JAZZ PROPAGANDIST: BILLY TAYLOR
"Jazz is America's classical music," Billy Taylor maintains, "and I don't say that lightly. Jazz takes all of the elements that are peculiar to our culture and puts them into a perspective that celebrates who we are and really does what a classical music is supposed to do. It speaks to and for the culture from which it emanates."
That sort of thoughtful, forthright statement is why this veterant pianist has long been regarded as one of jazz's most eloquent and effective spokespersons. Throughout his distinguished musical career this tireless advocate has pursued a single, overriding goal: to develop and expand the audience for the music he loves. In the mid-1960s Taylor helped found Jazzmobile, New York's groundbreaking, and still thriving, jazz outreach and educational organization. He has produced and hosted Emmy and Peabody Award-winning programs for radio and TV, written over a dozen books, and given lectures and clinics at every level, from grade-school to university.
Currently, Taylor serves as a consultant for the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, producing jazz performances and educational programs. He hosts a weekly radio show, Billy Taylor's Jazz at the Kennedy Center, which is broadcast over National Public Radio. He is also a member of the music faculty at the University of Massachusetts. And for the past 16 years, Taylor has been an arts correspondent for CBS's acclaimed Sunday Morning program, "an oasis in television," he declares with pride. Meanwhile Taylor continues to perform and record with his trio, and appear as a soloist with symphony orchestras throughout the country.
Do you come from a musical family?
Yeah, as a matter of fact I do. My father was a dentist and his father was a minister. My grandfather was the founder of the Florida Avenue Baptist Church in Washington, DC, and all of his children and all of the peripheral parts of the family played and sang. So we had quite a musical entourage. My dad was the choir director so they had many rehearsals at the house - we had a piano. So the piano was a difficult instrument to get at. Somebody was always playing it
So I had all these uncles and aunts that played Mozart and Bach and all the church literature. And I had this one uncle who was, in my view, hipper than all the rest. He was kind of a street-wise guy and became a newspaper man and did some stuff in politics and was a soldier for a while. He was quite a guy. Anyway, he introduced me to jazz. He used to sit down and play piano, and his piano playing sounded different from all of his other relatives.
And I said, "What is that?" He said, "Well, this is jazz. It's what I like to play." So I said, "I like that. Teach me how to do it." I was six, seven years old. And he said, "No, I taught myself, you teach yourself." So he gave me my first Fats Waller records and then my first Art Tatum records, and that got me off his back for a long time.
A little while ago I read an article by Burt Korall about the great drummer Jo Jones and in it he wrote, "Ask Billy Taylor about Jo Jones and what Jones and Sid Catlett did for him when he first came to New York from Washington, DC." So I'm asking.
Sid Catlett was the drummer in the first group that I played with, which was Ben Webster's quartet. We played at the Three Deuces opposite the Art Tatum trio. But Jo Jones and I had met when I was a student at Virginia State College and Jo came through with the Count Basie band. I was playing in a jazz band, or a dance band, at the school and the guys in my band kind of hit on him and got me to sit in with the Basie band, which I was thrilled about, but very embarrassed, 'cause I didn't have nerve enough to ask for myself.
Anyway, he took a liking to me and when I came to New York he found me at the Deuces. He knew I was a college graduate and he told all the guys, "Billy's a kid I'm looking out for and he can't drink." He didn't amplify that, he just made a statement to everybody. So they didn't know whether I was sick or I was a drunkard or what. They didn't know anything. Just, "Billy can't drink."
Sid Catlett was somebody whose work I had admired and was thrilled to be working with, and so I'd follow him around to the White Rose bar, along with Coleman Hawkins and Roy Eldridge, Lester Young. All the great artists were around there. And Sid, remembering that Jo had told him that Billy can't drink, told all the other guys. So I'd say, "Mr. Hawkins, can I buy you a drink?" He'd say, "Sure. I'll have a double, he'll have a Coke."
Now I'm working opposite Art Tatum. I've become very friendly with this famous pianist, so I'm taking him to after-hours places. Same thing. He'd say, "I'll have a boilermaker, Billy'll have a Coke." And so the result was that I got accustomed to not drinking when I worked.
