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Because 2010 was determined not to end without another dramatic moment for DC jazz, our fair city has been hit with yet one more catastrophe. Dr. Billy Taylor, legendary jazz pianist, composer, patron, and educator, passed away on Tuesday of a heart attack. He was 89 years old.
In 2009, I nominated Taylor for Washington City Paper’s “Second Best Washington Jazz Musician,” after Duke Ellington —- that alone should illustrate his accomplishment. Unlike Ellington, however, Taylor wasn’t born in DC. He’s a native of Greenville, North Carolina, though he moved here when he was five years old. “Everything I learned about music when I was young, I learned in Washington,” he said. It was an odyssey that started in his own living room, where his uncle would play stride piano, and took him to jazz joints like the Howard Theater and Crystal Caverns, as well as to the Duke’s old stomping grounds and even his former teachers. It also took him to heights all his own: Beginning his career in Ben Webster’s band, by the late ’40s he was taking on bebop —- eventually becoming house pianist at a new club called Birdland. Taylor was also a great composer, most famous for the gospel-steeped civil rights anthem “I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel to Be Free),” which he wrote in 1954. The tune has since become a standard.
But he didn’t stop there. Taylor became one of the pioneer broadcasters in the jazz world, starting as the musical director of the first jazz-based TV program, NBC’s The Subject Is Jazz, and moving on to become a major radio personality on WNEW in New York and National Public Radio (with the programs Taylor Made Piano, Jazz Alive, and Billy Taylor’s Jazz At The Kennedy Center). He was also the jazz correspondent for television’s CBS Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt throughout the 1980s. Of far greater legacy, however, are his efforts as a jazz advocate and educator. Taylor founded Jazzmobile, one of America’s first and greatest jazz outreach programs; performed behind the Iron Curtain as an American cultural ambassador; taught at both Yale University and East Carolina University; and, most recently, spent 16 years as the Artistic Director for jazz at the Kennedy Center, making him an extremely familiar face in Washington’s jazz circles.
The loss is huge, as you might expect, but it has a personal resonance. I interviewed Dr. Taylor in 2009 for the piece linked above, one of the high points of my career; he loved to tell stories, was witty and warm, and loved to name-drop and slyly promote himself. He also grew up in my neighborhood (Columbia Heights) and had invited me to call him again someday and talk about the musical history of the area. I never got the chance. Well, Dr. Billy, the story was always you anyway.