Starting in 1952, Billy Taylor emerged as the progenitor of a new, more elegant style of jazz piano. After forming a critically acclaimed trio, Billy quickly became known for his musical grace and good taste. In some respects, Billy never forgot his fortuitous encounter with Ben Webster at Minton's in 1944. He also was forever indebted to the piano masters of the 1930s and 1940s who took him under their wings. [Photo: Hank O'Neal]
Billy's technique was so remarkable by the mid-1950s that he could effortlessly channel the piano styles of Jelly Roll Morton, Willie "the Lion" Smith, Earl "Fatha" Hines, Duke Ellington, Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum. Or he could shuffle them all together with his own phrasing and emerge with a sound all his own. In this regard, Billy became the trustee of a generational flame, a vital link to past traditions that were flickering by the 1960s.
In Part 5 of my interview series with Billy, the legendary pianist talks about Jackie Paris, Harry Belafonte, Candido, Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, Gerry Mulligan, Creed Taylor and the inspiration for his best-known composition, I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free:
JazzWax: You played on the famed Jackie Paris Skylark session in 1953 for Brunswick Records.
Billy Taylor: Jackie was one of those singers who faded out of site after we were on 52nd Street together in the 1940s. I never could understand why he didn't make it. He sang so well on the Street. I guess he couldn’t get off 52nd St. in terms of his vocal style and mindset. There were a lot of musicians around then on the Street who sang well. Everyone expected more of Jackie.
JW: What made Jackie Paris exceptional?
BT: He had a hip, cool sound that was fresh. He was a good ballad singer, and he could play guitar while he sang. Most of all, he had great time, and you felt that immediately. Maybe his problem was his personality. I don’t know. I didn't catch a personality problem. We played often together. I played with a lot of singers during the early 1950s.
JW: Did you play with Harry Belafonte?
BT: Yes, I played for him at Birdland. Harry originally wanted to sing jazz until they shifted him into pop and the West Indian tunes that made him a star. He wanted to go in that direction. He was really an actor who wanted to combine all of that stuff. He was a good singer.
JW: Increasingly, you became in-demand as an accompanist for vocalists.
BT: I enjoyed accompanying singers in those days, trying to make the vocalist sound good. I took a lot of pride in that. My job was to make whoever was out front sound so good that they'd get an encore.
JW: In 1952 you formed your great trio with Earl May on bass and Charlie Smith on drums.
BT: That was one of the best trios I ever led. It was my first real trio. Earl May stayed with me for 12 years. I wish Charlie Smith could have stayed, too. But he couldn't hold his whiskey and soon went on to do other things. By 1954 I replaced hm with Percy Brice.
JW: It was a new sound for you, too. There was more of a mood in your playing.
BT: I had listened to all of the great pianists. I learned from Art Tatum and assimilated many different things from different players. I was able to use all of it at will.
JW: How good were the guys in your trio?
BT: Before we played our Town Hall concert in December 1954. I had added a new song, Theodora, to the program. The song was named after my wife. We were going to play it at Town Hall. The problem was that by the day we were scheduled to appear, I still hadn't written it [laughs].
JW: What did you do?
BT: I ran everyone out and wrote it. I played it once for Earl May before the concert, but he didn't have time to truly learn it. On stage, he was nine feet away, yet he heard what I was playing and responded to it. He and Percy sounded great. That's how intuitive each of us was.
JW: The sound was sensitive and assertive.
BT: At this point, all of the things I had been working on had come to a head. I was in command, and we had come together as a group. That was the beginning of my experience as a leader. I knew what I wanted to do and how to pull the other guys into my frame of mind. That's what a leader does.
JW: But there was a new level of grace and smoothness in your playing.
BT: When I sit down at the piano, in my mind I'm out to play elegantly and to swing. All of my mentors did this—playing the way they were thinking. The way you look and feel is the way you sound. I tried to live up to that.
JW: How did you develop that new sound?
BT: Friends used to come into Birdland and in between sets they'd tell me they were bringing their girlfriends in the next night and asked if I could play some romantic ballads to help get things going [laughs].
JW: In 1954 you recorded with Candido Camero and kicked off a new jazz-Latin combo sound.
BT: I had been playing quite a bit with Latin players for a couple of years. I had played with Machito and Mario Bauza and recorded with guys like Jose Mangual, Frank Colon and Manny Oquendo in my groups. But the sound hadn't caught on yet. Maybe because the Latin artists who played with me had always been used as background percussionists. With Candido, we were musical partners, which is what listeners responded to.
