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Dr. Billy Taylor: An American Classic

As a teenager, forty years ago, living in a New York suburb, I first heard Billy Taylor on WNEW-AM. He played great music, and was so cool and informative that he proved to be the catalyst for even greater exploration in my increasing fascination with Jazz. When I finally moved to Manhattan several years later, he became a regular part of my day on WLIB.

Over the past four decades, I've heard him live, with great Trios, and enjoyed his work on NPR, CBS Sunday morning and with Jazzmobile, the Harlem based organization he founded to bring Jazz back to the streets of New York.

Eight years ago, when I helped put together Jazz Central Station, the mega-web site that went to Jazz heaven, Billy was the artistic advisor. Around the same time, I wrote an extensive tribute that appeared in Jazz Times magazine, on the occasion of his 75th birthday. It's no surprise that everyone wanted to pay homage to Billy, one of the most respected and well liked people in the world of Jazz.

After Jazz Central Station ran amok, I worked with Billy on another multi-million dollar production, GMN Jazzplus, which featured streaming audio and video of live performances. In 2000, we recorded Billy's Women in Jazz Festival, dedicated to Mary Lou Williams, at the Kennedy Center, and some other memorable gigs. But, sadly, that's all gone now as well, another victim of the bust. Another wonderfully produced, well intentioned site didn't last, but our friendship did.

Last year, I redesigned his website, and now work with him producing content. Still active and plugged in at 82, Billy uses his website as the medium to keep his fans posted, and sell his books and music. He's selling downloads on the site, as well as a number of his CDs and books.

One of his books, Taylor Made Piano, has just been reissued. It was the basis of his popular NPR series and serves as essential reading for anyone who wanst to know truth story of the history and development of Jazz Piano.

Dr. Taylor speaks the truth, gently, and without malice, but he is truthful. As one might expect given his warm and engaging public personna, Billy genuinely loves people and really finds great inspiration in teaching young people about Jazz. Their enthusiasm is contagious. He still gets a thrill hearing a new player with something to say and has been an inspiration to many young musicians.

As previously announced in Paris last fall, Dr. T. will retire from active performing after a presentation at the Kennedy Center program next month. Billy's Trio, featuring Chip Jackson and Winard Harper, will be joined by special guest Jon Faddis for a concert entitled "Diz," in a tribute to one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century, Dizzy Gillespie. This concert follows a special distance learning program, "The Legacy of Dizzy Gillespie," which Billy will present on March 1st and 2nd, for high schools around the country. So if you're anywhere near DC, put that on your must list.

Earlier this month, Billy received the Recording Academy (NARAS) Trustees Award. The Trustees Awards recognizes outstanding achievement in a non-performing capacity. There was a big ceremony the day before the Grammy broadcast, where Billy was honored. And on Sunday, millions of people heard his name announced, and saw a brief video segment in honor of Billy, including a historic musical meeting: Billy with Duke Ellington and Willie "The Lion" Smith. (As fate would have it, that brief clip was really the only instrumental heard at the Grammys, this year.)

It seems appropriate that Billy coined the expression "Jazz is America's classical music." He's one of our classic creators. A great musician, composer, broadcaster, educator and spokesperson for the music he loves so deeply.

The Jazz Auction

There was a big, first ever Jazz auction last week, which sold off, to the highest bidders, one of Charlie Parker's saxophones, letters and music written by John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk, one of Dizzy's trumpets, and lots more. The proceeds will go to musician's families, foundations set up by musicians and some, no doubt to Jazz at Lincoln Center, who hosted the event. (What about the Jazz Foundation of America. I hope they're getting some money for the invaluable work they do.)

I'm happy musician's families and foundations were able to get some funding from these items, but, I still find myself wondering why we're selling off these important cultural artifacts to the highest bidder.

Interestingly, the winner's names were not disclosed. And although someone suggested they should "donate" these artifacts to the Smithsonian, they are under no obligation to do so. The Smithsonian doesn't have the funding to actually purchase these items. It seems there are few Jazz benefactors.


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