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Interview: Billy Taylor (Part 2)

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Billy Taylor's recording career spans 65 years. During those decades, the pianist has appeared on sessions and in concert with virtually every jazz great of his generation. A master of jazz piano styles dating back to the 1920s, Billy has never missed a chance to experiment with chords and tone, always working toward a more sublime sound and enriched sophistication. While Billy could play as fast as any of his bebop peers back in the 1940s, he knew from the start that there was more to the piano than a race to the finish. Beauty had to play a role. [Photo by Hank O'Neal]

Few musicians in the history of jazz have had Billy's meteoric rise. Over a single weekend in 1943, Billy went from a complete unknown in New York to an in-demand accompanist. His serendipitous club job with tenor saxophonist Ben Webster established Billy as a star, a promise that quickly became fulfilled. The more solo time Billy was given, the greater the realization that he was introducing a new, cooler approach to the piano and the jazz trio.

In Part 2 of my interview series with Billy, the legendary pianist talks about playing with violinists Eddie South and Stuff Smith, drummer Cozy Cole, his triumphant Town Hall debut in 1945, and his conversations with Don Byas over the tenor saxophonist's frustrating struggles for recognition:

JazzWax: On 52nd Street in early 1944 with Ben Webster, were you playing bebop?
Billy Taylor: Not much. Swing was still the thing, but bebop was emerging on the Street rapidly. When I worked at the Three Deuces, I used to run over to the Onyx Club to hear Dizzy Gillespie, who had started his first bebop group. I wanted to learn what he was doing. Dizzy's group started there without a piano player. Bud Powell was supposed to play but for some reason didn't show. So Dizzy just had Don Byas, Oscar Pettiford and Max Roach. I sat in with that group early on. There's a picture someplace of me playing with them.

JW: How was it?
BT: It was one of the best learning experiences. Dizzy was a great teacher. It was so good I almost got fired from the Three Deuces.

JW: What happened?
BT: We were playing so hard at the Onyx that we ran over the set's time. I was supposed to be at the Three Deuces backing up Ben Webster. When I got back to the Deuces, the guy who ran the place fired me. But Ben overheard what was going on and stepped in. He said, “No, no, no. Keep him on. He won't do that again. I know he was late but he won't do that again." So I stayed, and I didn't to it again [laughs].

JW: After several months you left Ben to play with violinist and bandleader Eddie South.
BT: Eddie worked my tail off [laughs]. Even though my confidence was up from working with Ben, this guy was classically trained. I had to go back to my classical books and get my act together. He pulled some stuff, musically.

JW: Was Eddie a good musician?
BT: Better than good. Eddie was fascinating. He could play all kinds of music, from gypsy to jazz. He was deeply dedicated to the music and played so many things so well. He was inspirational. The time I spent with Eddie was like going to school. He taught me how to accompany.

JW: How so?
BT: With Eddie on violin, it was like playing behind a soloist or a singer. He's mostly playing individual notes, so I'd have to put together an interesting sound on the piano so he'd have something to build on. Also, with Eddie on violin, my sound was out front, which meant I needed to play in a way that engaged the audience.

JW: What made South exceptional?
BT: He was the first leader I played for who could make people cry. I remember we were at a club in Chicago when the King of the Gypsies came in with an entourage. They requested some gypsy tunes, and boy the handkerchiefs came out when Eddie was done. It was yet another talent Eddie had. We'd play parties where people would request songs in his repertoire, and they'd cry when they'd hear them. When Eddie played a song, it could sound so sad and moving.

JW: You also played with violinist Stuff Smith a short time, yes?
BT: Yes. Eddie introduced me to Stuff. Eddie, me and the drummer had been playing our regular repertoire night after night, which was a mix of a lot of different kinds of music. Then one night Eddie just called for jazz and blues numbers, which was strange. I looked up and said, “Wow, an all-jazz program tonight. That's good." At the break, we came off the stage and Eddie asked me to meet a friend of his, Stuff Smith. “Oh, that's what that all-jazz lineup was all about," I said to myself. [laughs]

JW: You played with Smith at the famed Town Hall concert of June 9, 1945. That was a big turning point for you.
BT: Yes, it was just Stuff Smith, bassist Ted Sturgis and me that afternoon. We played two or three songs. Just us. It was the first time I had played Town Hall. We were up against so many different jazz stars, including Red Norvo, Gene Krupa, Charlie Ventura, Teddy Wilson and others.

