Jazzman Billy Taylor, music teacher to the millions
New York — Jazz pianist Billy Taylor is probably the best-known and most generous jazz educator around today.
To list just a few of his many accomplishments: Taylor founded New York's jazz outreach program, the Jazzmobile; he is a correspondent on CBS-TV's ''Sunday Morning'' show; he conducts workshops, performs, and gives lectures in more than 30 universities every year. In addition to the PhD in education that he earned from the University of Massachusetts, he also has six honorary doctorates.
Over the years, he has shared his knowledge of the idiom with countless aspiring musicians and jazz listeners. At the moment, Taylor is busily involved in yet another project to help bring and explain jazz to an ever wider audience. This time it's a 13-part weekly program on National Public Radio entitled ''Taylor Made Piano: A Jazz History With Dr. Billy Taylor'' (check local listings for times).
Talking about jazz on NPR is hardly new to Taylor: he has just completed five years as host on that network's popular show ''Jazz Alive,'' which has just celebrated its fifth anniversary. On his new show he centers his discussion of jazz - what he calls ''America's classical music'' - on more than 60 jazz pianists. Taylor traces the history of styles in jazz, using the piano as his focus, and incorporating many important recordings.
It's a fascinating journey through this country's indigenous music, and Taylor embodies just the right balance of didacticism and relaxed conversation to bring the most technical points to his casual listeners without being condescending to more musically sophisticated ears.
Taylor remarked in a recent interview, ''I'm best at explaining something which is relatively technical to someone who is not oriented toward the technique that I'm describing.''
How does Taylor do this?
''In plain English, as much as I can I try to relate in terms that someone who is not a musician can understand. I feel that too many musicians have made music inaccessible to people who want to enjoy it. We have turned off so many people (that) now contemporary music gets fewer and fewer people coming to hear fewer and fewer people.
''It's unnecessary, because many contemporary composers write very accessible music - lovely things that communicate all kinds of emotions. You have to lead a person. No one who has studied and learned to play contemporary music learned to do it overnight. They didn't start at that point, and we have to be considerate with somebody who is not at that point, and, if possible, break it down so they can hear what the elements are. Then they say, oh, is that all that is?
''The average person can hear a whole lot more than musicians give them credit for, if they know what to listen for.''
Taylor says he finds that even those who with some knowledge of music don't know as much as they'd like to, and sometimes find it hard to get the information they need.
''They don't often get a chance to ask the questions that really bother them. I notice that when I do clinics and workshops, the people who could ask the most interesting questions don't choose to ask those questions in public. They try to get me aside and say, hey what about so and so, because they're embarrassed to say in front of everyone that they don't know a particular thing. And not every musician is open and willing to share, either.
''What I try to do is make the information as readily available as possible and demonstrate as much as I can. I do this in every context I work in, whether it's TV or radio, or whatever.''
The show is based on Taylor's new book, ''Billy Taylor Jazz Piano - A Jazz History'' (William C. Brown Company), a detailed discussion of jazz. Although the book has more about the musicians, both book and radio program offer the kind of accessibility that is Taylor's forte.
Taylor found it quite a challenge to turn a book into a successful radio format.
''The obvious thing is to go chapter by chapter, but it doesn't work as a radio show - it's deadly,'' he laughs. ''So we said, let's just take the material and present it in a way so that someone can sit and really listen and say, oh, that's what that is! Then, if they want further information, they can look at the book, and hopefully find the answers to their questions there. What I tried to do in the radio show, as I had tried to do in the book in a different way, was to deal with style.''
Throughout the radio series, Taylor incorporates recordings, many of them classics, such as Fats Waller's ''Tea for Two,'' Scott Joplin's ''Maple Leaf Rag ,'' Count Basie's ''One O'Clock Jump,'' Nat (King) Cole's ''Body and Soul,'' and Herbie Hancock's ''Chameleon,'' to make a point about rhythm, melody, or other elements of style.
He closes the series with a Billy Taylor self-portrait - Taylor performing in a variety of contexts, including ''Cote d'Ivoire,'' from his ''Suite for Jazz Piano Trio and Symphony Orchestra.'' These performances reveal the broad scope of his own playing.
Although he sits at the piano during the series and uses the keyboard effectively to illustrate certain points, Taylor stresses the importance of using recordings of the artists themselves.
''I feel it is much better for me to say, 'Here is Thelonious Monk playing like Thelonious Monk,' than for me to take a Monk tune and say, 'Monk does this.' ''