JW: How did you meet Candido?
BT: Dizzy brought him into Le Down Beat one day and asked me to listen to him. Dizzy wanted to hear how he was playing at the time. I think Dizzy wanted to see how he'd work in his band.
JW: What did you say?
BT: I said, "But Dizzy, I already have a drummer.” Dizzy said, “No, no, he plays the conga drum.” So this guy comes up on stage with not one but two conga drums. From the moment Candido started playing, Monte Kay [Birdland's manager] shouted out, “You’re hired.” Dizzy wanted me to audition him for his band but lost him to my group [laughs]. Dizzy brought him to the wrong place for an audition [laughs].
JW: Soon afterward, you recorded Billy Taylor Trio with Candido for Prestige Records. It still sounds great.
BT: After he was hired, Candido worked with me for the next six months. I was delighted to have someone of his stature playing with me. The thing that he brought to jazz was the excitement. The Latin beat is a very different thing. It wasn’t until I had played with Machito that I realized it’s like clapping your hands on the wrong beat.
JW: Did you ever feel you and Oscar Peterson were in competition?
BT: I had heard about Oscar in the mid-1940s but never met him early on. He was an interesting player. When I first heard him in Canada, he was playing boogie-woogie. In the late 1940s, when I heard what he was doing as a member of Jazz at the Philharmonic, I realized he really got it together listening to Art Tatum.
JW: Was there a rivalry or envy?
BT: Among us? No. For me, I had no reason to be envious of other piano players. I had already been Art Tatum's protégé. So it didn’t bother me what other guys were doing or thought after that. Of course, I listened to guys who were coming along behind me, like Oscar Peterson, and watched them grow. Oscar literally took the Art Tatum thing to another level.
JW: Having been as close as you were to Art Tatum, that experience must have been quite a confidence builder.
BT: It was. It’s an amazing thing to have in your heart. You don’t know how many times that came to me. Art liked what I did, so to hell with you! [laughs] After Art, it didn’t matter what anyone thought.
JW: In January 1957, you recorded My Fair Lady Loves Jazz. Despite its seemingly commercial theme, it's one of the best interpretations of this musical.
BT: That was Creed Taylor's [pictured] idea. He was at ABC Paramount at the time. He came to me and said he wanted to do a Broadway-themed album. He said there was a show called My Fair Lady that was very popular. It had been running on Broadway for a year, since 1956. The jazz album that Creed had in mind would celebrate the show's first anniversary.
JW: What did you say?
BT: I said, "But Creed, jazz musicians have already recorded this music.” Creed said he knew but wanted to come at it from a different direction. Then he asked if I had a dream arranger in mind for the date. So I shot for the moon. I said, "I’d like Quincy Jones." I had recorded with Quincy several times and knew how special he was. The next thing I know, Creed had Quincy on board. Creed was something [laughs].
JW: Looking back, what do you think of the album?
BT: It's one of the best albums I ever recorded. Quincy did all the arranging and I was featured on piano. Quincy brought in Jimmy Cleveland, Jimmy Buffington, Tony Ortega, Don Elliott, Ernie Royal and all of the other great guys on the date.
JW: Why was baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan on some tracks and Charlie Fowlkes on others?
BT: Gerry and I had been hanging out during that period. We were good friends. Gerry had come out to Rudy Van Gelder's studio in New Jersey with me to watch me record. At one point, Charlie Fowlkes, who was on the date, had to leave to catch a bus back to Manhattan.
JW: What did you do?
BT: I said, "OK, we’ll have to close it off for the day.” Gerry was sitting there and said, “Wait, you guys are just hitting your groove. I’ll play.” So Gerry sat in and played on Show Me, The Rain in Spain, I Could Have Danced All Night and Get Me to the Church on Time. And he was fantastic.
JW: What was Gerry like as a person?
BT: It’s a funny thing. I knew Gerry for a long time, since he was with Elliot Lawrence's band in the early 1950s. As was the case with Charlie Mingus, Gerry and I argued for fun all the time. His wife and my wife were faced with the same problem. Whenever Gerry and I would talk on the phone, we'd wind up arguing. Each of our wives would come over to us on separate ends and say, "Who in heavens' name are you talking to?" Gerry would tell his wife, and I'd tell mine. Then they'd each say, "Oh, OK," and turn and go about their business [laughs]. They were so used to it that they knew well enough to leave us alone [laughs].
JW: In November 1957 you recorded Taylor Made Jazz, one of your finest albums with all original material.
