• July 20, 2011. Posted by Tim Wilkins.

    Dr. Billy Taylor lives on in our hearts and minds at WBGO. The pianist, educator and broadcaster played a unique role in the life of the station from our first broadcast in 1979 until his death late last year. As the originator of jazz broadcasting at NPR, he was our tireless advocate and mentored many of us over the years.

    "His knowledge and gentle presentation set the tone in how jazz performance was presented," said Thurston Briscoe, WBGO's vice president of programming. "He was one of the most supportive people I ever met."

    WBGO honors Dr. Taylor on the occasion of his ninetieth birthday this Sunday, July 24, with our exclusive webcast of Billy Taylor: A Life in Jazz, a new documentary by award-winning filmmaker Bret Primack.

    This remarkable half-hour documentary contains rare footage of Taylor with Duke Ellington, Willie "The Lion" Smith, Ella Fitzgerald and Cannonball Adderley, as well as clips from his groundbreaking 1956 television series The Subject Is Jazz and testimonials from Wynton Marsalis, Jon Faddis and many others.

    After Sunday, the film can also be seen at Primack's YouTube channel, JazzVideoGuy, which has more than 750 jazz videos.

    Check back to wbgo.org/billytaylor every day, as we will be adding more performances, photos and interviews with Dr Taylor, drawn from the WBGO archives!

    Take One: Doctor T Plays Every Key

    One of the many special moments we shared with "Doctor T" came in 1988, when when he visited our studios with bassist Victor Gaskin and drummer Bobby Thomas.

    Doctor T Plays Every Key
    Taylor was the natural choice to inaugurate the new Steinway grand in our Performance Studio. He chose to play Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night In Tunisia" and his own composition, "I'm In Love With You," and he promised to play every key on the piano, a skill he learned from his mentor, Art Tatum. And so he did - as you can hear for yourself in this clip!

    Take Two: What Did Tatum Teach Taylor?

    In 2009, Tatum's centennial year, Doctor T stopped by our studios again and sat down at the piano with WBGO's Gary Walker to share memories and some of what he learned from his mentor and friend.


    "He liked things that used the melody to take him to some unexpected place," Taylor told Gary, as he played through the first chords of Eubie Blake's "Memories of You" as Tatum might have done. "Why was it diffferent? Well, it was different because he heard things that were different."

    In 1944, at age twenty-three, Taylor moved to New York City and found work on 52nd Street alongside tenor saxophonist Ben Webster. If landing a gig with a Swing-Era legend was superb luck for any young musician, then Taylor was twice lucky, because Webster's quartet played opposite Tatum, who was Taylor's boyhood idol and the first to inspire him to play jazz.

    "When I first wanted to play jazz, my uncle gave me my first Art Tatum record, and said... 'Try to play this!'" Taylor recalled. "And I said, 'Wow - how do you do that?'"

    The two became fast friends, and spent countless hours together at baseball games and of course at the piano keyboard, playing and talking about music.

    You can hear more of the fascinating hour Taylor spent with Walker by clicking on the link below. This special broadcast, which first aired on November 5th, 2009, the anniversary of Tatum's death, was conceived and produced by Simon Rentner,

    Take Three: Is Jazz America's Classical Music?

    The Revolutionary Dr. Taylor
    The Revolutionary Dr. Taylor

    Now that jazz plays alongside classical music at concert halls around the world,  this phrase barely sounds  controversial – it may even sound old hat. But back in 1975, when Billy Taylor wrote these words in his dissertation at the University of Massachussetts at Amherst, the idea was revolutionary.

    Al Pryor, WBGO's founding music and program director, remembers the hot debates of that time well.

    "There was some conflict regarding jazz as an appropriate subject for scholarly investigation," he recalled. "Dr. Taylor's thesis was essentially an academic proof, arguing that jazz meets all the requirements to be considered a 'classical' art form."

    In other words, Taylor's idea was not that jazz should mimic elements of European Classical music, and abandon improvisation or syncopation, but  that it could claim the respect as an art form which only European Classical music took for granted at the time.

    Dr. Taylor stayed on in Amherst to create a jazz studies program, and persuaded other top-flight jazz musicians to join him on the faculty there. Pryor also came to Amherst, where he took a job at an NPR affiliate on the UMass campus, after finishing his law degree in nearby Springfield.

