“The Steinway piano is without a doubt the finest piano made. Its tone is magnificent and its well balanced action really superb. For me no piano in the world can equal it.”
Dr. Billy Taylor
Across a career of seven decades, the pianist, educator, broadcaster and author Billy Taylor (1921–2010) was renowned as an institutional ambassador of jazz. Before the era of Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center, Taylor was America’s most ubiquitous and indefatigable promoter of jazz as both fun and a fine art, whether teaching at various colleges or as the long-running artistic director of jazz the Kennedy Center in his hometown of Washington, D.C. His extensive broadcast career included an Emmy Award-winning stint as a correspondent on music for CBS News Sunday Morning, as well as years as a DJ in New York City and then as a host for a sequence of National Public Radio programs from 1977 to 2001. As an artist, his big break was as house pianist for Manhattan’s Birdland club in the late 1940s, where Taylor backed artists from Charlie Parker to Stan Getz. Taylor also worked in the bebop era with the likes of Ben Webster, Billie Holiday and Machito. In the early ’50s, the pianist co-composed “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” which would become a key song of the Civil Rights Movement. It has been covered by artists from Nina Simone to John Legend & the Roots, as well as used as a theme for the Olympics and various TV programs and ad campaigns. In 1958, Taylor became musical director of NBC’s The Subject of Jazz, the first major network TV series on the music; and he would later become music director of The David Frost Show. In New York City in the mid-’60s, the pianist founded the Jazzmobile arts outreach program, which would eventually produce Peabody Award-winning broadcasts. He also served on government panels for the arts on the city, state and federal level.
The New York Times described Dr. Billy Taylor — who was proud of having earned a PhD at in music education at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst — as coming across like “a genial professor,” adding that the pianist’s “greatest asset is a sense of jazz as entertainment, and he’s not going to be obscure about it.” The Guardian noted Taylor’s swing-to-bop lineage as a pianist — his influences ranging from Fats Waller to Teddy Wilson to Bud Powell – while also praising his “warmth, openness and cultural breadth” as a proselytizer for jazz. Taylor was a longtime Steinway Artist, saying: “The Steinway is without a doubt the finest piano made. Its tone is magnificent and its well-balanced action really superb. For me, no piano in the world can equal it.” His autobiography, The Jazz Life of Dr. Billy Taylor, was published posthumously, in 2013. Taylor’s honors included a National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Masters award and a National Medal of Arts. —Bradley Bambarger