Billy Taylor (July 24, 1921 – December 28, 2010), jazz pianist, educator, journalist.

Dr. Billy Taylor was an outstanding jazz pianist and one of the most widely heard ambassadors for jazz in the media. After graduating from college, he moved to New York City and began a six-decade long career in music. He started playing with saxophonist Ben Webster before becoming the house pianist at New York’s famed Birdland club, where he regularly played for stars like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and numerous others. He also composed jazz songs, including the classic civil rights anthem I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free,” which was made famous in vocal version by Nina Simone.

Billy Taylor with Marian McPartland

In addition to his career as a performing musician, Billy Taylor was extremely active as a jazz educator, both in academia and the media. He was a Professor of Music at East Carolina University and had been a Duke Ellington Fellow at Yale University. In the late 50’s, he hosted the NBC TV program “The Subject is Jazz,” the first televsion program devoted to jazz music. He also worked as a DJ in New York, ran the city’s Jazzmobile program, and directed the band for David Frost’s talk show. After being the first guest on Marian McPartland’s “Piano Jazz” radio program for NPR, he went on to host several of his own shows on NPR, including “Taylor Made Piano,” “Jazz Alive,” “Jazz Set,” and “Billy Taylor’s Jazz at Kennedy Center,” where he served as artistic director. He also was a regular correspondent for CBS TV’s “Sunday Morning” program.

In addition to an earned doctorate in music education, Dr. Taylor was the recipient of over 20 honorary degrees, 2 Peabody Awards, an Emmy, and a Grammy, as well as  an NEA Jazz Master, the National Medal of Arts, Downbeat magazine’s Lifetime Achievement Award and ASCAP’s Living Legend award. He was also a founding board member of the Jazz Foundation of America, which offered financial help to jazz and blues musicians.

Billy Taylor died at his home from a heart attack. He is remembered for his generosity, warmth, and devotion to introducing jazz to generations of listeners. Speaking of the music he loved, Dr. Taylor said:

“The thing that is making jazz healthy today is that people are coming out of other backgrounds – from rock, folk, from ethnic music. It’s changing the music, and for the better.”

Visit the official Billy Taylor website: