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Final Notes: Dr. Billy Taylor Retires from Concert Performance

Franz A. Matzner By

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Educator, ambassador, author, composer, and master pianist, Dr. Billy Taylor ended his concert career last Thursday night, concluding over sixty years as one of jazz's greatest emissaries with a rousing performance at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater by his trio and guest John Faddis.

Billy Taylor's career has spanned the entirety of modern jazz, and his efforts have touched countless listeners and students, and helped to establish the careers of many of today's most notable voices. He has received accolades from all quarters, including an Emmy award, Grammy nominations, twenty-two honorary doctorates, and the Doris Duke Millennium Award for Modern Dance and Jazz.

Marking the conclusion of one phase of Dr. Taylor's life, last week's performance both celebrated the many dimensions of his career and made clear that though audiences will no longer be treated to Dr. Taylor's fingers on the keys, they will continue to hear his voice as he continues his many other pursuits.


"Billy Taylor's contributions to the music have been multi-faceted. Billy was a contributor to the early years of modern jazz when he burst on the scene with his father's trio. He was a Wynton Marsalis of sorts when he first showed up...Anyone who was able to excel or distinguish themselves in the early days of modern jazz—during the forties and fifties—is clearly a contributor on that level." ~T.S. Monk, percussionist, founder of the Thelonious Monk Institute, and performer at the K.C. Jazz Club

"Some musicians are great players but can't teach, and some great teachers can't play. But Billy could do both. That's what I will miss...He's so rich with the music. He's played with everybody, he understands so much of what's happened with this music." ~Jason Moran, pianist and repeat performer at the KC Jazz Club

Taylor began his career as a young man during the innovative early period of modern jazz, garnering his first experiences alongside such luminaries as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Oscar Pettiford, Billie Holiday, and many more. Between 1949 and 1951, Taylor held down the piano at the famous jazz haunt Birdland, where he contributed to the birth of a genre while playing with a litany of the era's best and brightest. During this period, and over the subsequent years, Taylor established himself as a player of deep insight and as a leader in his own right.

Dr. Taylor will leave behind over three hundred original compositions, numerous recordings, and countless memories of his brilliant performance style, characterized by a deep knowledge of the form, harmonic depth, and great vibrancy.

His greatest legacy, however, will be his contributions as jazz's most dedicated advocate and educator.


"His grandfather was a preacher...and I believe he is preaching to the general public about this music. That is what he will be remembered for. The great communicator." ~Chip Jackson, Bassist, Billy Taylor Trio

"Dr. Taylor has personal, direct experience back to other legends of jazz that are no longer with us—Ellington, Basie, Tatum, and the list goes on. He is able to explain jazz in such a way that the average person has the jazz world opened to them. His musical examples and his choice of vocabulary allow individuals from all musical backgrounds to better understand the wonderful world of jazz.

Literally millions of students lives have been directly impacted by the work Dr. Taylor has done in jazz with the Kennedy Center.
" ~Darrell Ayers, Vice President of Education, Kennedy Center

Since first founding the Jazzmobile program in the early 1960s, Dr. Taylor has consistently been an innovator in the field of jazz education—not only the education of jazz musicians, but also of the public about the history, meaning, culture, and significance of jazz to both the musical world and American society. Over the course of his career, Dr. Taylor has founded community-based education programs—like Jazzmobile—published multiple works on jazz and jazz history, hosted the pioneering television broadcasts dedicated to jazz on CBS Sunday Mornings, and been a major force behind much of the jazz programming produced by the NPR.

However, more important than his resume of achievements is his unique combination of sincerity, humility, and powerful charisma. Utterly unpretentious and forever soft-spoken, Dr. Taylor possesses a matchless ability to be absolutely accessible—whether speaking to a small class, a huge concert audience, or even over the airwaves of national T.V. and radio.


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