Dr. Billy Taylor, a Jazz pianist, composer, educator and broadcaster who encompassed that rare combination of creativity, intelligence, vision, commitment and leadership, qualities that made him one of our most cherished national treasures, died in New York on December 28, 2010. He was 89 and lived in Riverdale, New York.
The distinguished ambassador of the jazz community to the world-at-large, Dr. Billy Taylor’s recording career spanned over six decades. He also composed over three hundred and fifty songs, as well as works for theatre, dance and symphony orchestras.
Among his most notable works is “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free”, achieving great popularity with Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Nina Simone covered the song in her 1967 album Silk and Soul, and the song continues to be recorded by many artists worldwide, most recently by Levon Helm.
Playing the piano professionally since 1944, he got his start with Ben Webster’s Quartet on New York’s famed 52nd Street. He then served as the house pianist at Birdland, the legendary jazz club where he performed with such celebrated masters as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. Starting in the 1950s, Billy Taylor ked his own Trio, as well as performed with the most influential jazz musicians of the twentieth century.
After many years of recording for leading record labels, in 1989, Taylor started his own “Taylor Made” record label to document his own music, releasing four albums, and in the late 90s, “Soundpost Records,” releasing his two final recordings.
Dr. Taylor was not only been an influential musician, but a highly regarded teacher as well, receiving his Masters and Doctorate in Music Education from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and serving as a Duke Ellington Fellow at Yale University.
He also hosted and programmed such radio stations WLIB and WNEW in New York, and several award winning series for National Public Radio. In the early 1980s, Taylor became the arts correspondent for CBS Sunday Morning.
Dr. Billy Taylor was one of only three jazz musicians appointed to the National Council of the Arts, and also served as the Artistic Advisor for Jazz to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, where he developed one acclaimed concert series after another including the Louis Armstrong Legacy series, and the annual Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival.
With over twenty three honorary doctoral degrees, Dr. Billy Taylor was also the recipient of two Peabody Awards, an Emmy, a Grammy and a host of prestigious and highly coveted prizes, such as the National Medal of Arts, the Tiffany Award, a Lifetime achievement Award from Downbeat Magazine, and, election to the Hall of Fame for the International Association for Jazz Education.
Dr. Taylor’s survivors include his wife, Theodora and his daughter, Kim Taylor-Thompson and son-in-law, Tony Thompson. A son, Duane, passed away in 1988.