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Posted at 12:56 PM ET, 12/29/2010

Jazz great Billy Taylor, pianist, educator & media personality, dies at 89

By Matt Schudel
Matt Schudel

Billy Taylor, one of the musical treasures of Washington and the world, died last night, Dec. 28, at a hospital in New York City. He was 89 and died of a heart attack.

Dr. Taylor, as he was known to one and all, was a first-rate jazz pianist who grew up in Washington and was a graduate of Dunbar High School. He moved to New York in the early 1940s and was present at the birth of bebop, the new vernacular of music that transformed jazz. He played alongside Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis and became a protege of the greatest jazz pianist ever, Art Tatum.

In the 1950s, Dr. Taylor began to branch out into broadcasting with a television series, "The Subject Is Jazz," and with radio programs. He appeared on CBS over the years, particuarly on "CBS Sunday Morning," interviewing and performing many of the great artists in jazz.

Dr. Taylor -- who earned a doctorate in education, by the way -- had been the artistic adviser for jazz programming at the Kennedy Center and was a constant presence at concerts at the center. He often performed with his own trio and other groups and helped make the Kennedy Center one of the most important venues for jazz in America. He launched the annual Women in Jazz Festival at the Kennedy Center and was instrumental in developing other concert series.

For several years, he was the host of an NPR series, "Billy Taylor's Jazz at the Kennedy Center," and many people considered him the foremost jazz educator of his -- or any -- time.

Dr. Taylor received every award there is in jazz and the arts, including the National Medal of Arts in 1992, and was designated a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1988.

I knew Dr. Taylor somewhat, and I treasure the memory of visiting him once at the Watergate hotel, interrupting him as he was practicing on an electric piano in his room. We sat and talked for more than an hour for background for a story you can find here

We'll have a full obituary up soon, but in the meantime, here's a taste of Dr. Taylor doing what he did best -- talking about jazz and demonstrating at the keyboard why he was so important to the music and everyone who loves it.

By Matt Schudel  | December 29, 2010; 12:56 PM ET
Categories:  Matt Schudel  
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Billy Taylor will be missed. But what's the deal with Mr. Schudel's apparent surprise that Taylor earned a doctorate in education? No serious person whose only doctorate is honorary would allow himself or herself to be referred to as "Dr." Taylor was called Dr. because he was one; that shouldn't be a cause for surprise by anyone.

Posted by: Rob_ | December 29, 2010 3:00 PM | Report abuse

Yet ANOTHER sad day!

Posted by: wcmillionairre | December 29, 2010 3:13 PM | Report abuse

Wow! A true legend in the music world! And a beloved brother of KAPPA ALPHA PSI FRATERNITY by way of Virginia State University. He will be truly missed by all who cherished his music and knew and loved him. RIP my dear brother . . . PNP.

Posted by: jwhawk | December 29, 2010 3:50 PM | Report abuse

The following is not nice or respectful, but it’s true. Because sometimes the truth needs to be said.

Billy Taylor spent his life converting jazz into boring, stodgy, white-wine-and-cheese music for the PBS crowd.

Like anything, jazz had its time. For 60+ years it was some of the most exciting and creative music on the planet. Like rock ‘n’ roll or hip hop in their times, it was perceived as dangerous and a threat to social order. Because it was, in the best way.

Taylor was around during the 50s-60s, but he wasn't anything special at all. Really, he was one of the dullest pianists of that era. So to make himself look important, he spent the 70s onward ushering jazz's dying body into some corporate-funded museum where it could become a corpse - embalmed, dignified and unthreatening. That’s all his so-called jazz-education amounts to. He may have collected prestigious awards and earned a doctorate, but he was no Doctor Jazz.

Posted by: karlmarx2 | December 29, 2010 3:52 PM | Report abuse

He seemed younger than 89! RIP Dr. Taylor.

Posted by: johng1 | December 29, 2010 4:07 PM | Report abuse

Dr. Taylor's contribution to jazz and to American culture has been significant.

I oppose the comments that he was only embalming a dying art form by inventing jazz education. The impact of jazz education has resulted in many young people whose understanding and appreciation of the art has impacted positively upon them and on our cultural life as well.

Thank you Dr. Taylor! Peace to your memory.


Posted by: A-Claerbaut | December 29, 2010 4:39 PM | Report abuse

karlmarx2 wrote...

.."The following is not nice or respectful, but it’s true. Because sometimes the truth needs to be said."

The man just died and whether or not one agrees with your assessment of Billy Taylor's place in jazz history your post was ill-timed to say the least.

Posted by: lrossmusic | December 29, 2010 5:07 PM | Report abuse

The song I want at my funeral --
May his memory be a blessing.

Posted by: esthermiriam | December 29, 2010 5:21 PM | Report abuse

The man just died and whether or not one agrees with your assessment of Billy Taylor's place in jazz history your post was ill-timed to say the least.

Posted by: lrossmusic

Correct, the man just died, and thus there are the obituary and the usual eulogies that come with it. Others are taking care of that.

I had something else to say about Mr. Taylor. I believe that he did a great disservice and disrespect to the real spirit and sound of jazz.

Living music, like any living art, does not need explaining or enshrining. It only needs to be heard and experienced. It is not taught in schools. It does not need your tax-deductible donation (and with a $50 pledge you receive a free tote bag!). It is made by people who have to create, and listened to by people who want something new and real and alive. Jazz thrived for decades without the assistance of anyone like Taylor. It never needed the likes of him.