BT: I was in Chicago at the time with my trio at the time—bassist Earl May and Ed Thigpen on drums. It just so happened that the Ellington band was in town at the same time. So I was asked by Argo Records to make that record with some of the Duke's musicians. But I was under contract to ABC Paramount at the time. I told Argo I couldn't do the date under my own name. But I suggested they call it Earl May and Ed Thigpen Play the Music of Billy Taylor to give them credit.
JW: Did the label go for it?
BT: They said they understood the problem. We went ahead and recorded, but instead of releasing it under my suggested title, the label held up the album's release for a couple of years until my contract with ABC expired. Then they released it under my name. That was a drag.
JW: Songs like Mood for Mendes are incredible.
BT: Thank you. I wrote that for Jim Mendes, the disc jockey. He wound up using it as his theme song. In fact, many of those songs were written for radio disk jockeys. Biddy's Beat was for a deejay in Baltimore named Biddy. Daddy-O was for Daddy O Daly a deejay in Chicago. Tune for Tex was for Tex Gathing in Washington, D.C.
JW: How did the date come together?
BT: I had to do it in a hurry because I wasn’t sure I could get Johnny Hodges. To have Johnny play solo on four of my tunes was an incredible treat, especially Theodora. He played them all so beautifully.
JW: What else was special about the date?
BT: It was the first time Clark Terry played flugelhorn on a record date. I know this because the guy who was living with him arrived in between tracks. He had a box and insisted he be allowed to see Clark. When he came into the studio, Clark took the box and opened it. Inside was a flugelhorn that had just arrived at his home that day. Clark took out the horn and played it on Cu-Blu on my record.
JW: How easy was the session?
BT: Very. I’ve always been a big Ellington fan. To be able to use a good chunk of that band was fantastic. Hodges read through one song after the next. After each song I asked him if he wanted a re-take. He said, "No, that's OK." What most people don't realize is that Johnny covered those all in one take. And Harry Carney had such a big sound on there. Of all of the baritone players that were around then, Harry was unique.
JW: How long did it take to write I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free in the mid-1960s?
BT: That song took about 15 minutes to write and a year and a co-writer to finish. Nina Simone's recording was the first and the best one ever done. She really got it.
JW: How did you come up with the melody so quickly?
BT: My daughter Kim came home from school one day singing a spiritual. But she didn’t really know what it was and didn't have the proper feel behind it.
JW: What did you say?
BT: I said, "Kim, this is a part of your heritage. You can’t be singing a spiritual like that. You have to have more feeling." I sat down at the piano and said, "The spiritual is so much a part of our tradition that I can sit here and make one up on the spot. This is the feeling you need to have.”
JW: What did you play?
BT: I made up a little ditty. Then I asked if she understood. She said, "Yes, Daddy," and went back to playing with her dolls. After she went back to her room, I got to thinking, "Hey, this isn’t a bad little tune." So I wrote it down. Spirituals suggest things about who we are and what we’re about and what we long for.
JW: Where did the title come from?
BT: From the melody. I think lyrically when I compose. I came up with the title after I wrote it down. I thought, this is what this song is all about.
JW: What about the year and a half part?
BT: I struggled with the lyrics. I called Dick Dallas, a young man I had been writing music with in those days. My words weren't saying what I wanted the song to say. Dick helped me finish the lyrics. I was so delighted by the song's reception. I’m awed by that.
JW: You almost defy what people think about jazz musicians.
BT: What do you mean?
JW: Jazz musicians by nature are introspective. Many carry a great deal of friction and intensity. It's part of their creative DNA. You’re open, friendly and rather easy-going.
BT: I was brought up like that, I guess. It’s nothing that I learned. It seemed a natural thing to do. I was always focused on giving things my best shot. Back in the early days when I was learning to play, musicians were very kind and generous with me. I feel I have to pass that on.
JazzWax tracks: Billy's 1952-1955 trio recordings can be found on two superb Prestige CDs: Billy Taylor Trio here and Billy Taylor Trio with Earl May and Percy Brice here, which includes the trio's Town Hall concert. Billy's 1954 recording with Candido, The Billy Taylor Trio with Candido, can be found here.
Taylor Made Jazz, Billy's 1957 album of original compositions arranged by Johnny Pate with members of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, is notoriously difficult to find. And pricy when you do locate it. The CD seems to be available here, but you should verify first.
I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free is also out of print. But you can see what it looks like here to begin your online search.
JazzWax clip: Here's Billy and Candido reviving their 1954 classic recording of Mambo Inn in 1998 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C....