    Al Pryor
    Al Pryor

    "Dr. Taylor, along with Max Roach and Archie Shepp, who were teaching at UMass, eventually prevailed at the university, through the sheer force of their intellect and their articulate voices and musicianship," Pryor recalled. "The importance of this struggle cannot be underestimated."

    It was under Taylor's influence that Pryor and other young NPR staffers hatched the idea that came to life as WBGO.

    They felt a public radio station could be organized entirely around a jazz format, inspired by Dr. Taylor's work. When an opportunity arose to create a new public radio station in Newark in 1979, Pryor leapt at the chance, and persuaded the station's organizers to adopt an all-jazz format, a first in public broadcasting.

    "Since my ideas for a jazz format for WBGO were directly tied to Dr. Taylor's thesis, it is more than likely that this had had something to do with my becoming the original music and later program director, and everything to do with the foundation of WBGO and Newark Public Broadcasting," said Pryor, who now works for Mack Avenue Records.

    For Pryor himself, Taylor's influence reached well beyond the campus and the radio dial, two places where his ideas ultimately prevailed.

    "Billy Taylor's special gift to me was to instruct me that while excellence is required, there was a place for me – a young African American – in the promulgation of jazz in the media, education and the attendant scholarly pursuits, and as an ideal vision of American life."

    Take Four: Jazz in July

    "I think he liked this place, and it shows."

    - Dr. Fred Tillis, on Dr. Billy Taylor's legacy at the University of Massachusetts

    In our last post, Al Pryor explained how the ideas Billy Taylor developed at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in the early seventies helped inspire the creation of WBGO as NPR's first all-jazz station in 1979.

    Taylor's ideas still live on in Amherst, where the summer jazz camp he founded, Jazz in July, celebrated its 30th anniversary this week. WBGO's Alex Rodriguez and filmmaker Bret Primack were there, and contributed this report.

    Working alongside his doctoral advisor, Dr. Fred Tillis, Taylor helped round up a stellar artist faculty for the program, and had a hand in designing the curriculum.

    Indeed, Dr. Taylor brought some very strong opinions to bear on crafting a curriculum for the the jazz camp. "For one," explained Tillis, "he insisted that it be two weeks, and I’m glad that he did, because it’s so wonderful to watch the development of the students in the second week."

    Even when Taylor's playing was limited after he suffered a stroke in 2001, he continued to come to UMass as a lecturer and curator of the University's "Lively Arts" educational series.

    Indeed, the talent and progress that students make over the course of a week is palpable – I (Alex speaking) play trombone, and had the good fortune to sit in with one of the groups on Friday. The ensemble was coached by Steve Johns, who joined the Jazz in July faculty in 1994 when he started playing with Dr. Taylor's working trio.

    "The trio was always in residence here two weeks a year," Johns explained, "It kind of came with the gig." His son Daryl has become a regular at the camp, which has helped him turn into one of the country's most promising young jazz bassists.

    In the workshop, we stormed through some ambitious repertoire - John Coltrane, Joe Henderson, Don Cherry, and one of Johns's originals - and had a great time in the process. For all the work Johns puts into coaching the group, he still attributes much of the program's success to Taylor, insisting, "Dr. Taylor's presence is still the heart and soul of this program."

    Jazz in July Festival Director Frank Newton also recognizes Taylor's impact, even though he never had the chance to meet the legendary pianist in person.

    "What I always take from Dr. Taylor's approach," he said, "is to always put forth that this is a service to the art -- the art of music, the art of jazz, the art of music, the art of jazz, the art of improvisation."

    Take Five: Dee Dee Serenades Dr. T

    Dee Dee Serenades Doctor T
    Dee Dee Serenades Doctor T

    In 2001, Dr. Billy Taylor was slated to perform with Dee Dee Bridgewater at the Kennedy Center on his 80th birthday, but was forced to cancel as he recovered from illness.

    In this moving tribute, Bridgewater and her band of Stefon Harris, Cyrus Chestnut, Chip Jackson, and Winard Harper serenade Dr. T on his 80th birthday with their version of his composition "If You Really Are Concerned." The piece comes from a suite, Peaceful Warrior, which the Atlanta Symphony commissioned Taylor to write in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King.