I resisted it a little bit. I remember one time I was playing uptown at Wells'. And by this time I'm figuring, "Hey, man, I'm legally able to drink. I can handle it," and all that stuff. I'm doing a solo and the bartender's a friend of mine - as a matter of fact, he was a neighbor of mine - and so every time someone would offer me a drink, he would pour me a double. So I'm feeling pretty good. I had two or three doubles and Jo came in and saw it. Didn't stay. I didn't see him. He just came in, took a look, saw me drinking, went out.
The next night, he gave me time to have one or two good ones. And he came in and I'm sitting there playing the piano and I look up and here's Jo Jones sitting like this [arms folded, staring]. And on one side is Art Tatum and on the other side is Teddy Wilson. And I was petrified. I couldn't play. So I've never done it again. If I'm playing, I'm not drinking.
What year did you come to New York?
And you started out with Ben Webster? That's a nice way to break in.
Well, I was lucky. I came in on a Friday night and I went immediately to Minton's, where I knew you could jam. I figured if I got lucky I'd get to know some guys who would introduce me around and so forth and hey, maybe I'd end up with a job. I got there very early and I talked to the piano player. Several piano players came in after I did that he knew. He didn't know me, so he let them sit in first.
So it was coming up to the last set and I said, "Gee whiz, I'd really like to play." And the guy said, "OK." All night long they had, maybe, a saxophone player and a trumpet player, two or three instruments. Now, everybody's off from work, a stage full of guys up there. I said, "Geez, I'm never gonna get to play a solo." So I'm sitting there and I'm basically playing accompaniment and Ben Webster comes in, and a couple other guys, and I'm just destroyed. I said, "Geez, these guys. What am I gonna get to play, eight bars?"
But Ben kept easing over toward the piano. I didn't know, but in his early days he was a pianist. He was kind of standing in the bowl of the piano and he's playing and I'm just thrilled. "I'm playing for Ben Webster!" I was shooting my best shot. I had a little different way of accompanying in those days, something I picked up from Ellington, and he liked it. After the set, he said, "What's your name?" I said, "Bill Taylor." And I told him how much I admired him and listened to him. And he said, "Well, what are you doing?" I said, "I just got in town." He said, "I'm looking for a piano player. It's Friday night. Saturday night's a bad night, so why don't you come down on Sunday and sit in with my group? And if it feels all right, we'll see what happens." 'Cause he hadn't really heard me play at Minton's. I said, "OK."
And so, Sunday night I go down and I don't even notice who's playing opposite him. It's 52nd Street. I had figured, if I'm lucky and I meet a lot of folks and I pay a lot of dues, ultimately I'll work up to working at 52nd Street. To make a long story short, I got the gig and so, two days after I got to New York, I was working on 52nd Street, which was strictly luck. It had to do with being in the right place at the right time.
And you were playing opposite Art Tatum. I understand you became sort of a protégé of Art Tatum. Was it the kind of relationship where he actually taught you things about the piano?
It was that kind of relationship. What I learned from him, in some respects, had to do with not just the extension of harmony, but it's a harmonic variation of what Charlie Parker learned from him. Charlie Parker learned that you could take the upper partials of the chord and do melodies around that. What I did was to use the upper partials of the chord to take your attention into another, perhaps unexpected, place. And so the harmonies, the voicing of the harmony, kind of makes the melody go into another place.
He would do that a lot. When he would improvise on "The Man I Love" or "Yesterdays" or something like that, you could hear him take some kind of harmonic pattern and go way out of the key. It was almost like he was going to modulate somewhere. And you'd say, "How is he gonna get out of that?" And the harmony would bring him back home.
It often seems like Tatum was setting musical traps for himself. Like on "Willow Weep for Me," he's playing all those incredible sixteenth- and thirty-second note runs and you're wondering, "How will he ever land on the beat?" But he always does.
I have a story about "Willow Weep for Me." Because I was his protégé, I would frequently show him things that I was working on. I was very fond of "Willow Weep for Me." I felt it was a lovely piece of music and so I played it as a sentimental ballad. I had worked out this introduction with clusters in it and I played that for him. Then I played the melody and I said, "How do you like that?" I had some altered harmonies and so forth. And he said, "Well that's very nice. Yeah, I like that. It's good." I was very pleased, you know. He had given me the stamp of approval.
And two or three days later, I was over at his house and we were just getting ready to go somewhere. He said, "Hey, you know, that thing you showed me the other day on 'Willow Weep for Me?' Listen to this." And he played what is now his version, with a different approach to those clusters. He treated it like a blues. And I said, "Oh, man. Why didn't I think of that?"
