Billy Taylor: The Keys to Jazz Education
The conferences also give Taylor the chance to return to his own music. Two years ago at the conference, Taylor recorded a live album with Chip Jackson on bass and Winard Harper on drums. He believes that Jackson and Harper are "among the best that I've ever played with, and I've played with a lot of good musicians." Try Art Tatum, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Milt Jackson, Zoot Sims, Philly Joe Jones, Roy Eldridge and Roy Haynes. "But these two right now are two of the best I've ever had. You can't find two more musical musicians than these guys." Though he does concede that "I'm biased at the moment. These are two musicians that I have great affection for and great respect for, and that just comes out whenever we play. They push me. They are really so supportive that it makes me play better all the time."
On the disc, he plays quick staccato runs over a driving bass line on his tune "Impromptu", though the song soon finds itself settling into a swing that feels as comfortable as an old shoe. He pads through "Body and Soul" and coasts over the Latin groove "Titoro". You can hear in his articulation that he wants to get the most out of each moment, hit every note. And when he talks about his playing, there is a sense of unfinished business, "If I could meet me as another person," he says, "I would say don't waste all that time that you've wasted. You should have written more, you should have done a lot more writing. Many of the things that I think about now, I wish I had put down in another form. I still may be able to do that; I'm in the process of getting some of my music shaped up. But I wish I had done it earlier."
The sense of urgency may owe itself in part to the fact that several months after recording the album, Taylor suffered a stroke. "My short term memory was one of the things affected, and I can't remember some of the things I wanted to. It all comes back to me if I talk long enough, but it takes a while...It's coming back slowly, and I've got almost 80 years of work that I'm trying to recover here." But as a testament to his resilience, Taylor refuses to let the after-effects of his stroke slow him down. He occasionally pauses to remember a last name, but for the most part you would never know it to talk to him; he thinks too quickly. "One of the things that is most frustrating for me is that I tend to talk very rapidly when I get excited. And I stumble over the words and everything else because I'm anxious to get this thought out to whoever I'm speaking to."
A lifetime of trying to do just that is increasingly paying off. After all, Juilliard is officially teaching jazz now, record sales of rereleased jazz are on the rise and international audiences are listening in. And be lukewarm about it or hate it, but Ken Burns made a big documentary on jazz (although Dr. Taylor was noticeably absent). But do not try to tell Billy Taylor that this progress is a recent development. He says he and the rest of the jazz world have been learning and teaching all along.
"I really feel that I want to give back to the music things that I was taught. I'd like to share them with young people. I've tried for most of my career to do that, so that I can say, 'Well here's some things I learned from Art Tatum; here's some things I learned from Duke Ellington; here's something I learned from some other master that maybe you haven't had personal access to.' This really gives me an opportunity to share in the first person some of the lessons that I learned at the feet of some of the greatest musicians on the planet." The griots who came before him would approve.
The First Time I Saw Dr. Billy Taylor