Pianist who played with legendary Charlie Parker and was jazz advocate
Published 09/01/2011 | 05:00
Billy Taylor, who died on December 28 aged 89, was a pianist, composer, academic and tireless advocate for jazz (which he described as "America's classical music") on radio and television.
His gospel-style composition I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free was recorded by Nina Simone and adopted as the unofficial anthem of the civil rights movement. Many people, however, know the tune as the introductory music to the popular BBC television show Film Night, formerly presented by Barry Norman.
William Edward Taylor, the son of a dentist and a schoolmistress, was born on July 24, 1921, in Greenville, North Carolina, and grew up in Washington DC. He began taking formal piano lessons at junior high school.
Meanwhile, a neighbour, who had been a boyhood friend of Duke Ellington, and had a large record collection, introduced him to jazz. This set the pattern of his musical education through high school and Virginia State College, where he read music and spent the evenings sitting in with every band he could find.
In 1943, at the age of 22, Taylor was determined to try his luck in New York. He arrived on a Friday night and made straight for Minton's Playhouse in Harlem, where ambitious young players were always welcome to sit in. Before the weekend was out he had been spotted by the great tenor saxophonist Ben Webster and hired to play with his quartet at the Three Deuces on 52nd Street, the very epicentre of the jazz world at the time.
Taylor soon discovered that his greatest asset was his adaptability. An acute ear for the nuances of individual players enabled him to accompany soloists of widely differing styles. In 1949 he became the house pianist at Birdland, accompanying all the leading figures of the era, including Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and the young Miles Davis.
In 1951, Taylor formed his own trio, which appeared at jazz clubs throughout the US and Canada. Despite the trio's success, Taylor often found the nightclub ambience frustrating: if people knew more about the music, he thought, they would enjoy it more, and the result would be a better experience for audience and players alike.
He began by writing introductory articles on jazz in popular magazines. This led to a series of lectures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and eventually to a second career in television and radio.
He became a cultural correspondent on the CBS Sunday Morning news programme and had several long-running series on National Public Radio.
One of his most imaginative schemes was aimed at reintroducing jazz to the black neighbourhoods where it had once flourished. Launched in 1965 under the heading Jazzmobile, the organisation staged free concerts by top-class artists in housing estates, parks and on street corners.
Taylor's growing fame as the spokesman for jazz inevitably overshadowed his own considerable but unspectacular musical talents. He acknowledged this, but was always keen to point out that, between 1969 and 1972, he acted as the musical director of David Frost's weekly American television show, the first African-American musician to hold such a position.
He is survived by his wife and daughter; a son predeceased him.