But it was a good idea and one that I still use. It has taken a third generation. A man whose music I influenced to some extent when he was very young is Denny Zeitlin, a very fine pianist. On Denny's first record, he did an original composition called "The Phoenix," and when the Phoenix rises out of the ashes, the theme that does that - it's kind of a blues theme - is based on the cluster thing that I did in "Willow Weep for Me." Denny had transcribed a lot of my stuff, so he knew a lot of the devices that I used. So, you know, things go in two ways.
The term "genius" is terribly overused these days, but Art Tatum must qualify as a genius.
I believe that, because his mental processes were such that he could figure out things so quickly. If I sit down at a piano, I'll play it for a few choruses or something and get used to the instrument. He'd sit down at a piano and, he's not playing the notes, he's running his hands over the keys, sometimes pressing it down a little bit. And then he may hit a chord. Then he's ready. And I'd say, "Wait a minute, man! What? Wait a minute!" It amazed me. I mean, he just got the feel of that instrument and then he was ready.
And Tatum loved to play bad pianos. He'd play a piano where several notes were missing, because that posed a challenge. If you're going to make an arpeggio which comes down through those notes, how do you handle that? His mind is working so that he says, "In this first octave I'm using an E-flat pentatonic. I'm playing the notes B-flat, G, F, E-flat C. OK, that works in this octave, but some of those notes don't work in the next octave. What do I do?" And sometimes he would play a half-step up. He'd play a pentatonic in E, as opposed to E-flat. So in that second octave he might do B, G-sharp, F-sharp, E, C-sharp, and then C, and he's back into the E-flat thing. It was just amazing.
You are what I call a jazz propagandist, because of the way you've worked to spread the message about this music. How did you take on this role?
Well, I went to Virginia State College in Petersburg, Virginia, and I got a bachelor of science, because I was studying music education. I was going to be a music teacher, not that I really wanted to teach so much in that period, but I just felt that was something that I liked to do and that I was interested in and it was something that I could do in music, 'cause I didn't have any idea whether I could make it as a piano player playing jazz in those days. We were coming up to the end of the big band period. Nobody knew what was going to happen to the big bands after the war, and indeed, they just kind of all folded.
But that notwithstanding, the thing that directly got me involved was working at Birdland with Dizzy and Bird. By the time I worked with them, I had written the first book on bebop. It was called How to Play Bebop on Piano, published by Charles Hansen in about 1948. It was the first "how-to." There were some other books out that were just kind of thrown together.
But I was upset because I would sit next to Dizzy or Bird and someone from Life magazine or Look magazine would come in and say, "Mr. Gillespie, tell me, what is this new music that we're hearing so much about?" and so forth. And he would do comedy.
And I had experienced this before. I had worked opposite him at a place called Bop City and Diz had a big band and he was very much in the public eye, I mean, with the leopard jackets and the comedy and all the stuff he was doing. And he was in the beret. So people were always writing things about him, Walter Winchell and everybody else.
So I would be around when someone was interviewing him and he'd always do comedy. Now that was totally at odds with the Dizzy that I knew. I mean, Dizzy would reach over my shoulder and say, "Hey, B, do this in the left hand and put this in the right hand. If you do this kind of voicing, this is what I want. That goes from here to here." And I'm thinking, "Well, this guy has thought so much about this and really has formalized it in his head as an arranger." He used the piano in the same way that we use the computer now, to figure out things.
So I asked him, I said, "Diz, this guy asked you a simple question about what's going on in the music. Why didn't you tell him?" He said, "Oh, they don't want to know. They want some jokes and stuff. And if they want jokes, they're gonna do my jokes. They're not gonna put jokes in my mouth." And so he would do his take on show biz and his typical Dizzy stuff.
And Bird, as articulate as he was, had come, from different reasons, into the same conclusion. And so when someone would ask him, "Mr. Parker, how do you play these weird sounds of yours? Do you just pull them out of the air?" he'd do some comedy. "Oh, yeah, something just comes to me ... ," and it was complete bull. It was the fault of the people who were writing about jazz in those days. The manner in which they asked the questions got those kinds of answers, and that's why Dizzy and Bird and others had that attitude.
