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.

In everything he does, Dr. Taylor projects unshakable integrity and an infectious love of the music. This, in conjunction with his ceaseless energy, has led to Dr. Taylor's success. Instead of simply presenting jazz, Dr. Taylor involves us in the experience of jazz, incorporating us into the process. By granting students—and audiences of all kinds—ownership of the music, Dr. Taylor establishes lasting audiences whose curiosity does not cease after the night's performance but extends into subsequent days and years.

Perhaps the prime example of Dr. Taylor's success in this arena has been his role in developing a pre-eminent jazz program at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

The Kennedy Center

"I have never—in all of my career—pitched my ideas to people who were already listening to the music. I wanted to reach out to people who hadn't heard it...That's the audience I play for. If they can't hear it under the proper circumstances, if it can't be presented to them, there's a void there. That's one of the things we are trying to fill at the Kennedy Center. Both with the educational programs and with the performance programs." ~Dr. Billy Taylor

"Billy is one of the most generous men I know in this business. He knows everybody. He's always trying to help everybody. Because of that, it really opened up a lot of doors for me—being somewhat of a novice—to have access to wonderful performers and get to know them in a comfortable environment." ~Derek Gordon, former Kennedy Center Vice-President and Director of Education, current Executive Director of Jazz at the Lincoln Center

Dr. Taylor has simultaneously grown an audience at the Kennedy Center and constructed for that audience a world-class venue. Musicians look to the Kennedy Center as a premier jazz establishment, and audiences know that when they travel there for jazz they are guaranteed a night of premium music—whether it is a cutting edge group experimenting at the limits of jazz or a traditional performance by established masters.

Prior to Dr. Taylor's involvement in the Kennedy Center, the nation's performing arts center had all but ignored jazz, putting on a sporadic series of special engagements and concerts never amounting to more than a handful of concerts per year.

Under the guidance of Dr. Taylor, the number of performances has increased from about four concerts annually to over sixty, each selected from across the broad spectrum of jazz styles. Each year also includes several distinct series such as the Louis Armstrong Legacy, the Art Tatum Piano Panorama, and the annual Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival. One of Dr. Taylor's most successful and progressive innovations, the latter festival spans three days and highlights the contribution of women to jazz by featuring exclusively women-led musical groups.

These days, performances take place in several locations within the theater, including its concert hall, the Terrace Theater, its free Millennium Stage, and the recently-established KC Jazz Club, the latest of Taylor's concepts, an intimate space nestled inside the nation's performing arts center that emulates traditional jazz clubs.

At the same time, the Kennedy Center has established a remarkable jazz education program, including lecture series, masters classes, outreach activities to local public schools, and the housing of the Betty Carter Jazz Ahead program.

In fact, Dr. Taylor's retirement celebration had been inaugurated the night before his performance with a special reception and concert featuring the students of the Betty Carter program.

Following that concert, Billy found himself surrounded by his students, fellow musicians, and many friends as he received an award from the Kennedy Center in the form of the first pressing of his farewell album, Taylor Made at the Kennedy Center, which chronicles his performance career at the Kennedy Center and features the Billy Taylor trio with guests such as Terrance Blanchard, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Arturo Sandoval, and Stanley Turrentine.

And even then, standing at the podium receiving recognition for his many achievements, Dr. Taylor refused to allow the spotlight to fall on himself alone. Calling up his fellow faculty members, students, and colleagues from the Kennedy Center, Taylor insisted on deflecting attention from his life in order to honor the accomplishments of others.

After a short speech, Dr. Taylor stepped down from the podium and like the great facilitator that he is, proceeded to spend the rest of the night chatting gently with the many guests, giving each a few moments of his time.

Final Performance

"I'll miss his presence. I love the man... I've always loved his energy and his enthusiasm and his positive attitude towards what this music is about. I'll miss that. Of course, I'll miss playing with him. That's a given. The man's presence—even after ten years—it's just a thrill to be around him. I'll miss that most of all." ~Chip Jackson

Taking the stage the following night for his final concert performance, Dr. Taylor was greeted by a tremendous standing ovation from a capacity crowd. Repeating the same humble gesture as on the previous evening, he gave barely a nod to the night's significance to his life. Instead, he proceeded to gift the audience with a series of wonderful tunes that served as a classic example of his unique blending of entertainment and education.

Together with his two trio-mates, percussionist Winard Harper and bassist Chip Jackson, Taylor began with the original composition "C-A-G". Before launching into the piece, Taylor explained the origins of the tune with a demonstration on the piano of the title chord and how it is manipulated throughout the song. A rousing crescendo of jubilant energy, "C-A-G" featured an extended and graceful solo by Taylor as well as powerful solos by Jackson and Harper.

Next, Taylor turned to a second original, the elegantly composed "If You Really Are Concerned Then Show It", which was written during the civil rights era in dedication to Martin Luther King. Taylor spoke briefly to provide not only a short tour of the song, and also to remind the audience of jazz's role in the civil rights movement and his own admiration for Dr. King. One movement of a larger multi-part composition, this piece underscored Taylor's compositional ingenuity, creating in one whole a complex exploration of a complex personality, reflecting through the piece's varied segments the strength, depth, acuity, openness, sincerity, and vigor that made King the leader he was.

After another energizing original, "Suite for Jazz Piano-3rd Movement", Dr. Taylor displayed once again his generosity of spirit, calling to the stage in the middle of his own retirement concert guest trumpeter John Faddis.

Dedicating the remainder of the set to the works of Dizzy Gillespie, Dr. Taylor and Faddis treated the audience to a history lesson as they blazed through a series of Gillespie favorites including "Groovin' Hight", "Manteca", "Con Alma", and of course, "A Night in Tunisia."

With each tune, the two friends provided short musical demonstrations, shared stories, and provided anecdotes about Gillespie as they painted for the audience a portrait of the man, his music, and the time period in which Bop was created.

Surrounded by musicians half his age, Taylor at 84 never missed a beat as he blistered through high tempo tunes like "Grovin' High" and "Manteca" and delved to the depths of ballads like the evening's highlight, "Con Alma". In fact, Taylor's playing almost made one wonder why he was retiring at all. But perhaps that was the point. To leave the stage while still in full control of it.

The concert ended as it began, with the crowd on its feet honoring Dr. Taylor with a sustained ovation, and each "encore" shouted by the crowd made it clear just how missed Dr. Taylor will be. For even though he will continue to teach, will continue to advise and foster jazz's growth, and will one day release the memoirs he promises he is working to complete, Dr. Taylor has so long been before audiences that seeing him depart the stage felt like the inevitable conclusion of an era.

But of course, Dr. Taylor might say this end is not only inevitable but also necessary. After all, for the next generation to have its time in the spotlight, the previous must eventually stand aside. And in a way, that has been Dr. Taylor's true life work: to gracefully and generously prepare new generations to take jazz forward to places it has never been and to ensure that there will be an audience there to greet them.

Visit Dr. Billy Taylor on the web.

Related Article
Billy Taylor: A Comma - Not a Period

Photo Credit
Carol Pratt and Margot Schulman

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