JW: You had a nice opportunity to stand out.
BT: That's true. Stuff was playing one note at a time on that violin but, man, he knew what to do with it. So there was plenty of room for me. At the end of our performance, the audience broke it up. After the concert, I was in another league in the eyes of musicians and audiences.

JW: After the concert, you joined saxophonist Walter Thomas' band.
BT: Thomas had played with Cab Calloway and was an arranger. The drummer was Cozy Cole, who soon asked me to join a quintet he was putting together to replace the Benny Goodman Sextet in a Broadway show staged by Billy Rose called The Seven Lively Arts. In the show, Benny played with bassist Slam Stewart. Benny and his group had to leave for some reason, and Cozy Cole had already worked on Broadway and was cast for the show. Beatrice Lillie and Bert Lahr were the stars. That was a big deal for me. I had never played on stage in a Broadway program before.

JW: In the fall of 1945 you played with legendary drummer Big Sid Catlett. What was he like?
BT: One of the most affable guys. I not only played behind him and with him, but when I went on the road with Eddie South we played opposite him. Sid and Jo Jones--no disrespect for anyone else--they were great leaders. It was impossible not to sound great behind them. You'd have to be arbitrarily not doing well. Sid was physically big but one of the softest players with a pair of brushes. He was absolutely in control of what he did. Jo Jones was similar in that respect.

JW: Was Catlett encouraging?
BT: Yes, but it wasn't what Sid said. It was mostly what he did. I remember playing in a jam session, and the tempo was fast. I was getting tired comping [just playing song chords]. Sid didn't say anything. He sensed my edge was fading and gave me a push with the drums by picking up the tempo just slightly. That made me find the extra energy to dig in. I grinned because I knew what he was doing. It was very gentle but it did the job. I used that technique much later when I was a leader.

JW: You played extensively with Don Byas in the mid- and late 1940s. What was he like?
BT: What people don't realize about Don [pictured] is that he learned those bebop tunes with Dizzy and played the hell out of them. Don was really underappreciated. He was one of the pioneers of bebop. He could play that music without ever losing the thing that made him Don Byas.

JW: Did you run into Byas on 52nd Street?
BT: All the time. When I was playing at the Three Deuces, Coleman Hawkins and Billie Holiday were headlining next door. Don played with Hawk on that date and they'd trade choruses. This is the group that had Thelonious Monk on piano.

JW: Could Hawkins handle Byas?
BT: Hawk [pictured] had the same facility to do the bop things that Don could. The reason Hawk hired Byas was because he really loved what the younger guys--like Dizzy, Monk and Don--were doing. Hawk was the first to put bop into shape. When Hawk played it, bebop was no longer just something the crazy younger guys were doing. He demonstrated it, and people began to realize there's more to the new music than they thought.

JW: In 1946 you joined bandleader Don Redman and toured Europe, one of the earliest tours after the war.
BT: What happened was that I had just gotten married. So I wasn't hanging out as much as I had been before I got married. But then I heard that Don Redman was planning this European tour that Timme Rosenkrantz was producing. Don asked if I'd play piano. I told him I had just gotten married. Guys were still coming home from the service in 1946 so bands were still having difficulty finding and holding onto players. Don needed me, so he told me I could bring my wife Theodora. Don took his wife, and Timme took his. Timme's wife, Inez Cavanaugh, became the band's singer.

JW: How was the tour?
BT: My wife and I still remember that trip fondly. I have many pictures of me with French writers, painters and people in the arts. It was a very exciting, optimistic time.

JW: How was Don Byas on the tour?
BT: He was very special. He did something that was unbelievable in terms of really playing and showing the Europeans that the music was moving forward. What the Europeans heard him play was the beginning of what John Coltrane and others like him eventually did.

JW: How so?
BT: Don [pictured] paved the way over there. He was way ahead of Coltrane on those sheets of sound. He was trying to make the tenor saxophone sound like Art Tatum. He and Coltrane had the same idea for the same reason. They both had heard Art's seamless runs on the piano. Don was trying to do that on the tenor back then.

