By the time Billy Taylor was 29 years old, he had already had a lifetime of jazz experience. By the close of the 1940s, the pianist had played with Ben Webster, Dizzy Gillespie, Don Byas, Big Sid Catlett, Cozy Cole, Stuff Smith and many other jazz giants. He also had been mentored by Jo Jones and Art Tatum. Though his piano style would evolve in the early 1950s and beyond, Billy's technical prowess was already in place by 1947—and his attack on the keyboard was formidable, fluid and downright frightening.
In Part 3 of my conversation with Billy, the legendary pianist talks about becoming Art Tatum's protege, returning from Europe in 1947, playing with Lucky Thompson, forming trios and quartets, having sidemen stolen away by jazz giants, playing with Charlie Parker and strings and becoming Birdland's house pianist:
JazzWax: Did you ever have the urge to stay in Europe, with Don Byas?
Billy Taylor: The thrill of being away was wearing off a bit. By 1947, Don Redman's band had been over there for eight months. Toward the end, my wife wasn’t feeling well so we decided to come home and relax a bit.
JW: What did you do when you arrived back in New York?
BT: I focused more on what Art Tatum and Nat Cole were doing on the piano. Nat was one of the biggest influences on jazz pianists, even in the late 1940s. Most people don’t realize that. They think he was primarily a trio singer and a pop singer. But back then he was a marvelous jazz pianist, and he thought of himself as one. I met Nat briefly around this time. He was playing radio shows in New York. [Photo of Nat King Cole by Eliot Elisofon for Life]
JW: Did Nat hear you play?
BT: No. For me, to hear him play was enough [laughs].
JW: When did you meet Art Tatum?
BT: Back in 1944. Ben Webster introduced me to him. Ben had also introduced me to Duke Ellington. Ben, of course, had been in Duke's band and Duke had great respect for him. When I met Art, he was very friendly and became my mentor. It was a wonderful part of my life.
JW: Drummer Jo Jones also took a liking to you.
BT: Maybe because I looked so young, Jo Jones [pictured] took me under his wing and sort of looked out for me. He had introduced me to everyone on 52nd Street in 1944 and 1945. But he put the word out that I should not be drinking. I think he was afraid that if I'd taken to drink, my playing would suffer. Even though I was older than 21 years old, none of the guys on the Street would ever let me drink anything other than a Coke.
JW: Did you ever just buy a drink yourself?
BT: Yes. But the night I did, Jo spotted me at the bar. I didn't see him, though. He told me this later. Anyway, the next night I had a drink or two and then began my set. While I was playing, I looked up and saw Jo sitting there glaring at me. He had Art Tatum on one side and Teddy Wilson on the other. I knew right away what his point was. I never took another drink after that night.
JW: What did being mentored by Art Tatum mean exactly?
BT: I would go see Art play all the time, and he would show me what he was doing, and we'd spend a lot of time together, especially after his gigs. We were close friends. Art liked what I was doing on the piano. He liked that I had gone to college.
BT: [Laughs] Oh, no. I ran after him. On occasion he'd show me things on the piano. For the most part it was just being together. He was like a father to me. We used to go uptown to Tom Tillman's bar in Harlem. Tom was a friend of Art's. I learned as much from being with Art at Tillman's than in any classroom in the world.
BT: A bunch of pianists would hang out there, and we knew sooner or later someone would come in, sit down at the piano and try to take on Art or show off. Usually he'd sic me or one of the others on the guy. One time this wonderful player from New Jersey came in and played incredible stride piano. Art realized he had to take him on and knew that it was going to be about stride. That was one of the few times I heard Art play pure stride. Art ordinarily played Art Tatum, which was a product of all that he had heard. But this time, he played just stride and gave that guy some lesson [laughs].
JW: What did you learn from Tatum?
