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Interview: Billy Taylor (Part 1)

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Pianist Billy Taylor has always been perceived as lucky. It's a trait that owes as much to his extraordinary talents as his charismatic and gregarious personality. Billy also has been one of the great jazz evangelists. In New York, he started Jazzmobile in 1964, an education program that has been responsible for exposing hundreds of thousands of teens to the joys of jazz.

I still recall when Billy came to my junior high school in Manhattan in 1968, performing and then handing out 45-rpm singles of his composition I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free. I still have mine. Seeing Billy that day as a 12-year old was my first real exposure to live jazz. When I think back, all I can remember is a sun-warm guy with a huge smile whose playing won the hearts of every restless kid in the school auditorium that day.

Billy first recorded with jazz violinist Eddie South in 1944. His Town Hall performance at age 24 in 1945 as part of trumpeter Bill Coleman's quartet was recorded by Commodore and instantly made him a sensation. His subsequent trip to Europe with Don Redman in 1946 marked one of the earliest post-War jazz tours, and by the late 1940s, Billy was leading his own trios. He then began playing and recording as a sideman with virtually every major jazz artist. In 1952, Billy began developing a trio sound that was years ahead of its time, relying on new, cooler chord configurations and swinging harmony lines.

In Part 1 of my five-part interview with Billy, 87, the legendary pianist talks about growing up in Washington, D.C., his one regret when seeing Fats Waller backstage, being unimpressed with Charlie Parker in Earl Hines' band, developing a chord structure based on a Duke Ellington passage, and landing a dream gig on his first day in New York in 1944:

JazzWax: Where did you grow up?
Billy Taylor: I was born in Greenville, N.C. My father was a dentist and my mother was a schoolteacher. She didn't like what was going on in Greenville, so we moved first to Raleigh, VA. But my mom didn't like that either. She didn't like the school system in Raleigh and didn't want her children going to school there. So she convinced my dad to move to Washington, D.C. [pictured in the late 1930s]

JW: Did you enjoy Washington?
BT: It was a fascinating place. My whole life revolved around a 20-block radius. There was so much going on. We lived a couple of blocks from Howard University, a couple of blocks from the hospital, and a couple of blocks from Griffith Stadium, where the Washington Senators played. My dad was an athlete and played tennis and baseball, and my grandfather was a minister. His church, the Florida Baptist Church, was on Georgia Avenue at the time, right around the corner from Florida Avenue, right behind Griffith Stadium. [Photo: Joe DiMaggio at Griffith Stadium]

JW: Do you have brothers and sisters?
BT: I have a brother and sister who are both younger than me. My brother Rudolph was closer to me when we were growing up than my sister Joyce while I was away at college.

JW: Was there a lot of music in your home growing up?
BT: My Uncle Bob was a pianist. I tried to emulate him. He was a self-taught stride player. Several family members had taught themselves to play piano. My mother's sister's husband taught himself to play classical. Everybody on my father's side played--and he had five brothers and a sister. My Uncle Percy went to Juilliard. He was the conservatory-trained musician in the family and became well known in Washington as the organist at his father's church. My dad played piano and several brass instruments. He also had a great voice. I didn't inherit that. [laughs]. My dad led the choir at his father's church and was one of the principal singers there.

JW: Where did you listen to jazz records?
BT: A friend, Wallace Conway, who lived nearby introduced me to many different records. His father painted movie posters for all the black theaters in our neighborhood, including the Booker T, the Republic, the Lincoln and the Howard. He and Duke Ellington had gone to school together as art students when they were teenagers.

JW: Art school?
BT: Duke was very much into art before he became a piano player.

JW: So you had plenty to listen to?
BT: Oh, yes. Wallace had everything you could think of on record. As a matter of fact, he had the first record player that turned the records over automatically. And this was the early 1930s.

JW: Which jazz artist left the deepest impression?
BT: Art Tatum. When I was learning how to play, I asked my Uncle Bob to teach me to play the way Tatum did. He said, “I'm self-taught. I can't do that. You'll have to teach yourself." But he gave me my first record: The Shout by Art Tatum [1934]. All I could think when I heard it for the first time was, “Wow, who are those two guys" [laughs].

JW: Listening to Tatum didn't discourage you?
BT: I didn't have sense enough to be discouraged. I heard this guy play, and I said I had to learn how to do that. It was years before I even got close. But back in those days, we listened to all kinds of records.

