supporting players as Ed Thigpen, Earl May, Oscar Pettiford, Art Blakey, Charles Mingus, Jo Jones, Victor Gaskin, Freddie Waits, and most recently Chip Jackson and Winard Harper.
In 1958 he was named Musical Director of the first television series ever produced about jazz, The Subject Is Jazz, on NBC. He has hosted and programmed such radio stations as WLIB and WNEW in New York. In the early 1970's, Dr. Taylor was named Musical Director for the popular daily television program, The David Frost Show. Dr. Billy Taylor brought his passion and accomplishments to CBS Sunday Morning in 1981 and over the course of the next two decades, contributed over 250 features to the program.
An astute observer and contributor to jazz, Dr. Taylor wrote many works on various jazz-related subjects. In the late 1940s he published the first book ever written on bebop piano and has since written more than a dozen other books, including Jazz Piano: A Jazz History (MacGraw-Hill), and numerous articles and feature stories. He has some 300 songs to his credit as well. His song "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free" was featured as the theme over the opening and closing credits on the film Ghosts of Mississippi and has been covered by a number of artists, including Nina Simone. He has successfully combined jazz with classical music in works commissioned by the Kennedy Center for the National Symphony Orchestra ("Theme and Variations"); by the Krannert Center for Performing Arts at the University of Illinois (David Parson's Dance Company's "Step into My Dream"); and by Robert Shaw for the Atlanta Symphony ("Peaceful Warrior"). He has also created music for dance, including a work by choreographer Trisha Brown (2000). Dr. Taylor is one of six distinguished recipients of the Doris Duke Millennium Award for Modern Dance and Jazz Music whose creations celebrated the dawning of the new century. His Grammy-nominated composition, "Homage," was commissioned by and written for the 100th anniversary of the City of Madison, Wisconsin. The Center for Research in Black Culture designated Dr. Taylor as one of the top 100 Black New Yorkers of the 20th Century, which honored those whose contributions have had a major, long term impact on the life of the city. Other honorees include Colin Powell, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Louis Armstrong, Quincy Jones, Maya Angelou, and Duke Ellington.
Dr. Taylor is considered to be the foremost jazz educator of our time. In 1964, Billy Taylor made a major contribution in bringing jazz back to the community when he founded, with Daphne Arnstein, Jazzmobile-a unique outreach organization which produces summer outdoor concerts, conducts workshops and clinics; sponsors lectures/demonstrations and artists residencies in public schools; and develops special programs for disadvantaged youth in inner cities. From programs focusing on young people and adults to master classes and seminars for professionals, he has provided insight, information, and a deep appreciation for jazz music to many people. He earned his doctorate from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where, as a faculty member, he held the position of Wilber D. Barrett Chair of Music. He was also a Duke Ellington Fellow at Yale University and holds an additional 22 honorary degrees. Dr. Taylor received an Emmy Award for his segment on Quincy Jones on CBS News Sunday Morning and was the recipient of two Peabody Awards. In 1988, the National Endowment for the Arts named Dr. Billy Taylor an NEA Jazz Master. In 1992, he received the U. S. government's highest honor bestowed to artists, the National Medal of Arts, presented by President George H. W. Bush. He received the Grammy Trustees Award, which recognizes outstanding achievement in a non-performing capacity, in February 2005. In January 2006, Dr. Billy Taylor became the first jazz musician to receive the Richard J. Bogomolny National Service Award from Chamber Music America. During the Center's JAZZ IN OUR TIME Opening Night Gala on March 3, 2007, he received the Kennedy Center's "Living Jazz Legend" Award with a number of other distinguished jazz musicians.
The 1990s saw a renaissance of his recordings. His recent CDs include Music Keeps Us Young (featuring his trio), the solo album Ten Fingers-One Voice, and Urban Griot. With close to 50 recordings as a leader, Dr. Taylor began the new millennium with his stylish and masterful playing intact and his style as fresh as ever. In 2005, he decided to dedicate the remainder of his career to advocacy for the music that he loved by imparting his vast knowledge and wisdom to the thousands of young musicians who follow in his footsteps. On March 31, 2005, the Kennedy Center released Taylor Made at the Kennedy Center-a compilation CD focusing on Billy Taylor's original compositions, performed by the Billy Taylor Trio and other artists at the Kennedy Center such as Dee Dee Bridgewater, Arturo Sandoval, Stefon Harris, and more.
Dr. Billy Taylor died on December 28, 2010 in New York City. He is survived by his wife Theodora, his daughter Kim Taylor-Thompson, his son-in law Anthony Thompson, and his brother Rudy.
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CD-Taylor Made At the Kennedy Center
This Kennedy Center Jazz Recordings compact disc "Taylor Made at the Kennedy Center" exclusively features music composed by pianist and composer Dr. B...