During his six-decades-and-counting career, pianist, composer, educator and media personality Billy Taylor has led a charmed life. His rise was the result of natural talent polished by hard work, guided and nurtured by teachers and mentors, and borne aloft by remarkable good fortune; he had an uncanny knack for being in the right place at the perfect time.
His fame as television's face of jazz — notably as the music reporter with “CBS Sunday Morning” — may have eclipsed his exceptional gifts as a musician. Those will be on full display when he performs May 14, leading a rare trio performance at Virginia State University's Anderson-Turner Auditorium.
Although Taylor grew up about a block away from Howard University in Washington, D.C., his 1938 enrollment at his father's alma mater, Virginia State College for Negroes, later Virginia State University, was almost as much a foregone conclusion as his pledging his father's fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi. A career in music seemed far less likely. “It was during the Depression,” Taylor says, reached by telephone. “My dad said I should do something I could make a living at. So for the first two years I was a sociology major.”
His dutiful dedication to the social sciences ended when he says a “wonderful teacher,” Undine Moore, noted that based on the courses he was taking he was a music major. “My father hit the ceiling,” Taylor recalls. “He told me, ‘If you are going to be a musician you can pay your last two years in college. I really had to scuffle.”
Taylor found work with some of the leading local dance bands, such as Johnson's Happy Pals and Benny Layton and the Rhythm Kings. “I later found out my father had made arrangements with one of my fraternity brothers that if I couldn't pay what I owed then he would pick it up,” Taylor says. “But not knowing that I went on and earned it, and worked hard and missed a lot of sleep so by the time I graduated I was in bad shape.”
So bad that, although it was 1942 and World War II was raging, Taylor was diagnosed with tuberculosis and rejected by the army. After recovering he got a job as a clerk in the Pentagon, and, when he had the opportunity, moved to New York City. He'd been very fortunate on an earlier trip, during the 1939 World's Fair, and serendipitously ended up among a conclave of first-rank players in pianist James P. Johnson's brownstone — meeting, among others, the young Thelonious Monk.
With so many of his contemporaries in the service, there was less competition in the wartime city. “I heard there was a possibility of getting heard if you went to Minton's, a jazz club in Harlem,” he says of the spot that later became famous as the birthplace of bebop. “So I went there and sat around all night waiting for the pianist to let me sit in.”
Taylor finally got to the bandstand just as tenor saxophone legend Ben Webster came in; three days later he was in Webster's band on 52nd Street, the epicenter of what came to be regarded as the golden age of jazz. There were about 10 clubs within two blocks, featuring a who's who of jazz giants, including Charlie Parker, Art Tatum, Monk, Dizzy Gillespie and, soon, the young Miles Davis.
The generous guidance and mentoring Taylor received during those establishing years is a debt he still labors to repay. He launched the Jazzmobile to “present, preserve, promote and propagate” the music, and, as artistic director for Jazz at the Kennedy Center for the past 15 years, has founded the Mary Lou Williams woman's jazz festival to promote gender equality. Now “pretty much retired” he is still engaged in the endless struggle for opportunity based on artistic merit.
“The fight is between things of quality and things that are garbage all over the television and all over the media, with people who don't know what they are doing, don't care what they are doing, who just want to make some money.” It's a fight that Taylor ruefully admits “we are not going to win. But,” the elegant pianist promises, “We aren't going to give up gracefully.”
Billy Taylor performs at VSU's Anderson-Turner Auditorium on May 14 at 7 p.m. as part of Virginia State's alumni weekend. Tickets $25 (for students), $50 general admission and $150 for reserved VIPs. For information, call 524-5559 or go to vsu.edu.