Dr. Billy Taylor (1921-2010)
by Joe Alterman, 3/19/2011

One thing that’s always stuck out in my head about Dr. Billy Taylor was how he pronounced Erroll Garner’s last name. “Gah-nuh,” or “Gahr-nuh,” he’d say. Not “Gar-ner”, like we say today. His pronunciation made the last name sound almost royal and Dr. Taylor, being the first jazz legend I ever spent a good amount of time with, made me feel –with just that simple and honest name pronunciation – welcomed into his world and into a bygone era of jazz greatness. 

I was very fortunate to have spent a bit of time with Dr. Taylor at Jazz In July, a summer program that he founded at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. I went for one summer and there, was treated with a two-hour group piano lesson from Dr. Taylor each morning for two full weeks. 

Dr. Taylor was just a thrill to be around. I remember the first day of the program, when the entire faculty performed; I introduced myself to him at the end of the concert. I was very young at the time, fully obsessed with jazz, but not very good at playing it. I couldn’t resist, in that introduction, asking him about Ed Thigpen (my favorite drummer at the time). He was so kind and I remember being taken aback by how long he spent telling me about Thigpen and how much he enjoyed playing with him. “Mingus stole him from me though,” he said, laughing. 

The group lessons were a thrill. They were difficult too; it was the very first time I’ve played for one of my heroes, and it was extremely nerve-racking for me to play for him. But he was very encouraging, and helpful too. He showed me things that no book could. I remember playing “Misty” one day. After I finished, Dr. Taylor sat down at the piano and showed me a few ideas, things that Erroll Garner had showed him directly. He told me that he spent many late nights with Erroll in the late 1940’s, playing piano duets late into the night after each had finished their gigs on 52nd Street. 

Dr. Taylor would always stay after class and was always eager to talk with us. I remember one day in specific; we must have stayed for an hour and a half past the end of class. Dr. Taylor told us the wildest stories I’d ever heard. He told us about one specific gig with Sonny Rollins where Sonny was late. Billy’s trio began to play and, all of the sudden, in the middle of the tune, Sonny made his way down the stairs of the club, blowing his horn powerfully, mid song. 

He told us about his days at Atlantic Records in the early 1960’s. He said that, for a while, they were looking for a “new sound” and they thought that he, Dr. Taylor, mght help them find it. Every day he’d go to the Atlantic Records office and play some new music they’d give him. Every day they’d say, “No, that’s not it.” Then, one day, he came in to work and they said, “Mr. Taylor (I remember him saying “I wasn’t a Doctor then.”), we’re sorry, but we’ve found the sound we’re looking for.” 

“Oh yeah?” He asked. “What’s that?” 

“A young, blind pianist named Ray Charles.” 

Dr. Taylor then looked at us, laughed, and said “I remember saying to them, ‘A blind pianist? That’ll never last.’”

One day, I worked up the nerve to show Dr. Taylor a stride piece I was working on, “Lulu’s Back In Town.” I really couldn’t play stride very well back then, but I wanted to see what Dr. Taylor would say. After playing it, he showed me a few different ways of playing stride on that particular piece. Then he told me about the time he got shown up by the great Jelly Roll Morton! 

He said it was in Washington, D.C. and it was during the period that Billy was really known as a great, young, modern pianist. He had been ignorant of Jelly Roll Morton but decided to go down to listen to him play at a club. Apparently, Jelly Roll got word that some young “hotshots” were in the house, and he approached their table. He looked at Dr. Taylor and his friends and said, “I bet you can’t play this,” and then walked backed to the piano and played something. “He was right,” Dr. Taylor said, laughing. “I couldn’t play it.” 

After my time at the summer program I only had a few more run-ins with Dr. Taylor, but each time, he remembered me and asked me very specific questions about what I was studying on the piano. 

It always made me feel like a million bucks because whenever I’d see him, we’d be among the jazz royalty, and he’d talk to me for ten or fifteen minutes, genuinely interested in my studies. I remember seeing him at the 2010 NEA Jazz Masters Awards, where I was volunteering. I greeted him right when he got off the elevator. Standing next to me was Roy Haynes, Jimmy Heath, James Moody, and Gerald Wilson. Before saying hello to them, he engaged me in conversation for five minutes or so, asking me what I was working on the piano. 

That day, part of my duties as a volunteer was to bring Dr. Taylor to his car. I walked him to the hotel lobby and, as it turns out, his driver was close to an hour late. So for almost an hour, we sat and talked. He told me fantastic stories about Monk, Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Dave McKenna, Willie “The Lion” Smith and many others (Our entire conversation is listed in my post below, from January 2010, about the 2010 NEA Jazz Master Awards.). It was a very special hour for me, and also the last time I’d see Dr. Taylor. 

Sitting at his memorial service this past January was especially poignant. The church where the service was being held was packed, and watching the people’s faces and listening to their conversations I realized that I was sitting with many hundreds of people who had similar stories of Dr. Taylor’s kindness and making them too feel like “a million bucks.” At the beginning of the service the preacher announced: “One of the things that I’ve never had the opportunity to do in the Riverside Church…and especially in remembering someone as great as Billy Taylor, was to ask everyone to stand to their feet and give this man the kind of ovation that he truly deserves.” I got the chills. No one deserved that ovation more than Dr. Taylor did. 

Every time I learn something on the piano, I ask myself if what I learned is something I'd be proud to show Dr. Taylor. To me, everything about Dr. Taylor was tops. Dr. Taylor was an extremely kind person and he will continue to inspire me for the rest of my life.