NEW YORK — Billy Taylor, an acclaimed jazz pianist and composer who became one of the genre’s most ardent advocates through radio, television and the landmark Jazzmobile arts venture, has died at age 89.
Taylor died Tuesday of a heart attack in Manhattan, said his wife, Theodora Taylor. “He enjoyed his life,” she said. “Music was his love.”
Though he had a noteworthy career as a musician and composer that spanned decades, and played with luminaries such as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, Billy Taylor was probably best known as a tireless jazz booster, educator and broadcaster.
Dr. Taylor, as he preferred to be called, was the first black to lead a television studio orchestra in the 1950s. He helped found Jazzmobile in the 1960s – which began as mobile, outdoor concerts on a parade float to bring free music to inner city neighborhoods. He was host of a popular jazz show on National Public Radio from 1977 to 1982.
And, in what he later called one of his more significant accomplishments, he profiled musicians for CBS’ Sunday Morning show – winning an Emmy Award in 1983 for a piece on Quincy Jones.
Arnold J. Smith, a professor of jazz history at New Jersey City University and friend of Taylor’s, said the pianist was “one of our best spokesmen ever in the history of this music. To the point that, it’s my feeling and others, that he sacrificed his jazz piano playing for the cause of jazz.”
When asked by an interviewer in 2007 how he would talk to a jazz newbie, Taylor said it depended on the “quality of the music.”
“When it’s well played, there’s not a lot you have to say, because if you play it right, then people get that melody, the rhythm, or whatever the aspect of the music is that is attractive to them,” he said. “But one of the things that we have not done is to put jazz in the position that it deserves in our society.”
For Taylor, jazz was a central musical form for telling the story of America.
“If you really listen to that, study that, everything you need to know about America is right there, and it’s up to us who’ve experienced much of that to be able to share that,” he continued.
William Taylor was born July 24, 1921, in Greenville, N.C., but he grew up mostly in Washington, D.C. After graduating from Virginia State College, where he studied sociology and music in the 1940s, he moved to New York City to forge a career as a jazz pianist.
He lucked out, landing a gig playing with Ben Webster, Big Sid Catlett and Charlie Drayton opposite the Art Tatum Trio, he told an interviewer in 1994.
His went on to lead the Billy Taylor Trio, and composed dozens of pieces for ensembles as well as more than 300 songs, including the popular “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free.”
Besides his wife, he is survived by a daughter, Kim Taylor-Thompson, a law professor at New York University. A son, Duane, died in 1988. Funeral arrangements were pending.