BT: Certain harmonic things that he liked to do. Several of these pianists from the 1930s were into harmonic improvisation. Normally you'd sit down and play a song's melody straight through and then improvise on it. Art had an odd way of doing things. He’d improvise before completing the melody. For instance, he’d take a song like Body and Soul and play the first eight bars. Then he'd play the second eight using a harmony line rather than the rest of the song's melody. It's difficult to do, and he did it for fun. Many stride pianists did that. They did it to put each other on.
JW: Given that Art was blind, how did he get to know you?
BT: Touch was important with Art. But remember, Art wasn’t completely blind. He had some sight in one eye. He could play cards. He’d put the cars right up in front of his eyes. And he’d win [laughs].
JW: What do you remember about Art, the person?
BT: Art was an interesting guy. He loved jazz and classical music. He listened to a lot of different things. There was a radio program on at 10 in the morning that featured great classical pianists. I’d bring him home to the hotel in midtown where he stayed after he played all night. Nightclubs closed at 4 am then. By the time we went somewhere to catch a bite or hit an after hours club, it was 8 am. I’d bring him up to his room, and he always wanted to listen to this radio program of solo classical pianists like [Vladimir] Horowitz.
JW: In 1947, you recorded as the leader of a quartet featuring guitarist John Collins, bassist John Levy and drummer Denzil Best. And you sang on two sides.
BT: [Laughs] I wanted to do that. I did the one record as a singer and realized immediately that I wasn't my father. My father had a beautiful voice but I didn’t inherit it, nor did my brother for that matter. I chose the guys for that group because they were my favorite musicians at the time.
JW: The quartet didn't stay together long.
BT: I lost John Collins to Art Tatum. Then he went with Nat Cole. I don’t know why Denzil [pictured] and John Levy left to go with George Shearing. But they did, and they made big names for themselves. In truth, they were both suited for what Shearing needed. They both had a fast, delicate touch. George had a good ear for what he needed.
JW: In 1949 you recorded on a date led by tenor saxophonist Lucky Thompson. Why wasn't he better known?
BT: Like Don Byas, Lucky was terribly underrated. He probably was one of the most unlucky guys I’ve met in my career, considering what he was capable of. You go back and listen and realize how well he played. He took the same kind of thing Don Byas was doing and incorporated bebop and other things.
JW: Why wasn't he better known?
BT: People just didn’t respond to him. It made no sense. He made records. He did personal appearances. Finally he just gave up. Nothing worked. He was just unlucky. Things came to me. I don't know why. They just didn’t come to Lucky. All things considered, as well as he played, as many people who knew him, I don’t know why things didn't work out. He was a nice guy, though. It wasn’t as if he was bitter. [Photo of Lucky Thompson by Herman Leonard]
JW: By 1950, by my ear, your sound starts to change.
BT: I had absorbed Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum, and I had learned how to use many devices from Art, many of which had to do with harmonies. But as a leader, I wanted to add my personality, my touch.
JW: In 1950 you formed a new trio with Aaron Bell and Kelly Martin.
BT: That was a short-lasting trio. Those were two guys I liked very much. Kelly had done a lot of things with Erroll Garner, and Aaron [pictured] had worked with Eddie Wilcox. We were playing at the Hickory House. Duke Ellington used to come in a lot to hear me play. He was friendly with the owner, and the owner liked him to come in, since they shared the same publicist. Duke didn’t eat much steak, which was odd since he was at a steak house. He would just order milk or something. He liked Aaron Bell so much that he took him from me. Aaron made some good records with Duke.
JW: Did you ever get frustrated that sidemen you found were getting snatched away?
BT: [Laughs] Oh, no. I held on to most of them. In those days, the reason I couldn’t hold onto them is I wasn’t traveling. By that time I had a couple of kids and didn’t want to travel. If you were a sideman, that's how you made a living, by going out on the road with a headliner.
JW: In August 1950, you played at a famous Apollo Theater concert with Stan Getz and Charlie Parker.
BT: I remember that concert very well. That summer I got a call from Al Haig [pictured], Bird's pianist. He said, "Can you cover for me? I have a job with Parker but I can't make it. He opens at Birdland." What I didn’t know at the time was that Al was going to leave Bird.
