At the start of 1950, Billy Taylor was established as one of the most promising and intimidating young pianists on the New York jazz scene. Deceptively affable, the pianist with the big smile and bookish charm could play flawlessly in any style and made the impossible look easy. Rock-solid dependable, Billy was rapidly becoming a first-call player at clubs, concerts and recording sessions. The more Billy played, the greater his visibility. The greater his visibility, the harder he worked to further develop a new sound on the piano that would stand out. [Photo by Marcel Fleiss]
Billy's sound was his own. To be sure, the influences of his mentors were unmistakable. There were shades of Art Tatum's lightning runs, Teddy Wilson's clarity and grace, and Duke Ellington's confident chord phrasing. But there was a new, cooler swing sound emerging. Whether leading a small group or playing behind stars at Birdland, Billy could always be counted on to push hard and motivate everyone on the bandstand.
In Part 4 of my interview series with Billy, the legendary pianist talks about Artie Shaw, John Coltrane, Milt Jackson, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Zoot Sims and why Jo Jones never became a leader the way Art Blakey did:
JazzWax: In the fall of 1950 you recorded briefly with Artie Shaw.
Billy Taylor: Artie was one of the most interesting people I had ever met. He was a very intellectual guy. At this point in his career, he had experienced a great deal of disappointment. He had brought an excellent group to Iceland, a club located across from Birdland. The band was huge and played a cross between classical and jazz. He thought that club would be the perfect place. [Photo of Artie Shaw in 1949 with orchestra at Bop City by Martha Holmes for Life]
JW: How did it turn out?
BT: Artie wound up disappointed again, because the band wasn’t well received, and it didn’t do that well for the club. He was very frustrated. By the time he called on me to play with him, he was thinking about another Gramercy Five.
JW: Why did he call you?
BT: Because I had a strong quintet at the time—John Collins on guitar, Joe Benjamin on bass and Charlie Smith on drums. Artie was very nice to me. I was in between bebop and a new style I was developing. I was trying to find who I was. A lot of the stuff that I was trying to do was a work in progress. From a jazz perspective, it sounded classic but different.
BT: I think so. The four of us brought something to him that he didn’t have before. But I went back to Birdland to work after Artie decided not to form that group.
JW: Was Artie too old fashioned musically at this point?
BT: Artie was never old fashioned. Even when Artie re-recorded his hits over the years, they never sounded old fashioned or the same. He always gave them a whole new push. He had tried to put together a couple of groups that got some of the bebop things but they weren't long-lasting.
JW: In 1951 you played in a group at Birdland that included Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane.
BT: Dizzy put together groups like that all the time. He'd use people who played with him in the past or up-and-coming talent he liked. Coltrane was quiet. One of the things he talked to me about was Art Tatum. He wanted to know everything about him. He was very excited about Art's technique. "How does he do that," Trane said. "It sounds like a glissando."
JW: What did you tell him?
BT: I told him it was fingering and a glissando together, as one motion, and that Art was fingering that fast. Trane was pretty amazed.
JW: Milt Jackson was in that group, too.
BT: Milt loved to come to Birdland with Dizzy. I was the house pianist, so that meant he could get up from the piano and play the whole night on vibes. Dizzy had a piano-less group, so he'd have Milt [pictured] play piano and vibes. When Milt played vibes, Dizzy would play piano. But at Birdland, I played piano and Milt got to play vibes. Dizzy had a great sense of humor. Milt, too. Milt had funny sayings. Everything was a lark. You enjoyed the gig with Milt. Dizzy and Milt played lines that were fun. The music had a sense of humor.
JW: Bebop at its highest level has a rich sense of humor, doesn't it?
BT: That’s correct. That’s what’s often lacking when most pianists play bebop. They forget the humor and the musical jokes. That's why it was so much fun playing piano at Birdland in the early 1950s. Everyone who came in to play understood the humor aspect. Back in those days, you needed a sense of humor. Even take-charge players like Big Nick Nicholas and Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis didn't take life all that seriously. They were both very funny.
JW: In September 1951, you were at Birdland as the pianist with Miles Davis and His All-Stars. What was Miles like back then?
BT: Miles was strange. I had met him on 52nd St. when he was playing with Bird. He was scuffling with those charts, replacing Diz and stuff like that. It must have been driving him crazy. He really didn’t have the chops for that. He was a nice young man but he was really turned around because he was frustrated. He couldn’t keep up. [Photo: Miles Davis in 1951]
JW: Who could?
BT: There were a lot of guys who could keep up with Bird better than Miles, like Fat Girl [Fats Navarro] and Clifford Brown. Fats drove Miles up the wall. It was years before Miles got to a place where he could stop trying to be Dizzy and focus on his own thing—playing in the middle register. At Birdland he started focusing on it.
JW: Did the frustration affect him?
BT: Miles came on like he had a sour personality, but it was really a cover up for an inferiority complex, I guess. It took a while for him to earn the respect of those he wanted to respect him. There were a lot of records and gigs and hanging out before Miles felt he was accepted. He developed a defense where he’d do things that were outrageous or not acceptable by everybody. That was his way of saying, “I don’t give a damn.”
JW: Was Charles Mingus similar?
