Today would have been Billy Taylor's 92d birthday had he not died in December 2010. Unfortunately, Billy is remembered most often now as a kindly educator and radio and TV personality rather than as a superlative pianist. Mind you, his work in jazz education was noble and needed. I would probably not be as passionate about jazz as I am now had Billy not turned up at Manhattan's Junior High School 143 in 1968 to play I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free
and hand out free singles of his recording afterward. That one performance at my school made me realize that jazz offered much more excitement than anything I had heard up to that point.
Three cheers for all of his good work as a jazz evangelist, but Billy must be thought of first and foremost for his greatest contributionleading one of the finest and most tasteful trios of the 1950s. When we think of trios from that decade, we think of pianist-leaders like Ahmad Jamal, Oscar Peterson, George Shearing, Erroll Garner and many others. Billy Taylor should be among them.
Between 1952 and 1954, Billy's trio featured Earl May on bass and Charlie Smith on drums. In 1954, Percy Brice replaced Smith, and the trio continued to do what it did bestturn out gorgeous versions of jazz standards. In 1956, the drum chair was filled by Ed Thigpen.
What made Billy special was his delicate touch, his rollicking swing and his chord voicings. Notes rang longer under his fingers, and his chords were elegant and hipexhibiting great bop-infused skill but always remaining gentle and coaxing. Billy knew what ears and hearts loved, but he also knew what feet and sophisticated listeners wanted out of a jazz piano. Billy didn't have drug or temper issues. He wasn't moody, brooding or emotionally dysfunctional. There was no dramatic backstory. He simply was a highly educated and gifted guy who loved to make listeners feel happy and was blessed with impressive talent as a player and communicator.
JazzWax tracks: Among the 1950s recordings of the Billy Taylor Trio are the following CDs: Billy Taylor Trio with Earl May & Percy Brice, The Billy Taylor Touch, Billy Taylor Trio, Billy Taylor Trio at Town Hall and The New Billy Taylor Trio.
And then there's this babyBilly Taylor Trio: Essential Jazz Masters, featuring 70 tracks for $18.
JazzWax interview: Here's Part 1 of my five-part interview with Billy. After you read Part 1, scroll back up to the top of that page. Above the red date, you'll find a link to Part 2. Do the same on successive parts to access the rest.
This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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