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Any thought that the Harlem memorial service for Dr. Billy Taylor last night would be a somber, mournful affair was dispelled after the opening prayers at Riverside Church of New York. First, Reverend Calvin O. Butts (from the nearby Abyssinian Baptist Church) delivered the evening’s gathering prayer; then, he said, “One of the things I never got to do in this church or for this great man, Billy Taylor, was to ask the whole congregation to stand up and give this man the ovation he deserves.” The cheers and thunderous applause from the packed house set the tone for the proceedings: This would be a celebration of Taylor’s warmth, his humor, and his music.
It was the warmth and humor that shone through in the tributes and memories that Taylor’s friends and colleagues shared. Loren Schoenberg, director of the National Jazz Museum and Taylor’s longtime neighbor (“Our relationship took on a different cast when we shared a wall,” he joked), spoke of him as “truly the indomitable jazz man,” the bringer of overwhelming positivity. “Negative viewpoints didn’t interest him in the least,” Schoenberg said. “His vision encompassed…above all, the conviction that jazz is good for you.” Kevin Struthers, the director of jazz programming at the Kennedy Center, called Taylor “the gentle giant of jazz” and reminded the crowd of the man’s overwhelming willingness to share the music, whether in his educational efforts or as a broadcaster. “Via the radio, I learned so much about the music at the feet of the master,” he said. “So, too, did millions around the world.” Pianist Ramsey Lewis and Rev. Butts also added charming personal reminiscences.
It was Taylor’s daughter Kim Taylor-Thompson, however, who evoked the ever-present twinkle in Taylor’s eye with her funny stories. “He absolutely loved to tell a joke—-but he couldn’t tell a joke to save his life,” she beamed. “He’d ratchet up the anticipation with the set-up, then forget the punchline, go back and say ‘No, no, that’s not how it goes,” and ruin it. That was Dad.” She even regaled the crowd with the story of how Taylor wrote his signature anthem, “I Wish I Knew How It Feels to Be Free”—-created in 15 minutes—-for her after hearing her incorrectly sing an old spiritual she’d heard in Catholic school. “I actually told him that white nuns knew more about Negro spirituals than he did,” she chuckled. “I was seven.” (She added that Martin Luther King had loved the civil-rights song but could never remember the name of it, always asking for “the Baptist-sounding song.”)
And rest assured, there was music. Taylor’s final working trio, bassist Chip Jackson and drummer Winard Harper, combined with longtime Taylor associates Jimmy Owens (trumpet) and Frank Wess (tenor saxophone, who grew up with Taylor in D.C.) plus pianists Geri Allen and young Christian Sands. They performed crystalline interpretations of Taylor’s most famous compositions, including “Theodora” and “It’s A Grand Night for Swinging.” Sands also provided the closest thing to a tear-jerker with a sweeping, tempestuous solo version of Taylor’s “A Bientot”. The most sublime moment of the night, however, came when vocal great Cassandra Wilson joined the quintet (with Allen at the piano) for a glorious, epic rendition of “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free.” It brought the house down.
This, surely, was precisely the sort of memorial that Taylor himself would have hoped for.
Photo: Tom Marcello