When Dr. Billy Taylor died from heart failure on December 28, 2010, the jazz world not only lost a great pianist, it lost one of its most eloquent champions.
He was born on July 21, 1921, in Greenville, North Carolina. His parents were both professionals: His mother was a schoolteacher and his father was a dentist. Shortly after Taylor was born, the family moved to Washington, D.C. It was there that the young Taylor got his first exposure to jazz, which led him (at the tender age of 7) to inform his parents he wanted to learn to play.
His first teacher was a lady who lived in his neighborhood. She was followed later on by ragtime pianist Louis Brown. Taylor continued his musical studies in high school, and occasionally played jam sessions in the school basement with budding saxophonist Frank Wess, who was one year behind him. Eventually, Taylor earned a Ph.D. in 1975 at the University of Massachusetts.
Over the years he played with a virtual who’s who of the jazz world, including Ben Webster, Art Tatum, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, and many others.
Besides backing other artists on their projects, Taylor released a large number of recordings under his own name. The one I want to tell you about is his 1993 release on the GRP label, “Dr. T”.
The personnel for this one were:
Dr. Billy Taylor, piano
Gerry Mulligan, tenor sax (tracks 2, 3 & 10)
Victor Gaskin, bass
Bobby Thomas, drums
“Dr. T” opens with “I’ll Remember April,” a delightful song that starts out sounding like a soulful ballad. The pace soon quickens, however, and you find yourself listening to as animated a piece of bop as you’re likely to ever run across.
Here are the guys performing “I’ll Remember April”:
“I’ll Remember April” is followed by “‘Round Midnight.” Mulligan does an outstanding job here, not that you would expect him to do otherwise. This one is Mulligan’s showcase until about halfway through when he steps aside and gives up the lead to Taylor. About seven and a half minutes into this ten minute song Mulligan joins in again and all four take it to the end.
One of Mulligan’s classic compositions follows, the rambunctious “Line For Lyons.” This piece has long been one of my favorite jazz songs, and this version is eminently enjoyable.
Ray Bryant’s “Cubano Chant” is up next. This too is a lively song, predictable only in its excellence.
You can find out just how lively it is by listening to the video below:
Skipping ahead a ways we find ourselves at “Laurentide Waltz” from the fertile mind of Oscar Peterson. I don’t know whether to call this one slowly beautiful or beautifully slow. Whichever way you look at it, it’s a fine song performed by a group at the top of their game.
The next two songs were both pulled from Taylor’s own oeuvre, if I may use that word. “You’re Mine” is a short (2:45) but lively bop that surely had everyone’s fingers flying to keep up with Taylor. “Just The Thought Of You,” somewhat longer at almost seven and a half minutes, is a more mellow piece of music. The title implies introspection, and the song itself seems made to be the background for just that.
The album closes with one more song from Mulligan’s extensive songbook, “Rico Apollo.” Although Mulligan himself is absent, the others more than do it justice and it provides an excellent ending to an outstanding album.
You’ve probably already figured this out, but I’m going to tell you anyway that I believe you will find Dr. Billy Taylor’s album, “Dr. T” to be a fantastic addition to your personal playlist, for a Saturday or any other night!
If you’d like to learn more about the late Dr. Billy Taylor and his music, here are some good places to start.
First off is his own web site, which does not appear to have been updated since before his death in 2010. There is nonetheless some good information to be had there, as well as high-resolution photos. I don’t think I would be clicking the “Buy This CD” button though.
JazzTimes magazine posted a lengthy bio of Taylor after his death.
The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts likewise has a lengthy bio.
And finally, a website I only just discovered in the course of researching this article has another very extensive bio: Jazz History Online.
Thanks for reading this.
Wood Village, Oregon
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