But ask any musician who has worked with either of them about how carefully they explained specifically what they wanted. These guys heard everything in the ensemble surrounding them and knew specifically what they wanted, which is why Bird hired Roy Haynes or Al Haig, specific people to do specific things, because he said, "This guy understands the music," as opposed to someone else who hasn't arrived at that stage in his development yet. And what Dizzy did was to take the things that he and Bird were developing and put them in a usable form. I mean, he said, "OK, based on the tradition, what this really is, is so-and-so, and it goes from here to here ...," and he really took pains with it. He was a natural teacher.
So seeing how Dizzy and Bird reacted in that situation inspired you to make the effort on behalf of jazz?
Absolutely. I disagreed with them. I said, "Well, I think you can get by. I realize the guy asked a stupid question, but you don't have to answer a stupid question." I said this to them, but I guess I didn't make my case. When I would sit there and hear a guy ask Dizzy something, I just felt, "All you've got to do is ignore that question and tell him what really happened."
So it helped me develop a way of doing interviews in those days, when you would get someone who would open a conversation with, "Well, since bebop really exploded in the beginning of your career, how do you account for so-and-so?" I'd say, "Well, in the first place it didn't explode," and I'd go from there.
And maybe the most important part of this work is that it helps develop a new audience, or let's say, a growing audience, for jazz. Musicians can complain, but ultimately they are the ones who have to build the jazz audience.
And actually, musicians are doing much more now. Almost every musician I know, in jazz, does more than his or her share of clinics and workshops and things that are there to help an audience bridge the gap. I mean, hey, it takes us a long time to get from one point to another, through practice, through study, or whatever you're going to do. So we can't expect a guy to come in and hear what we're doing, after we've been working on something all week long, and understand it immediately. I mean, you've got to give them some kind of bridge, you know?
I'm very proud of the fact that I've started a whole generation of musicians to teach, people who have come either through Jazzmobile or out of my groups or whatever, 'cause everybody that works with me has to teach. That's a given. I don't tell them how to do it, but they develop their own way of doing it. And it's always funny, some guys come into the trio, or into other groups that I have, and they say, "Well, I'm a player. I really am not that interested in teaching." But they've got to sit around and watch the rest of us teach, and ultimately they say, "Hey, what I think about this is ... ." So they get right into it.
Let's about the founding of Jazzmobile. I guess in many ways it was a product of the social climate of the mid 1960s.
Well, there was a study made on youth in the ghetto and several programs came out of this study. It was a sociological study that said we need to work through different things that will help young people survive the ghetto, to be able to live fruitful lives without succumbing to some of the problems that they encounter. And many artists were interviewed and asked to participate in different kinds of forums to help produce the conclusions that were ultimately articulated in the report.
When the report finally came out and the city and state began to act on it they, out of hand, discarded all the artistic stuff. They said, "Never mind all that play stuff, let's get to the heart of thing," you know. And so we were furious, those of us who had spent time and were interested and believed the things we were saying. And so we formed the Harlem Cultural Council. Fred O'Neil, a black actor who was very active in the actors' union and so forth, was one of the important people that helped organize this group. And [painter] Romare Bearden was a part of that. So we had visible people who would be listened to because of their importance in their fields. They were a part of this movement.
We needed some kind of first activity to let people know we were in existence. And so one of our members who was not a musician or an artist, Daphne Arnstein, said, "I just came from the World's Fair and I saw, with all of these millions of dollars people were spending on buildings and high tech stuff, there were hundreds of people following along a mobile bandstand going through the grounds playing live music. People were just walking along behind it." So I said, "What were they playing?" And she said they were playing light classical and all kinds of stuff. And it turns out that [violinist-trumpeter] Ray Nance was in that orchestra - there were several jazz musicians in it.
She said, "Can't we do something like that in Harlem or in Bedford-Stuyvesant?" 'cause our interest was children. And I said, "If you're gonna do it, it ought to be jazz." Well, you open your mouth, you get to do it. So we went over to Ballantine Beer and borrowed a parade float from them and hustled up a tired electric piano and updated the New Orleans tradition, playing bebop as we went through the city. What we did was start here, go in a 10-block radius, playing as we went, and come back to the point of origin and do a two-hour concert.
We got enough money from Ballantine Beer to do 10 concerts. And the musicians' union was very helpful in those days. They supported us. As a matter of fact, they gave us the money for the first concert, which helped us get the money from Ballantine. So then we got together over the next few years and built it and now it's got its own building in Harlem and it's been all around the world with the concerts.