JW: How did Don compare to the other musicians back then?
BT: He was head and shoulders above everyone else. Don was playing bebop and pre-bop. What I mean by pre-bop is he was playing things that led up to bebop. They were long phrases and new ways of using harmonies so that they sounded like the dominant melody. This stuff hadn't been done yet until Don starting playing them.

JW: Explain a little further.
BT: There was swing, and it had certain harmonic and melodic qualifications and rhythmic patterns. Those characteristics were changed in every way by bebop. Melodies became longer, and the tempo was twice as fast. You also had many different types of harmonies being used. Bebop was much more intricate than most people realized at the time.

JW: Was Don a tough guy?
BT: No. He drank too much, but almost everyone did back then. He was a nice guy. When we were touring, we had access to a Ping Pong table in this castle the allies had liberated. My wife was a very good player. Don thought he could beat her. It turned out she beat him several times, and he had to scuffle to keep up. He never lost his cool.

JW: But Byas was high energy, wasn't he?
BT: Oh yes. Don grew up in an era when players blew each other away at jam sessions with choruses and creativity. But Don stayed long enough in that style that guys caught on to what he was doing. Eventually, there came a time when he could no longer wipe out everyone in the room.

JW: How was he at his peak?
BT: He could take five or six choruses on a song without ever repeating an idea. Hawk was the same way. Hawk's recording of Body and Soul became so popular that people wanted to hear it played the way it was on his record. I was working with him at Cafe Society and someone asked for it. Hawk said, “Sure." So he played the song, but it didn't sound anything like the record. The guy came back and complained that what he had played didn't sound like Body and Soul. Hawk said, “That's right. If you want to hear that version, you have to buy the record. Didn't you hear what I just played?" [laughs]

JW: Don decided to remain in Europe?
BT: Don told me on the tour that he didn't get enough credit at home. In New York, Hawk was the man. Don loved Hawk but said, “I played in his band. I know what he's doing and I know what I'm doing. Why can't everyone hear what I'm doing?" It was sad in some ways.

JW: Why don't you think Byas got enough credit?
BT: I don't think Don was ever in the right place at the right time. When we went to Europe, he came close to receiving the kind of celebrity he was looking for--over there. At one point he came up to me and said, “I'm not going back. People don't treat me right at home, and these people treat me just fine. I'm going to stay here." And he did. In Europe, he made a big impact on European musicians. Over there he was a big fish in a small pond.

JW: How long were you in Europe with Redman?
BT: The tour was only supposed to last six to eight weeks. We wound up staying eight months. By January 1947, the small combo we formed caught on, and toward the end we ended up in Holland with Tyree Glenn and Don Byas. We changed guitarists and used another bassist and drummer. We mixed the groups up a bit. We were all there at the same time so guys on the recordings were together working separately. [Photo of Tyree Glenn in 1947 by William P. Gottlieb]

JW: What did the European tour teach you?
BT: I learned that there were a lot of people who were interested in the music happening in America. They looked on it as an exciting thing to be a part of. They saw jazz as a form of freedom of speech. I hadn't thought of it in those terms, but the equation came up a lot.

JW: Were you shocked by the lack of prejudice?
BT: It was quite different, and I was delighted. People treated all of us wonderfully. There was no pressure. You were just a human being. I had never felt like that before. We were treated like intellectuals, not just entertainers. Finally I could exchange thoughts with amazing people freely, without ever thinking about race. It was an amazing feeling. [Photo of Paris in 1946 by David E. Scherman for Life]

JazzWax tracks: Many of Billy Taylor's recordings with different groups during the mid-to-late 1940s can be found on Billy Taylor: 1945-1949 here. For some strange reason, the 1945 Town Hall concert doesn't appear to be on CD. I own it on a double-LP set, The Commodore Years: Town Hall Concert 1945, released by Atlantic in the 1970s. Several copies of this double LP set are currently available on eBay.

Billy with Don Redman in Europe can be found on Don Redman Orchestra: Swiss Radio Days Vol. 11 here. To hear Don Byas during his European days, download the first eight tracks from Don Byas: Jazz in Paris here. If you're ambitious, dig Don Byas: Those Barcelona Days: 1947-1948 here, recorded after he decided to remain abroad.

JazzWax clip: To see how masterful and comfortable Billy was with any jazz piano style, dig this clip from the 1951 CBS-TV show See It Now, in which Billy assumes the role of Jelly Roll Morton...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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