Most of all, I object to Billy Taylor being called an artist. He was a uninspiring-player-turned-huckster who sold his safely packaged, pasteurized and sanitized version of jazz to people who collect culture instead of living in it.

Posted by: karlmarx2 | December 29, 2010 5:34 PM | Report abuse

Listen to "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free". He will be missed.

Posted by: stig1 | December 29, 2010 5:40 PM | Report abuse

Hey Karlmarx2 - see that volcanic lava in front of your house; jump in it. Billy Taylor didn't ruin jazz. Jazz is what it is. No music endures as the popular sound forever, but Jazz is art, and art is us, and Billy Taylor help further that art, and in turn, helped further us. so back to the volcanic ash, if it is still there, jump in it.

Posted by: isometruman1 | December 29, 2010 5:41 PM | Report abuse

I had something else to say about Mr. Taylor. I believe that he did a great disservice and disrespect to the real spirit and sound of jazz.

post by: karlmarx2

All of that may be true, I just felt you could have waited a while...I am sure there will be plenty of time a little later on to get into all of that kind of discussion.
I guess I am just old fashioned.

Posted by: lrossmusic | December 29, 2010 5:56 PM | Report abuse

I was blessed to work with Dr. Taylor on a Sister Cities project many years ago. A wonderful musician, teacher, and Washingtonian.

Posted by: FaroutDC | December 29, 2010 6:00 PM | Report abuse

In other words just because something may be true doesn't mean it's the right time to say it.

Posted by: lrossmusic | December 29, 2010 6:03 PM | Report abuse

Another wonderful contributor to the arts and education from the UMass roster of alums.

How very disheartening to read the rude comments posted here. Those who seem to know so much about so much more than anyone else seem to know so little about holding their tongues until the right time and place.

Posted by: marymary | December 29, 2010 6:03 PM | Report abuse

I have Dr. T on tape with (among others) Ray Barretto. Dr. T, ever the educator and gentleman, asks Ray about "clave" as if he (Dr. T) didn't already know ... but Dr. T had been Machito's pianist in the late 40's and steeped in "clave" by Mario Bauza`! But he let Ray go on about it and, in so doing, contributed to the public's musical education.
The "Doctor" ... you bet!

Posted by: phvr38 | December 29, 2010 6:19 PM | Report abuse

Those who .... know so little about holding their tongues until the right time and place.

posted by: marymary

Yes that says it best ! When a person has just passed away a public forum wouldn't be the place to say something unkind about that person a private conversation maybe ... but from my era even then it would be in very poor taste.
Oh well they world is changing, what else is new?

Posted by: lrossmusic | December 29, 2010 6:22 PM | Report abuse

Wow,Karl,so disrespectful,as well as untrue.Besides other things,it was Billy's idea to put jazz on a flatbed,called it the Jazzmobile,and sent real jazz players of the time,of the moment,into urban areas so everyone,especially kids,could listen to this stuff for free and maybe learn something about it. And a little explaining doesn't hurt the magic. I wish I had a little help when getting into this stuff decades ago. My little radio,some records, downbeat and a few books. Dr. Taylor brought it to the masses up front,no glass window,to be on display for whoever was attracted to it. A beautiful,elegant,smart and soulful man. A sad day is his passing.

Posted by: JackAcidSocietyMember | December 29, 2010 7:23 PM | Report abuse

Artistic tastes, like many things, are not destined to last, which may have no relation to their intrinsic worth. But for those who did not experience the great era of jazz, Billy Taylor did a great educational service, regardless of his talents. It is ironic that you take a moniker for a philosophy that also had its greatest run of 60 or 70 years, but unlike jazz, had little intrinsic worth.

Posted by: ronbcust | December 29, 2010 8:00 PM | Report abuse

I cannot speak to Dr. Taylor's piano playing, but I loved his narrative and interview voice like no other. I had just inquired about a profile he had done on Aretha Franklin in the 60's on his website. His musical education went beyond jazz.

I will miss his voice.

Posted by: bironi | December 29, 2010 8:58 PM | Report abuse

Can jazz be taught? You bet it can. Jazz like most forms of music is an expression of oneself. The tools through which that expression is made can be taught to those that desire to spend the time. In the early days jazz musicians just hung out and learned from each other and through jam sessions. Jazz is America's classical music.
Jazz has always been for the most part a musicians music. There's nothing more exciting than listening to a great player adlib spontaneously over some of the greatest songs ever written. If you don't understand the language, you will probably be bored...
Billy Taylor was an exciting player and teacher. RIP

Posted by: jblast2000 | December 29, 2010 9:41 PM | Report abuse

I have great affection for Billy Taylor's personality AND playing.

Music comes in many forms -- and to write that he was 'detrimental to real jazz' is absurd, (and just, like, your opinion).

Also, @ first comment posted -- reporter Matt Schudel did not imply 'surprise' that Dr. Taylor had a doctorate. Please!

Posted by: gailen | December 30, 2010 1:17 AM | Report abuse

To karlmarx2>
"Best to be thought an idiot than to open one's mouth(in your case, use your computer for input)and remove all doubt". It's apparent that you lack the depth of understanding what Dr. Taylor was trying to do. His main purpose was to educate the masses about this prodigious music. He was not about proclaiming himself to be the greatest "jazz" musician ever although he did influence a generation of artists who were fortunate enough to have come in contact with him. Since I doubt that you watched it, for a start, I suggest you watch the "clip" that was provided here to try and grasp what this great man was all about. It just might help enlighten you and others who may tend to think like you.

Posted by: centaurca | January 1, 2011 9:59 PM | Report abuse

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