Jazz veteran Billy Taylor still fights a good fight Music: The 76-year-old pianist continues to play and teach the music he loves.

October 13, 1997|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Billy Taylor is at the piano. No surprise there. The instrument is such a part of him that even when he's telling a story, his fingers move as if he's playing a phantom keyboard.

"Playing piano? I would pay people to let me do it," says the renowned educator and jazz ambassador. "Music, to me, is not just a collection of notes. It is about emotion. It is about saying something to someone, and that someone may be myself."

It is a busy day for Taylor. A PBS crew is filming a profile, a local radio station wants an hour of his time, Border's has him booked for an evening concert, and there is a newspaper interview to do. He seems unhurried, moving through the day with a grace, ease and sense of purpose that says: If this will help promote jazz, fine.

Taylor, 76, has devoted his life to jazz, first as a musician, then as a teacher and spokesman. You can hear his reports on National Public Radio and CBS "Sunday Morning." These days, he is preparing another in his series of concerts and conversations at the Kennedy Center.

During the fall, winter and spring, top musicians will join Taylor's trio on Monday evenings for performances and question-and-answer sessions that capture some of the intimacy and magic jazz loses when it moves from the nightclub to the concert hall. This season's first series starts tonight with alto saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera.

"It's based on the concept that people can't get backstage, but you can ask [the musicians]: How'd you do that? Or, why did you pick a certain song?" says Taylor, a Washington native who vividly remembers picking up tips from older musicians in the clubs around U Street. "These are questions people want to ask musicians. In the old days, you could sit down at a bar and buy a musician a drink. These days you can't do that."

Taylor's career began in the glory days. He left home in 1942, showed up in New York City and within a day was jamming with tenor sax man Ben Webster at Minton's, the famed after-hours spot in Harlem. Two days later, he joined Webster's band.

For three years, he was Art Tatum's protege, then became house pianist at Birdland. Such experiences put him firmly in the jazz tradition of older musicians helping younger players. He illustrates this with a story from his Birdland days.

Duke Ellington's band had just finished a set to a rousing Louie Bellson drum solo. Ellington, ever the gracious showman, thanked the crowd and talked until the cheering subsided.

"Finally, when the room got quiet and everybody was listening to what he was saying, he said, 'I'd like to present a young man from my hometown,' " says Taylor, cherishing the memory. "I said to myself: 'Hey, I got it made. The master has pointed the finger at me. Now, they're gonna listen.' "

Taylor's career is full of high moments on and off the stage. He helped start the Jazzmobile's traveling free concerts in New York City, picked up 16 honorary degrees and earned a doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts. Along the way, he recorded more than two dozen albums.

Downbeat Magazine gave him a lifetime achievement award in 1984, and in 1992 President Bush awarded him the National Medal of Arts. Two years later, he joined the Kennedy Center as artistic adviser for jazz.

This season's series features Roy Hargrove, David "Fathead" Newman, Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, Etta Jones and others. Also on the bill is a concert by vocalist and National Medal of Arts winner Betty Carter, a series of piano performances dedicated to Art Tatum, a women-in-jazz series inspired by Mary Lou Williams and a vocal series named for Louis Armstrong.

Taylor says the concerts are one way of keeping jazz alive and bringing in musicians with different approaches to the music. He uses a story from his days with Art Tatum to illustrate a lesson about always keeping your ears open for new ideas.

One night he and Tatum heard a terrible pianist. Taylor says he immediately dismissed the guy. Days later, he heard Tatum exploring some of the guy's riffs, embellishing them, reworking them.

"Tatum heard something in what [the man] was doing, and he said if he did this way," says Taylor, fingers shaping a phantom chord, "it would sound OK."

He is full of such stories, but those stories deal with the past. Taylor has too much drive and energy to keep still. His new CD, "Music Keeps Us Young," is on the shelf. It's his first release in three years. The title, he says, is his response to all those &L questions about why, at his age, he seems so young, so full of life. He even pulled in new musicians for the project.

"I had wanted to hear some different things," he says. "I thought maybe if I get some other guys, I'll get some different ideas, and sure enough, it worked."

There are a few originals, including "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free," which he wrote during the civil rights battles of the 1960s. The selections span traditions from the church to blues to bop.

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