Thursday, May 26, 2016

Tales of Taylor

As a DJ on WLIB in New York City during the 1960s, Billy Taylor played music by his friends and musical associates, and shared stories of the jazz life with his thousands of listeners. Photo from "Jazz: The First Century"

Ladies and gents, Billy Taylor: jazz's forgotten jack of all trades. The guy could play like Tatum, composed and arranged over 300 tunes, performed on hundreds of record albums, hosted his own jazz radio programs locally in New York City and nationally over NPR, did television shows for NBC and NET, created Harlem's Jazzmobile, taught college level jazz courses, and could speak with the erudition of PhD candidate. Wiki says over the course of his career he amassed 23 honorary doctoral degrees. I believe it. 

So why is it that today Billy Taylor is largely overlooked when jazz aficionados congregate? Why isn't his music taken more seriously? Even Oscar Peterson, himself a Tatum follower with a tendency to indulge in easy stylistic grandstanding, gets more props than Dr. Billy. It's a mystery.

I first started listening seriously to Dr. Taylor's music back when he went on air with "Jazz Alive!" on NPR back in the mid-'70s. Every week he featured real jazz players (at least, I considered them so) in live performance. I heard Rollins, Max Roach, the Heath Brothers, Dizzy, Mingus and many others on his broadcasts. But I also heard Braxton, Sam Rivers, Chico Freeman, the Art Ensemble and other leaders of the creative music movement. I taped many of the segments and still listen to them today. Billy may not have liked all the music he featured, but he brought it to the airwaves for all of us to share regardless of his feelings. For that alone, I deeply respect him. Nobody else did that.

But then there was his playing. The guy could play, and while he was not a genius like Bud Powell or a visionary like Cecil Taylor, he could surprise and delight with the best of them. 

Case in point, this hoary Roost recording. A compendium of earlier sessions, the music comes from the early '50s and captures Taylor under the joint sway of Tatum and Powell. His performances are brisk and pyrotechnic, and if you've not really heard his early work before, this LP is for you. The sound is iffy in places, due in large part to a previous owner's bad needle, but I think the download is definitely worth the price of admission. Dubbed, as always, from the original wax, fear not!

Taylor Made Piano 
Billy Taylor
Roost LP 2222

Billy Taylor, p; Chuck Wayne*, Mundell Lowe, g; Earl May, b; Frank Colon, cnga; Zoot Sims, maracas; Charlie Smith, Jo Jones*, d. 
New York, NY; November 1, 1951; May 2, 1952; autumn 1952.

1. Just Squeeze Me*
2. Feeling Frisky (Taylor)*
3. Making Whoopee
4. Tiroro (Taylor)
5. Moonlight Saving Time
6. Cu-Blu (Taylor)*

Billy Taylor, p; Charles Mingus, b; Marquis Foster, d.
Storyville Club, Boston, MA; Autumn 1952

7. I'm Beginning to See the Light
8. All the Things You Are
9. Lady Bird

Find it here: