An Appreciation of Billy Taylor, Jazz Renaissance Man

For more than 60 years, Billy Taylor was a standard-bearer of modern jazz piano. But he will be remembered as much for his roles as an educator, broadcaster and institution builder -- and, in one special case, a neighbor.

Evan Agostini/Getty Images
Evan Agostini/Getty Images

Dr. Billy Taylor exited the stage of life on Dec. 28, but his legacy as a jazz Renaissance man will most certainly live on. He was perhaps the foremost jazz educator of the past 50 years, sharing the gospel of jazz not only in books and classrooms, but also with millions of people as a radio and television broadcaster and worldwide ambassador of the music. The Grammy Award winner also founded several institutions dedicated to the preservation and continuation of jazz, which he famously called “America’s classical music.”

Taylor launched Jazzmobile in 1964 because, as he once told me, “There was a time when they were not doing what they should do with education in schools. We thought that was a problem. And we also found that many of the people who were a part of our audience couldn’t afford it. So we decided to give free concerts in neighborhoods, and it worked.”

Taylor was a correspondent on CBS Sunday Morning, where he would regularly interview jazz musicians young and old. He conducted an estimated 250 interviews for that program over 20 years, and won an Emmy award in 1983 for a profile of Quincy Jones.

Taylor was a popular jazz DJ on WLIB and WNEW in the 1960s and, before that, musical director of the very first television series on jazz, The Subject Is Jazz. In this excerpt from 1958, he explains and demonstrates improvisation and composition approaches used in the jazz idiom. In this one, he plays with Duke Ellington Orchestra saxophonist Ben Webster.

“Billy Taylor’s yeoman service and devotion to jazz will be hard to replace,” tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins told The Root. “He may be irreplaceable.”

Taylor’s seeming ease in explaining jazz to laypeople and musicians alike came from his warm personality, deep education and secure upbringing. Born in Greenville, N.C., he grew up in Washington, D.C., in the bosom of black American culture expressed in his family and felt in his environs. His mother was a schoolteacher, an early example that he followed over the course of his life.

“Washington, D.C. … was segregated, a very closed society, and yet I had everything there I needed,” he told an interviewer for the NEA Jazz Masters program in 2007. “I had wonderfully trained classical musicians, who played the classical repertoire in church. I lived two blocks from Howard University and so I heard really first-rate artists when I was a kid.” His father, a dentist, had a beautiful singing voice, and the paternal side of his family was filled with musical talent. His father made sure he took music lessons, and his uncle Bob, a ragtime piano player, gave him records by Art Tatum and Fats Waller.

After hearing those piano virtuosos, Taylor was hooked.