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Remembering Jazz 'Ambassador' Dr. Billy Taylor


FILE- In this May 27, 1974 file photo, Ella Fitzgerald, left, and jazz pianist Billy Taylor talk during funeral services for Duke Ellington at St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York

FILE- In this May 27, 1974 file photo, Ella Fitzgerald, left, and jazz pianist Billy Taylor talk during funeral services for Duke Ellington at St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York

Jazz pianist, composer, arranger, and educator Dr. Billy Taylor died of heart failure December 28 in New York City. He was 89. Dr. Taylor was also an author, lecturer, radio and television commentator, and an international ambassador of jazz.

When he wasn't presenting lectures or producing jazz programs on network television, Billy Taylor spent his free time composing and performing jazz. He appeared on more than 40 recordings, mostly with trios and quartets. He was 67 years old when he released his first album on his own label, Taylor-Made.

Billy Taylor was born in Greenville, North Carolina on July 21, 1921. He began taking piano lessons from one of his uncles at age seven. Two of his greatest influences were jazz pianists Fats Waller and Art Tatum. But, Taylor once said it was a little-known musician who had the most impact on his music.
Duke Ellington, left, and jazz pianist Billy Taylor shake hands on New York's Jazzmobile during a visit by the Ellington Band to the city's Harlem section in the early 1970s

Duke Ellington, left, and jazz pianist Billy Taylor shake hands on New York's Jazzmobile during a visit by the Ellington Band to the city's Harlem section in the early 1970s

"There was a man named Henry Grant, who was a confidante of Duke Ellington, who was a wonderful pianist and composer who opened the door for me, in terms of understanding the similarities between the impressionistic school of music and some of the things that Duke Ellington and other jazz musicians were doing," Taylor said.

Billy Taylor earned a degree in music from Virginia State College in 1942. Two years later, he moved to New York City and landed a job with the house band at the famed Birdland nightclub. He played piano there until 1951 when he formed the Billy Taylor Trio. Members of his trio included bassists Charles Mingus and Oscar Pettiford, as well as drummer Billy Cobham. In 1969, he became the first African American band director for a network television series, "The David Frost Show."

In addition to his work as a composer and performer, Billy Taylor was one of jazz's most dedicated supporters. He founded Jazzmobile, an organization that produces inner-city jazz concerts. He also hosted a weekly jazz program on public radio called "Jazz Alive"; he produced stories on jazz for the television magazine news show "CBS Sunday Morning"; and he was the Artistic Advisor for Jazz at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Taylor explained that his love for jazz came from his expertise on the piano and from performing.

"Everything that I've done stems from those two things; the fact that I love to play the piano and I love to perform for people," he said. "I also like to write music which other people play."

Billy Taylor received "Down Beat" magazine's Lifetime Achievement Award, and he was inducted into the International Association of Jazz Educator's Hall of Fame. He won a Grammy Award, two Peabody Awards, and an Emmy Award for his "CBS Sunday Morning" segment on Quincy Jones. In 1996, he performed in an all-star jazz tribute to his close friend, VOA jazz host Willis Conover.
FILE - In this Nov. 5, 2007 file photo, musician Billy Taylor arrives for the 2007 Library Lions Benefit at the New York Public Library

FILE - In this Nov. 5, 2007 file photo, musician Billy Taylor arrives for the 2007 Library Lions Benefit at the New York Public Library

Billy's gift for teaching earned him a Doctorate in Music Education from the University of Massachusetts. Until his death, he was a visiting professor at numerous American universities. He took an active interest in teaching jazz to younger students. He once remarked that today's school children have fewer opportunities to learn music in the classroom.

They don't get an opportunity to have access to musical instruments as I did when I was in public school," he said. "They don't have enough music teachers because most communities don't realize that the aesthetic part of the human being, the ability to express oneself through the arts is a very important part of growing up."

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