• Taylor's Take Three: Is Jazz America's Classical Music?

    July 23, 2011. Posted by Tim Wilkins.

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    The following is the third in our series of tributes to Dr. Billy Taylor, 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 rare audio clips and our exclusive webcast of Billy Taylor: A Life In Jazz, a new video documentary by Bret Primack.

    Dr. Taylor Himself
    The Revolutionary Dr. Taylor

    "Jazz is America's Classical music."

    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 those hot debates 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 emulate European Classical music, and abandon improvisation or syncopation, but rather 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.

    "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."

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