And along with the concerts, Jazzmobile offers educational and instructional programs, both for young musicians and for school kids.
That was a very important aspect of it, going into the schools. I was in radio in those days, so I put the arm on some of my sponsors, Pepsi Cola and Cold Power detergent and so forth, for money. Cold Power, Colgate-Palmolive, they were a natural. I said, "Look, you're trying to sell a product that washes clothes in cold water. You gotta have a big audience in Harlem and Bed-Stuy, 'cause there's lots of cold water there!" And they went for that and they did a real good job. They sent us into the schools and they did really nice things.
Do have a basic lesson or message that you try to bring out whenever you work with young musicians?
I try to get across what many of my elders seemed to think was the most important aspect of playing jazz, and that is to develop your own voice. Whatever you're doing should be centered and focused on, "This is the way I express myself using this material." So if you hear five pianists, you should be able to hear something in their playing which is as different as their signature or the sound of their voice. I mean, for instance, if someone heard Teddy Wilson and Nat Cole and Art Tatum and Hazel Scott and Mary Lou Williams one after another, you'd hear five different approaches. They may be playing the same instrument, but you'd hear five different approaches to whatever that piece of music was.
Basically, over the years, it has been an oral tradition and, until very recently in our history, you learned jazz by hearing it and by repeating what you heard and working through that. Since the '60s, we have had people who have written down things, and educationally it has come more in line with the way we teach other things. That's both good and bad. The educational system is set up so that you have to have points of reference, you have to be able to say "on page such-and-such in the second bar, as we can all see, that's such-and-such a chord," and so forth. So in terms of teaching, that's one way to do it. You try to teach a vocabulary and a repertoire and you try to teach the doctrines of the music.
The problem is, many people learn the vocabulary and the repertoire and think they're through with it. They say, "Well, I can do that. I know all about it." But what they're doing is parroting back things which have already been done. They're not adding the most important dimension to the music that has made it a viable twentieth-century art form, and that is the personal dimension. Lester Young used to say, "Tell your own story." So if you and I both played the piano, and we're going to play Thelonious Monk's "'Round Midnight," you're going to play it one way and I'm going to play it another way, and they'll be equally valid.
I'd like to get your views on the jazz scene today, what is wrong with it and what is right with it.
What's wrong about it is that it is totally controlled by a music business that's very insensitive to its needs. These people have another agenda—in many cases money—an agenda which is different from what we, as serious players, have in mind.
But the basic problem that I see is the audience, and that's what we're trying to develop at the Kennedy Center. We're trying to develop a young audience starting in grade school, and from grade school to junior high school to high school, just to have them experience what good jazz is about so that they will know what they're listening to and not make some of the choices that kids are making now.
And I feel that the only reason they're making them is because we haven't given them any help. You can't get instruments in school, as I did when I was in school. You've got overcrowded schools and they barely have time to get what are considered the essential things. So they quickly cut out all of the arts and say, "You don't need that," not realizing that the arts empower these kids. The arts are the things that make them want to learn more about reading, more about literature, more about some of the things that people are trying to shove down their throats. You don't have to shove it down their throats if they want to get it.
I mean, when I was a kid all I had to do was turn on the radio. I didn't have to go anywhere. I'd sit at home and turn on the radio and I was hearing European classical music, hearing the opera, hearing other things. And I was interested. On a Saturday afternoon coming from the Met I would not only hear somebody who sang beautifully, but somebody during the intermissions who would say, "I want you to listen for so-and-so, 'cause in the next movement he's going to do such-and-such." I said, "Yeah? Let's see." And I must confess that having a musical family opened some of those doors for me, so that when I heard someone with a magnificent voice, I was saying, "That's beautiful. I have an aunt who can do that."
So the jazz audience has got to be more vocal and more adamant about the quality of what they're listening to. I grew up with a jazz audience that was very critical. When I worked at Birdland, they were making distinctions in the playing, and well-based distinctions. And these were non-musicians. These were taxi drivers and people who had day jobs, but they had good ears because those ears were developed from constant listening.
And what encourages you about the current jazz scene?
The fact that we have so many young people who are so serious about it, and who have done in their own way things which have broadened the audience to their generation and beyond.
© Bob Bernotas, 1996; revised 2010. All rights reserved. This article may not be reprinted without the author's permission.