JW: How did you get so good on the piano so fast?
BT: By practicing and studying a lot. Once I decided I wanted to soak myself in good music, Henry Grant, my music teacher who lived across the street, encouraged me. Duke [Ellington] had studied with Mr. Grant. I remember taking lessons with him and the phone would ring. Mr. Grant would excuse himself for 10 to 20 minutes. When he returned, he'd apologize and say it was Duke Ellington. Of course, I'd ask tons of questions. It was an amazing feeling to be taught by the same guy that had taught Duke.

JW: How often did you practice as a kid?
BT: A lot. My mother would sometimes have to chase me out to play ball with the guys.

JW: Did you see live music as well?
BT: Of course. At the Howard, every week there was a different show, usually a big band like Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford or Tiny Bradshaw. The Howard was so close to our home, and I knew who all the musicians were from the radio and their records. I was too young to play worth anything at that time.

JW: Which band stood out?
BT: Duke Ellington's. Many of the other big-name bands had come into the Howard once or twice before Duke came for the first time. So when he played there, it was a really big deal. His music was so different from everything else you heard. And everything about Duke was special. I remember standing outside and watching the guys in his band. My father's office was a block or so away. I was too young to say anything. I just stared in amazement.

JW: Did you ever get to talk to your jazz heroes?
BT: When I was 10 or 11 years old, Fats Waller came to the Lincoln Theater, where he played the organ and piano. He was playing organ out in the middle of the audience, so I could see his feet moving on the pedals. After the show, I went backstage. By this time I had been listening to his records. He was bigger than life. Literally. He was a huge guy. As I'm standing backstage, Fats passed by with his entourage, and I just stared at him. I didn't have nerve enough to say anything. I was in awe. He was one of my idols. He walked right by me and I just stood there.

JW: Did you follow him?
BT: Yes. Fats went around the corner on U Street to a hamburger place. I came in soon after and took a seat as close as I could but far enough not to be noticed. I just sat and listen to him tell some stories. Then he and his group got up and left. And I hadn't said a word.

JW: What did you do?
BT: I went back to the box office and paid another 15 cents to hear Fats do the show all over again. I deeply regretted not having talked to him. From that day forward I promised myself that if I ever got that close to someone I admired, I was going to bend his ear like he's never had it bent before.

JW: Did you keep that promise?
BT: From that point on, if I was in shouting distance of someone I wanted to know, I'd remember the Fats incident and became a pest, asking dozens of questions. The art of asking questions and listening to the answers is highly underrated. Years later, when I was playing on New York's 52nd Street, I was bending everyone's ear and learning a great deal. By then, of course, I had gone to college and had been a bandleader, so I had more confidence. I got more information bending people's ears in that short period when I was playing up and down the Street.

JW: Where was your first paying job?
BT: At the Republic Theater. I was paid a dollar to accompany a singer.

JW: Did your dad want you to become a dentist?
BT: Not particularly. But he definitely didn't want me to become a musician. This was the Depression, and everyone was scuffling to earn a living. My father didn't want me in an occupation that wouldn't let me earn a living. He said, “You have to think about how you'll support yourself. I won't be around forever."

JW: Did that knock the wind out of your sails?
BT: No. But my father was very convincing. So convincing that when I went to college at Virginia State, I was a sociology major. That made sense to me. I told myself, “I can always play piano." But I was so far into music in those days, it was too late. I also was fortunate to have had a music teacher in college who changed my life: Undine Smith Moore. She was a wonderful teacher and a remarkable lady, and had many students who went on to do marvelous things.

JW: Were you in the college band?
BT: I was in everything--the band, the choir, you name it. I also was playing on the side with a band in Richmond as a freshman. As you can see, I was already committed to music. Then in my junior year, Professor Moore called me into her office and asked me what my major was. I said, “Sociology." She said, “Wrong" [laughs]. From that point on I was a music major.

JW: What was your dad's reaction when he found out?
BT: My dad was a bit shocked. He said, “As long as you're big enough to change your major and not tell me, you can pay for the rest of your education." So I had to pay my own way in my junior and senior year, mostly by playing gigs. I learned later from a frat brother that my father had said he would pay if I defaulted.

JW: What was your first major paying job in college?
BT: I played with a band led by tenor saxophonist Benny Layton and another one called Johnson's Happy Pals. But when I was in college I worked so hard at my studies and playing to pay the bills that I nearly ruined my health. I came down with tuberculosis but didn't know it. When I got out of college I was drafted. But when they took one look at me, they said they needed soldiers but not that bad. In those days they didn't have a cure for TB except extended rest. So I took a year off in 1942 to rest, with my mother looking after me.

JW: Did you practice while you were resting?
BT: Yes, during my recuperation, I practiced at least eight hours a day. A short time after I was better, I was able to get a job, and I started saving to go to New York.

