It’s funny how some people can impact your life in incalculable ways. In 1993 I was stage managing, musical directing and rehearsing my friends, Roger, a good actor and promising playwright who can’t sing a note, and Ellen, a terrific actress who can sing well but doesn’t think she can, for a duet in the Neil Simon adaptation of Chekov’s “The Good Doctor”. I wrote out Roger’s melody along with accompanying left hand chords and tempos so he could practice at home with his own piano. He was too terrified. In desperation I finally had the two of them speak the lines in rhythmic tempo and underscored the music in the background. Roger did tell me, however, that his piano teacher was very impressed with my use of chord structure, syncopation and counterpoint. This was flattering but my intention was not to impress his piano teacher; it was to help Roger sing the song. At some point during the two week rehearsal process Roger told me that his favorite piano player was Billy Taylor, and then it all clicked.
Billy Taylor has been in my life since the first time I heard him in 1954. He is one of the most honored and respected musical artists of the last 60 years having attained a degree of accomplishment that is staggering in scope. The newspaper obituaries have covered his career, his educational initiatives, his Kennedy Center triumphs, his innovative Jazzmobile in New York and his entrepreneurship with radio and television broadcasting. What I didn’t get from them was a sense of the man’s music. When he arrived in New York in 1944 within two weeks he was playing with Ben Webster. From that point he continually went forward and never looked back. He spoke at length about being mentored by the legendary Art Tatum which had to be the greatest honor ever bestowed on any modern pianist. Legend has it that of all of Tatum’s heirs apparent he favored Taylor the most and handed him his mantle upon his death in 1956.
In the early 50’s there were a lot of excellent people playing great piano. Tatum was at the height of his powers. Nat King Cole, a stalwart of the piano in the 40’s, branched out into popular vocal music. John Lewis teamed up with Milt Jackson to form the Modern Jazz Quartet. Bud Powell moved to Europe. Duke Jordan, Al Haig and Dodo Marmarosa were fixtures in the Bebop movement. Gil Evans was hard at work creating Miles Davis. Dave Brubeck was touring every college in the US. Erroll Garner’s and Oscar Peterson’s careers were taking off skyward. Marian McPartland, ensconced at the Hickory House, Dorothy Donegan, Blossom Dearie and Hazel Scott were all following their career paths, trail blazed by the formidable Mary Lou Williams. George Shearing was turning out hit after hit. Lennie Tristano, Ahmad Jamal and Bernard Peiffer were creating a sensation with their own new ideas. Russ Freeman was tearing up the West Coast with Chet Baker. Bill Evans, Ellis Marsalis, Dave Frishberg, Phineas Newborn Jr., Hampton Hawes and Randy Weston were just coming on the scene. Teddy Wilson and Earl Hines continued their brand of swing piano. Thelonius Monk was…….Thelonius Monk. Ray Bryant, Horace Silver and Bobby Timmons were making big names for themselves and Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan and Red Garland were the best sidemen in the business. When they visited Birdland, Billy Taylor was the house pianist. Charlie Parker asked him to fill in for the ailing Al Haig in 1949 and after that gig he began a two year stint playing with and for all the great names
In an almost seventy year career he continued to record scores of albums, do concert dates, teach, advocate and innovate well into the just departed decade. He never looked, acted or sounded his age and he constantly grew as an artist. He was timeless and ageless. There are three levels to his playing that are important to note. First is his ability to please your ear. He always sounds good. Second is his virtuosity. He makes it look and sound easy no matter how complex. Third is his innovative drive. He makes you take the journey with him, from start to finish with no predictable outcome. This is best exemplified by his 1957 recording of Harry Warren’s “There Will Never be Another You”, a standard ballad from the 1942 film “Iceland” that John Payne sang to Sonja Henie.
The piece is constructed in a much faster tempo than written and Taylor opens with a hard two handed approach with left-handed harmonics similar to Bud Powell’s driving style. Throughout the eight choruses he never once repeats any idea other than a one note ascension that becomes a three note harmonic ascension. Each idea is new and different and culminates in chorus seven with a completely independent left hand counterpoint melody worthy of Glenn Gould or Oscar Levant. Chorus eight starts out in locked hand chords and then swings its way to an almost classical finish. It’s a really incredible journey.
His 1967 album “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” contains his hit composition of the same name as well as the finest piano version of Clare Fischer’s beautiful “Pensativa” that I’ve ever heard, weaving in an intoxicating blues coda as counter to a seductive bossa nova beat. Again, he takes us on a remarkable journey.
Obviously he learned his lessons well, and he imparted his knowledge to us through his playing. I remember trying to get WLIB on my radio when he was on the air even though we had a great 24 hour jazz station (WHAT FM) in Philadelphia. The difference was that Taylor approached his audience as eager dedicated students and not mere listeners.
So, Roger’s remark reminded me of how Billy Taylor impacted me. The music I wrote for Roger had been subliminally influenced by that left-handed counterpoint.
Barely a week before Taylor’s death Central Florida lost another fabulous player, composer and educator, Harold Blanchard. As a player Blanchard was world class. His many compositions won coveted awards and he was one of the few people in modern music to meld the disciplines between jazz, the blues and classical music. His greatest virtue was as a teacher and mentor to young musicians. I once watched him teaching an improvisational class in deconstructing Jerome Kern’s “All the Things You Are” to its basics so there could be room for the musicians to take different directions with it. It was the same process that I had used to teach the same song to my daughter, Nancy over twenty years ago, a process that I learned from Billy Taylor.
The modern music world lost giants in 2010. In addition to Billy Taylor and Harold Blanchard we lost Hank Jones, James Moody, Buddy Collette, John Bunch and scores of others who will be difficult to replace. All of them were supreme musicians as well as educators and mentors to untold hundreds if not thousands of musical students. Thankfully, we still have elder statesmen like Marian McPartland, Dave Brubeck, George Shearing, Ellis Marsalis, Mc Coy Tyner, Randy Weston, Ramsey Lewis and others who are still active and productive, as well as their musical legacies: Monty Alexander, Kenny Barron, Herbie Hancock, Mulgrew Miller, Keith Jarrett, Bill Charlap, the incredible newcomer, Ehud Asherie and many others who will pick up the mantle and do it justice.
The one thing that conjoins the arts and science is the imagination. Albert Einstein once famously said that imagination is more important than knowledge. It’s the one thing that separates artists and real scientists from being only technicians. All educators, administrators and politicians responsible for the success or failure of our public schools need to understand the value of an arts and science education. That education stimulates the mind and imagination and increases the learning potential of young students more than any other tool we have, yet it is given short shrift by those who fund our schools. That attitude is wrong and no amount of “accountability” or testing is going to make the situation any better. Every one of the musicians I’ve cited here was driven by their imagination. It is what made them who they are. It is what compelled them to practice untold hours to achieve what they thought was possible. It is that inner ear or eye that tells you what is possible.
As I’m writing this I hear Billy Taylor’s voice on the radio in a public service announcement extolling the virtues of music education. It is a message we all need to listen to.