    Taylor's inspiration for the piece was a conversation he once overheard when a woman from Connecticut asked King what she could do to support the Civil Rights movement.

    "If you are really concerned, then you should show it and you can show it where you are," King told the woman. In many ways, this phrase encapsulates Taylor's own spirit of activism.

    The second verse goes like this:

    If you really are concerned, then speak up
    You can demonstrate your point of view
    But you've got to get involved
    With pressing problems closest to you
    If you want to change this world.

    To read more about Taylor's relationship with Dr. King, click here. To hear this audio, click on the link below, courtesy of JazzSet:

    Take Six: Bill May Photo Gallery

    Photographer Bill May captured many memorable moments on film at in the WBGO studios in the eighties and nineties, including the visit from Dr. Billy Taylor with bassist Victor Gaskin and drummer Bobby Thomas to inaugurate our new Steinway piano on November 1, 1987. Enjoy his beautiful and candid portraits of Dr. T!

    Take Seven: Bill and Diz

    Bill and Diz
    Bill remembers Diz

    For his retirement concert at the Kennedy Center on March 31, 2005, Doctor T characteristically chose to honor someone else: in this case his close friend John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie. And, as his special guest trumpeter Jon Faddis notes from the stage, Taylor does not sound like a retiree; he sounds lively and delighted to play.

    In the concert, Taylor invites Faddis to share the stage to play some of Gillespie's most memorable compositions. Taylor and Gillespie shared a passion for Latin music, and Dr. T credits Gillespie for moving jazz closer to its counterparts in Latin America and for advancing jazz harmony.

    Gillespie compositions are the heart of this set. Then, at the end, Taylor closes with "Take the 'A' Train," played very slowly, at the tempo he discovered when he played the tune at composer Billy Strayhorn's funeral.

    To hear the audio from this performance, click on the link below. Enjoy!

    Take Eight: Billy The Broadcaster

    Billy Taylor's success as a broadcaster brought him - and jazz - into living rooms across the United States. Starting in 1958 with The Subject is Jazz, then on The David Frost Show and CBS Sunday Morning, Taylor was the first to introduce jazz through television to mainstream audiences, and he reached radio listeners as a disk jockey for WLIB and WNEW.

    Billy T Is On The Air
    Billy T Is On The Air

    Indeed, he became so well known to television audiences that some didn't even realize that he had an equally hard-earned reputation as a pianist!

    Starting in 1975 with Jazz Waves, Taylor worked tirelessly to create a home for jazz at National Public Radio at a time when it was increasingly absent from commercial radio. These shows, which incorporated perforamance and commentary, also gave him a chance to set the record straight about his own musical skills.

    "NPR was like the light at the end of the tunnel," he told singer Nancy Wilson, the host of Jazz Profiles, in 2000. "It was a way to keep jazz alive."

    In 1977 he got his own show, Jazz Alive!, which he followed with Taylor-Made Piano and Jazz at the Kennedy Center. He hosted many jazz specials, such as the annual Toast of the Nation New Years' Eve celebrations. In all, Taylor created hundreds of hours of jazz broadcasts for public radio.

    On the 25th anniversary of his first NPR broadcast, Jazz Profiles produced a special portrait of Dr. T, which contains many excerpts from his career on the air.

    Of course, 25 years was only half the story - for by 2010, he had been a broadcaster for more than fifty years!

    To hear the audio of this program, click below.

    Take Nine: Billy with Gary on Big Ben and Mary Lou

    Gary Walker had the good fortune to interview Dr. Billy Taylor several times in the WBGO studios over the years. Even better, the pair nearly always sat at the piano for these conversations, which are peppered with Dr. T's spontaneous musical observations and memories.

    Gary Walker
    Gary Walker

    In an earlier post, we presented Taylor's 2009 tribute to his friend and mentor Art Tatum. In this 1995 conversation, Taylor speaks with Gary about his admiration for Mary Lou Williams, and how on his first night in New York, Ben Webster picked him out of the crowd of piano players at a jam session at Minton's Playhouse and hired him for his first big-city gig.

    "Billy Taylor was a treasure," Gary recalls. "His friendly demeanor demanded the understanding of a life enriched by the arts. His purpose took him around the world. How lucky we were that his home was jazz."

    To hear audio from this conversation, click on the link below. Enjoy!

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