Legendary jazz pianist and educator Billy Taylor, a D.C. native, dies at 89

D.C. native Dr. Billy Taylor was an NEA Jazz Master and renowned educator. Courtesy Tom Marcello

by Giovanni Russonello
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Dr. Billy Taylor, a D.C. native as famous for his work as a jazz educator and proselytizer as for his formidable skills as a pianist, died yesterday at 89.

Taylor grew up in the District, attending Dunbar High School and taking piano lessons from Henry Grant — the same local legend who taught Duke Ellington to play the keys. After graduating from Virginia State College in 1942, Taylor headed for New York City, where the bebop revolution was about to sweep across the city and the entire jazz world.

He quickly earned a spot playing with saxophone legend Ben Webster and an apprenticeship with the great Art Tatum. Eventually, he became the house pianist at Birdland jazz club in Midtown Manhattan, where he played with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and numerous others.

Taylor expanded his repertoire as a Broadway musician, a player in Machito’s famous Afro-Cuban band and a member of the Don Redman Orchestra’s European tour in 1948 — the first such venture by an American jazz group since the end of World War II.

[audio:http://ehub23.webhostinghub.com/~capita37/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/02-solace4.mp3] Solace – Billy Taylor Trio (1945)

But Taylor’s strongest legacy is as a jazz teacher and international spokesperson: He earned a doctorate in music education from the University of Massachusetts in the 1970s, and performed hundreds of free concerts across the globe throughout his life. He also frequently took to the airwaves to spread the jazz gospel. His work in media started in 1958, when he was musical director at The Subject Is Jazz, a National Educational Television show and the first dedicated to jazz. He did profiles of musicians on CBS’ Sunday Morning, and was a frequent producer for PBS. His most famous work in radio was probably the National Public Radio program Billy Taylor’s Jazz at the Kennedy Center, which he broadcast weekly from the hometown venue where he long served as artistic director for jazz.

Taylor penned over 300 compositions, including the classic civil rights rallying cry “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free.” He was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master and received the National Medal of Arts, among scores of honors and prizes.

Taylor is survived by his wife, Theodora, and his daughter, Kim Taylor-Thompson.

For more information, see coverage from the Washington Post, NPR and the New York Times.

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