JW: So what happened?
BT: I went in to play behind Bird on what I thought would be the only gig. The next day, when I was at home, I got a call from Birdland asking me to come down. Al didn’t show, and they wanted me to finish the week. Which is how I wound up playing with Bird and strings at the Apollo.
JW: What was that like?
BT: It was the first time Bird played a live concert with strings. He had done two studio dates with them but at the Apollo, it was the first live performance.
JW: Did he enjoy playing with strings?
BT: It wasn’t that Bird liked strings, per se. He wanted to show everyone that audiences would respond favorably to him with that kind of commercial background. But he didn’t play commercially with the strings. He just played Bird. He wanted people to hear that.
JW: How many times did you play with him?
BT: The Apollo performance was so well attended and received that we did two weeks there. Then we went back to Birdland. After hearing me with strings, Monte Kay, Birdland's manager, made me the house pianist.
BT: Absolutely. I got to play with everybody as the house pianist. I also got to stay in one place where people could see me all the time and hear that I could play with everyone, from players to singers. I also was the guy who played for the Birdland All-Stars, a group of four or five guys that the club put together every other week. [Menu cover courtesy of Bird Lives]
JW: What was that Apollo concert like?
BT: It was a funny gig. It was a mistake for Stan to take that band up to Harlem. Many of the guys in that band were on narcotics and were slacking off. But to Stan's credit, he picked a lot of guys who sounded great together. And when that band hit, they were right on the money. I remember Stan and Zoot were strung out, but they played like crazy. The truth is that Tommy Potter and Roy [Haynes] held the band together that afternoon.
JW: How were your interactions with Bird?
BT: Good and friendly. One day he came into Birdland to get some money from the boss. By then I was the house pianist and was practicing my music lesson. I was studying with a wonderful teacher who was helping me with my classical playing. I would take a lesson and wouldn’t go home because I’d be late for the gig if it did. So I went there and practiced my lesson before the club opened. Bird came in and heard me.
JW: What did he say?
BT: He said, "That’s nice, I like that." I said, "It’s Debussy." He said, "I know that." I said, "What do you mean you know that," and laughed, turning back to play. I figured he was just putting me on.
JW: What happened?
BT: Well, Bird went to the back to get his money. When he came out, I was playing Debussy's Arabesque #1 again. Bird took an alto horn off the bandstand and played the line I hadn't played yet. I was blown away.
JW: Did you ever have a full conversation with him?
BT: When I was working on 52nd Street years earlier, I had come into a club to hear Art Tatum. I was waiting for Art to show up, and Bird was there. We struck up a conversation. We talked about music, and it was such an interesting talk. Of course, I had met him with Dizzy many years earlier when they were with Earl Hines. So I knew who he was and had heard him play on the Street. That was the only time we had that kind of a conversation. There weren’t a lot of people there. We were talking about music and whatever came into our minds. I never had another conversation like that with him again. I never knew why I couldn’t stimulate that in him again. [Film still courtesy of Bird Lives]
JazzWax tracks: Don't listen to Billy. He actually had quite a nice singing voice. You can hear it on Billy Taylor: 1945-1949. If you go here, you can sample I Don't Ask Questions, I Just Have Fun and So You Think You're Cute. That's Billy singing. You can hear Billy with Aaron Bell and Kelly Martin on Billy Taylor: 1950-1952 here. The portion of the 1950 Apollo Theater concert with Stan Getz and His Orchestra featuring Billy on piano are the last two tracks on a CD called Stan Getz: The Vancouver Concert 1965 here. CDs featuring Charlie Parker's portion of the concert with strings are out of print.
JazzWax clip: Wish you could go back and hear Billy together with his first employer, Ben Webster? Here's the next best thing: Billy and Ben in April 1958 on NBC's The Subject Is Jazz: Swing. Dig the musical love these two shared. Listen carefully. They're swinging on the exact same page...