BT: Mingus was different. He and I hit it off right away. He played in that Miles Davis All-Stars group at Birdland. I really enjoyed playing with him. Jo Jones was responsible for putting us together in a trio setting. At the time, I was the house pianist at Birdland. Jo came up to me one day and said he had arranged a gig for me the following out of town. He said, "I just came back from Boston. George Wein who owns a nightclub [Storyville] wants you to bring a trio into his club."
JW: What did you say?
BT: I said great, but I can't get away from my job here as the house pianist. Jo said, "Don't worry about it, it's cool. I spoke to Monte [Kay, Birdland's manager], and he said you can have off to play the Boston gig." Jo and Monte were tight, and Jo was a mentor of mine. I told Jo that I needed two guys. Jo said, "Don't worry I have them." The bass player Jo had was Mingus who had just left Red Norvo's trio.
JW: Who was the drummer?
BT: A Boston guy named Marquis Foster. I liked Charles very much. I respected him. But like Miles and many other guys, he had his idiosyncrasies. He was so serious about his music and wanted to be creative like Duke Ellington.
JW: Did you meet in Boston?
BT: No, Charles and I took a train up from New York. We got on the train and argued the entire time. We agreed about many things but there were certain things that we didn’t see eye to eye on. I told him, "Look, I’ve been doing a lot of reading on this and that." By this point I had written a book on bebop. He'd come back just as strong. We were always talking about what could be done on our instruments and what we should be doing in terms of moving the music forward.
BT: He was quite different from anyone I had worked with. He had been listening to the bassists who preceded him. Oscar Pettiford in particular. He wanted to do something along those lines. He wanted to use technique in a different way and become a dominant player, not a sideman. He had developed in his playing a more melodic sound, and played higher up on the bass.
JW: How did this sound against the piano?
BT: I’d play a line with my right hand and he’d play in the same register, not down in the bass clef. Mingus was fast, his mind was always working, and he had the technique to play many things other bassists couldn’t. Eventually, though, his playing was so dominant and off in a new direction that we had to part.
JW: In 1951 you record with Zoot Sims on perhaps his oddest session. Zoot played maraccas?
BT: [Laughs] Zoot was a good friend. I first met him when he played with Sid Catlett out in California. I was with Eddie South. We used to hang out. He just showed up that day and asked if he could play the maraccas. I said, "Hey, why not?"
JW: Jo Jones was your mentor and guardian angel, but you also played quite often with him.
BT: I probably played more with Jo Jones [pictured] and Art Blakey than any other drummers. Jo had a great sense of humor. Jo was one of the elders at that time. He really was taking a lot of young people under his wing and helping all of us play. The same way he convinced me I shouldn’t drink, he helped other musicians with much more serious problems. Jo wasn’t a leader of groups often enough. He would have liked to have been, the way Art Blakey was the leader of the Jazz Messengers.
JW: What prevented him from doing so?
BT: Jo was just more comfortable as an accompanist. I don’t think he wanted the responsibility of leading small groups. He liked to play and he liked to help bands be special. But he backed away from opportunities to be a leader.
JW: Yet Jo had the respect of other musicians.
BT: Absolutely, but he didn’t choose to lead. In many of the groups I played in at Birdland that featured Jo, he was the real leader, even if he wasn't the headliner. He also brought a lot of guys into Birdland. But because he chose to play the role of an accompanist rather than a leader, he was misread.
BT: I remember a date we did with Neal Hefti. One of the tunes was in an odd meter. Hefti was trying to explain to Jo what he had in mind. Jo said to him, "What do you have in mind other than 1, 2, 3, 4, 5?” [laughs]. Neal took him seriously and started telling him how to accent certain notes. Jo said, “Oh really?” Jo was putting him on. I was just a few feet from Jo. After Neal walked away, I asked Jo teasingly, "Why’d you do that?" Jo said, “He knows better than that.” Neal often wanted Jo on sessions because he loved Jo’s time.
JazzWax tracks: The four sides that Billy recorded with Artie Shaw in 1950—Jingle Bells, White Christmas, Autumn Leaves and Where or When—can be found on Artie Shaw: 1950 here. The Birdland appearance by Billy, Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane is on Trane's First Ride: 1951. You can search Google and eBay for this rare CD.
Special treat: Through a bit of research, I found a free way to hear Night in Tunisia from the date, featuring amazing solos by Coltrane, Dizzy and Billy. Listen to Symphony Sid and the band at Birdland here.
Billy with the Miles Davis All-Stars at Birdland can be found on the last three tracks from Miles Davis: Birdland 1951 (Move, The Squirrel and Lady Bird) here. Billy Taylor with Charles Mingus' massive thumping bass and Marquis Foster on drums can be found on the first five tracks from Billy Taylor: 1952-1953 here. Billy with Zoot Sims on maraccas? The tracks (Cuban Caper, Cu-Blue, Squeeze Me, Feeling Free and Cuban Nightingale) are on Billy Taylor: 1950-1952 here.
JazzWax clip: Here's a fascinating video clip with Billy, Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, Don Elliot, Mundell Lowe, Eddie Safranski, and Ed Thigpen playing Godchild on NBC's The Subject Is Jazz, from May 1958. Listen as Billy sifts bop and cool jazz styles in one piano solo...