• Taylor's Take Four: Jazz in July

    July 23, 2011. Posted by Alex Rodriguez.

    Add new comment | Filed under: billy taylor

    The following is the fourth in our series of tributes to Dr. Billy Taylor, which are part of our celebration of "Doctor T," who would have turned ninety this Sunday. Check wbgo.org/billytaylor for our full tribute page, which includes more clips and our exclusive webcast of Billy Taylor: A Life In Jazz, a new video documentary by Bret Primack.

    "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. 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 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."

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