Billy Taylor, a pianist mentored by Art Tatum who could play any jazz style flawlessly and whose graceful keyboard choices were matched only by his ability to communicate the joys of jazz on TV and radio, and in books and classrooms, died in New York on December 28 of a heart attack. He was 89. [Photo by Hank O'Neal]
A jazz giant who eschewed alcohol and drugs, Billy defied the jazz-musician stereotypes found in pulp fiction and film of the 1950s. He was gregarious and courtly, well-spoken and approachable—and oddly devoid of the simmering anger, anti-social behavior, bad habits and hipster persona that made the jazz life at once alluring and dangerous.
In many ways, Billy didn't need the cartoonish trappings that sprang up around jazz starting in the late '40s. A highly trained musician, Billy's benevolent personality made his piano playing look easy—a powerful trait that encouraged those who held golden opportunities to share them with him.
Easy-going and industrious, Billy started his career by accompanying the best jazz artists in New York in the mid-'40s. All saw enormous promise in Billy, and all took him under their wing—buffering him from the legions of nocturnal hangers-on, Runyonesque exploiters and chiseling club owners who peppered the New York jazz scene.
One suspects that many of these seasoned jazz artists saw something of themselves in Billy and went out of their way to keep him from becoming just another flash in the jazz pan. Given the lengths to which these jazz artists went, Billy was viewed by older musicians as jazz's best shot for proving that the music was fine art and not merely background for club conversations.
Billy's talent and sunny disposition often landed him prized spots on stage and in recording studios in the '40s. He also was Birdland's house pianist in the early '50s, where he accompanied virtually every jazz legend who played there—except pianists, of course.
Billy's recording career began in 1944 with violinist Eddie South, and his first leadership date for Savoy came a year later with Al Hall on bass and Jimmy Crawford on drums. The four tracks recorded that day in March 1945 were Mad Monk, Solace, Night and Day and Alexander's Ragtime Band.
The dexterity exhibited on those recordings helped Billy land a plum spot in a 1945 concert at New York's Town Hall that was recorded by Commodore Records. Sessions with major jazz artists followed, and Billy joined Don Redman's band in 1946, becoming one of the first jazz musicians to tour Europe just after World War II.
Upon his return in 1947, Billy formed a quartet that included bassist John Levy, John Collins on guitar and Denzil Best on drums.
I spoke with John Levy [pictured] yesterday about Billy and this group:
"I don’t recall how or when I met Billy. We were all friends, playing gigs together on 52nd Street. We both had accompanied jazz violinists a few years earlier—Billy with Eddie South, and me with Stuff Smith. Denzil and I had worked together with pianists Lannie Scott and Jimmy Jones. And John Collins already was an established guitarist. We were a tight rhythm section—exactly the type that clubs would want to hire.
"We all assumed from the start that we’d be heading out on the road to tour. But it didn’t work out that way. Everyone in the group was moving in different directions at once. Later in '47 I recorded with Lennie Tristano and Billy Bauer. Then Denzil and I went with Billie Holiday in 1948.
"Even back in ‘47, Billy was well respected by everyone. He was a great player from the start, and his educational passion was already showing. He would research everything—who wrote the songs, who had recorded them, how they recorded them and so on.
“Billy was naïve—in a good way. He was an innocent and the classiest musician around. He was strictly educational. He didn’t hang out, and he didn’t hit on women or any of that stuff. He married Teddi and that was it. Everyone loved him.”
Between 1947 and 1950, Taylor performed and recorded with a wide range of leading artists, including Charlie Parker, who requested Billy for his August 1950 concert with strings at the Apollo Theater.
In 1952, Billy formed a working trio with bassist Earl May and drummer Charlie Smith—perhaps his greatest group. During this period, Billy was one of the first trio leaders to integrate Latin jazz into his groups. In 1954, the Billy Taylor Trio recorded with conga player Candido Camero for Prestige.
I spoke with Candido yesterday:
"Billy was a genius, a very nice gentleman and humble. There are not enough words to describe how good he was in every way. Not many people know he played with Machito and His Afro-Cubans in 1946 while Machito was waiting for Rene Hernandez to come to New York from Cuba. Billy had learned the Latin feel early by associating with a lot of Latin musicians and by going to hear Latin music in clubs. He was always good to me. I will miss him." [Pictured: Candido, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker in 1950]
Billy's TV appearances as an "explainer" of jazz's special qualities and importance began in the late 1950s and continued throughout his career. He was the musical director of the David Frost Show in the late '60s and early '70s, and his jazz segments for Charles Kuralt's Sunday Morning on CBS, in which he profiled jazz greats, were always intimate and authoritative. In this regard, Billy probably did more to introduce jazz to new audiences than anyone else before or since.
Last year, after I interviewed Billy, I visited him at his apartment with filmmaker Bret Primack. During our time there, I had a chance to tell Billy that he was responsible for my own interest in jazz. Back in 1968, Billy had visited my junior high school in upper Manhattan with bassist Ben Tucker and drummer Grady Tate. After they performed I Wish I Knew How It Felt to Be Free in the school's auditorium, 45-rpms of the song were handed out to each student. I went home and played the record endlessly, or at least until I heard Young Holt Unlimited's Soulful Strut a year later.
Touched by my comment, Billy went into a closet in his music studio and emerged with a book he had written. It was Jazz Piano: A Jazz History. He opened the flap and wrote something inside and handed it to me, saying "And I mean it." Later, I had a chance to read the inscription: "Dear Marc, Keep on keeping on!!"
While I was writing this post yesterday, Nat Hentoff called and the subject was Billy:
"I think Billy was greatly underappreciated as a jazz pianist," Nat said. "He was always surprising himself. He wasn't a pyrotechnician, but he was always telling his story on the keyboard and finding new ways to be himself."
Those who have had the good fortune to spend time with Billy will not easily forget his wide smile, oversized glasses and melifluous voice. His contributions to jazz are matched only by his vast contribution to jazz appreciation. Billy spread the gospel—gently.
JazzWax notes: You can read my five-part JazzWax interview with Billy Taylor here.
- Billy Taylor Trio (Prestige) here.
- Billy Taylor Trio with Earl May and Percy Brice (Prestige) here.
- Billy Taylor with Candido (Prestige) here.
- Taylor Made Jazz (Argo) here.
- My Fair Lady Loves Jazz (ABC-Paramount) here.
JazzWax clips: Here's Billy Taylor and Candido Camero playing Mambo Inn...
Yes, Billy was an educator and all that. But you don't sit down at a piano with these guys unless you have enormous confidence that you can bring your game. Remember, that's Duke Ellington and Willie "the Lion" Smith: