Dr. Billy Taylor

Millennium Living Legacy Awardee

Black and white photo of Dr. Billy Taylor at the piano.

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Image: Dr. Billy Taylor. Credit: Courtesy of the artist.

Dr. Billy Taylor, performer, composer, writer, and artistic advisor for jazz to The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, received Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation’s Millennium Jazz Award March 9, 2000 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. The award was presented to Dr. Taylor immediately preceding the Newport Jazz® Millennium Celebration at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater.

“Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation is extremely proud to be able to honor Billy Taylor with its Millennium Jazz Award,” said Alan Cooper, Executive Director of the Foundation, “perhaps no other individual in the last 50 years has contributed so much to the art form, to jazz education and to promotion of the jazz legacy worldwide as Dr. Taylor. He is truly deserving of this honor.”

Since 1994 the distinguished ambassador from the world of jazz to the world at large, Dr. Billy Taylor, has served as artistic advisor for jazz to the Kennedy Center. He has developed several concert series that are presented throughout the year, including the Art Tatum Piano Panorama, a series focusing on pianists; the Louis Armstrong Legacy, which highlights vocalists; the annual Mary Lou Williams Women In Jazz Festival held each May; the Beyond Category series, featuring artists whose work transcends the genre and is, in the words of Duke Ellington, “beyond category”; Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead program, which identifies and brings together outstanding young talent; as well as his own Billy Taylor’s Jazz at the Kennedy Center, a series of sessions with Dr. Taylor’s trio and a variety of well-known and rising guest artists who perform and engage in musical discussion with audience members. These sessions are recorded by National Public Radio and edited for later broadcast throughout the United States on many NPR stations. Dr. Taylor began to “play a little, talk a little” 15 years ago at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art with his Jazz Models and Mentors series, which begins its 16th season this fall. It is this format that inspired Billy Taylor’s Jazz at the Kennedy Center.

Born in Greenville, North Carolina, in 1921, Dr. Taylor began his musical education with Henry Grant in Washington, D.C. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in music from Virginia State University in 1942, and soon after set out for New York City. Two days after his arrival, Dr. Taylor was sitting in at Minton’s when Ben Webster heard him and invited him to join his group. Dr. Taylor immersed himself in the music scene, playing with such jazz luminaries as Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, Big Sid Catlett, Slam Stewart, Machito, and Stuff Smith, to name but a few. In 1946 Dr. Taylor traveled to Europe for an eight-month tour with Don Redman’s Orchestra, the first American band to play the continent after World World II. Back in New York, Dr. Taylor began a two-year stint (1949-51) as house pianist at Birdland performing with many of that era’s legends, including Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Charlie Parker. In fact, his first gig at Birdland was with Parker in the live debut performance of Charlie Parker With Strings. Since then Dr. Taylor has performed as leader of his own trios, which over the years have included such players as Charles Mingus, Jo Jones, Ed Thigpen, Oscar Pettiford, Art Blakey, and Earl May. The current incarnation of the Billy Taylor Trio features bassist Chip Jackson and drummer Winard Harper.

In addition to his work as a performer, Dr. Taylor is a prolific writer of and about jazz. He has successfully wed jazz with European classical music in a number of commissioned works and has more than 300 songs to his credit as well. His first major composition for an orchestra, Suite for Jazz Piano and Orchestra, was commissioned by Maurice Abravenal for the Utah Symphony; his dance suite, For Rachel, the result of his collaboration with choreographer Rachel Lampert, was commissioned by the University of New Hampshire. Theme and Variations, commissioned by the Kennedy Center, was performed by the National Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Leonard Slatkin. His Peaceful Warrior, commissioned by Robert Shaw for the Atlanta Symphony, is a work Dr. Taylor wrote and dedicated to the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King. Step Into My Dream, the interactive, trans-media collaboration between choreographer David Parson and Dr. Taylor, was commissioned by the Krannert Center at the University of Illinois and was inspired by Dr. Taylor’s time on the New York jazz scene during the 1940s and ’50s. Dr. Taylor’s most popular composition, I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free, deals with the issue of civil rights. It has been recorded by such artists as Lena Horne, Leontyne Price, Harry Belafonte, and Nina Simone and was featured in the film Ghosts of Mississippi.

Dr. Taylor published the first book ever written about bebop in the late 1940s; since then, he has penned more than a dozen books, articles, and feature stories. His Jazz Piano: A Jazz History is a staple in music libraries across the country. His most recent book, The Billy Taylor Collection, (Hal Leonard/1999) contains transcriptions of Billy Taylor’s solos on standards as well as his originals.

Well known for his work as correspondent for CBS Sunday Morning for the past 19 years, Dr. Taylor has profiled more than 275 artists and continues to shine a light on jazz talent as he begins his 20th year with the program. His career in television actually began in 1958 on the fledgling National Educational Television network (NET), where he served as musical director for the 13-week series The Subject Is Jazz, which featured such guests as Duke Ellington, Willie “The Lion” Smith, Langston Hughes, Bill Evans, and many more. During the early 1960s, Dr. Taylor was tapped by New York radio station WLIB, where he quickly went from “summer fill-in” to permanent disc jockey. He left WLIB for WNEW, becoming the first African-American artist to host a daily program on a major New York radio station. Later that decade, he returned to WLIB as program director, eventually becoming general manager. In 1969 Dr. Taylor was named musical director of The David Frost Show, a post he held until 1972. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, Dr. Taylor continued to host and appear on numerous radio and television programs focusing on jazz, on both commercial and public television. Watch for him in the PBS special Walk Through Harlem with David Hartmann in December of 1999.

Winner of a host of prestigious awards and highly coveted prizes, Dr. Taylor is the proud recipient of the National Medal of the Arts (1992), the New York State Governor’s Arts Award (1997), the NEA’s Jazz Masters Fellowship Award, and an appointment to the National Council for the Arts, for which he served a six-year term. In addition, Dr. Taylor has been awarded the Peabody Award for excellence in journalism and an Emmy for his profile on Quincy Jones. He was named to the Hall of Fame for the International Association of Jazz Educators (IAJE) and received the Lifetime Achievement Award from Down Beat Magazine. A Duke Ellington Fellow at Yale University, Dr. Taylor also holds the Wilber D. Barrett Chair as artist-in-residence at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where he earned both his master’s and doctorate degrees in music education.

Clearly recognizing the need for arts education early on, Dr. Taylor is considered the foremost jazz educator of our time. From such community grass roots efforts as Jazzmobile (which he co-founded in 1964), to programs focusing on young people and adults to master classes and seminars for professionals, to lobbying and addressing Congressional committees, Dr. Taylor provides insight, information, and a deep appreciation for America’s classical music, jazz.

At the age of 78, with close to 50 recordings as a leader, Dr. Taylor remains as vigorous and dedicated to his music as ever. His latest CD, a solo recording entitled Ten Fingers-One Voice, has been met with resounding critical and popular praise. Renowned author/critic Nat Hentoff said it best in the liner notes: “Billy continues to have a rich and extraordinarily varied career, but I think that with this solo set, the springtime of Billy Taylor has begun.

Dr. Billy Taylor (1921-2010)

*Bio from Award presentation.