JW: Did you meet Charlie Parker during this period?
BT: Yes, before he was Charlie Parker [laughs]. I met him when he was with the Earl Hines band, in 1943. That band sounded wonderful. I was close friends with trumpeter Little Benny Harris, who was around my age and was in the band. So when Little Benny came off the bandstand during a break, I wanted to talk to him. When he walked backstage, he was with Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan and Parker, who at the time played tenor saxophone in the band. Everyone was talking about Parker and how incredible he was.

JW: What did you think?
BT: I didn't care much for Parker's sound on the instrument. I had been listening to Budd Johnson [pictured] at the time and thought this guy Parker wasn't anywhere near Budd's level. But after listening to Little Benny and a couple of other musicians rave about him, I paid another 15 cents to hear what I might have missed in next set.

JW: Did you miss anything?
BT: Not I didn't [laughs]. I said to myself, “He's still no Budd Johnson." I liked Coleman Hawkins, Johnson and Chu Berry--guys with a big tenor sound. I liked the big sound. It was in my ear.

JW: How was your New York savings account?
BT: By early 1944 I had saved enough. I arrived in New York on a Friday night and went to the home of my mother's brother, who was a dentist. I figured I wouldn't get a job playing right away. As a fall back, I decided I'd hang out and learn something. So as soon as I got to my uncle's house, I dropped my bags and told him that some people were expecting me.

JW: Were they?
BT: No. It was a big lie. I didn't know anyone, but I didn't want to waste any time. I wanted to go right to Minton's, which was in Harlem on 118th Street, just a short bus ride away. So that's what I did.

JW: What happened when you got there?
BT: When I walked in, I introduced myself to the piano player, whose name escapes me now. I remember asking him if I could sit in. I had played in college and in Washington, so I felt comfortable enough asking. He said, “Sure."

JW: When did you go on?
BT: I sat around all night, from 9 pm to 2:45 am. Then I finally got my shot on the last set, which ran from 3 to 4 am. So there I was, sitting at the piano playing when I look up. Who's there? Ben Webster, and he's standing right in front of me. Ben was one of my idols. I had wanted to play tenor like he played when I was younger.

JW: Did he like what you were playing?
BT: He stood close to the piano and looked over my shoulder at my hands. Most people aren't aware that Ben was a fine pianist. There were now 10 or 15 guys on the bandstand playing. This was a jam session. The music was on time and fast. They were showing off. Ben was beautiful.

JW: Was he happy with your playing?
BT: Even though I wasn't playing anything but comp [merely playing the song's chords behind musicians], Ben was curious about what I was doing. On the break, he came over and asked who I was. I didn't know at the time that his first instrument was the piano. So when he had looked over at me, he knew exactly what I was doing on the piano. He was interested because I was playing an accompaniment that was unusual.

JW: How so?
BT: It was based on something that Duke Ellington had done.

JW: Tell me technically what you were doing.
BT: I was harmonizing the way Duke had done on In a Mellow Tone. In Duke's left hand he played a 9th chord with four notes. In his right hand he played an octave with one note in between, on the fifth. I began to do that, and I created a sound. I used that as the basis for harmonizing behind horn players.

JW: How was this different?
BT: Most guys who played comp were conducting business in the middle of the piano, which is where most things were written. But if you listen to Duke Ellington's introduction to In a Mellow Tone, that's the way I was playing. I wanted the sound Duke got when he did that. I built a whole style on that approach.

JW: What did Ben think?
BT: He loved it very much. He asked me who I was. I told him. He asked what I wanted to do. I said I was looking for work. He said, “Why don't you come down to the Three Deuces on 52nd Street on Sunday night, when it's quieter. I'll listen to you, and we'll talk."

JW: Were you excited?
BT: Saturday took forever to pass. On Sunday I went down to the Three Deuces and got a gig. On the first day I was in town I played with Ben Webster. By the third day, I got a gig with him [laughs].

JW: Was Ben a generous guy?
BT: Ben was a very nice man. He was jolly. He was funny. When I worked with him, he made me want to make the piano really sing. By the time I finished with Ben and joined violinist Eddie South's band several months later, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I was confident.

JazzWax tracks: To hear the music that inspired Billy Taylor during his youth, take a listen to the following at iTunes:

Fats Waller: Rarities. The joy and genius are both present on this fabulous album. You'll find Art Tatum's The Shout on Art Tatum: Classic Piano Solos (1934-1937). Duke Ellington's In a Mellow Tone can be found on many compilations. You can hear the intro Billy was referring to by sampling the track on The Best of Duke Ellington. As for Budd Johnson, one of my favorite tracks by the tenor giant is Serenade in Blue, off Let's Swing from 1960.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved.

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