Published Dec 30, 2010Billy Taylor, a celebrated jazz ambassador who made it his life's work to bring the music he loved to the masses, passed away on Tuesday (December 28). Taylor died of heart failure in New York City at the age of 89.
Born in Greenville, NC, Taylor fell in love with jazz at an early age, studying music at Virginia State College. He went on to become an acclaimed pianist in the '40s and '50s, playing in New York clubs alongside greats like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Gerry Mulligan and Lee Konitz. He also led a backing band for famed clarinetist Artie Shaw.
Along with lyricist Dick Dallas, Taylor wrote the civil rights song "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free." Originally recorded by Nina Simone in 1967, it has performed by the likes of Solomon Burke, Ray Charles and Levon Helm. The Roots and John Legend released a version of the track on their recent covers album, Wake Up!
Along with being a renowned musician, Taylor achieved fame as a jazz educator. He was a part of numerous TV and radio programs, including CBS Sunday Morning, NPR's Jazz Alive and NBC's The Subject Is Jazz. He was also the jazz director at Washington, DC's John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and was a frequent writer and lecturer.
One of his most enduring legacies is the Jazzmobile. Founded in the mid-'60s, the project holds free outdoor concerts in the boroughs of New York as a means to bring the music directly to a young audience.
Among the many honours Taylor received were a Grammy, an Emmy, two Peabody Awards, and the Jazz Living Legend Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. He earned a Jazz Masers Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Taylor is survived by his wife Theodora and daughter Kim.