Billy remembers the first time he saw Duke Ellington live, at the Howard Theater

“Billy’s overall lifestyle requires him to strive for excellence in whatever he does so everything that he’s been involved in, if there was a weak point, at some point during his tenure in that situation, he solved all of those problems and became a master of it. And that’s what we strive for as human beings, to do that. Many of us don’t accomplish that kind of thing because we go from one thing to another, it’s a jack of all trades, a master of none. Well, Billy is a jack of all trades and he’s mastered all those trades that’s he’s involved with.”
Jimmy Owens

The Billy Taylor Story

Pianist, composer, teacher and lecturer, television and radio personality, recording artist and author...Billy Taylor is all of these.

For more than six decades, Dr. Billy Taylor's enthusiastic and personal commitment to make jazz a part of the American mainstream have been rewarded by recognition and acclaim by his peers, critics, educators, students, enthusiastic listeners, and five US presidents.

Billy Taylor was born in Greenville, North Carolina on July 24, 1921. His father was a dentist and his mother a schoolteacher and they encouraged their sonís creativity. After the family moved to Washington, D.C., for a more cosmopolitan life, he began studying music with Elmira Streets. Billy experimented with drums, guitar and saxophone but soon settled on classical piano study.

The big bands provided much of the musical excitement in Billy’s life during his teenage years. There was music all around him: on the radio, at parties, and at D.C.'s Howard Theatre, where he became an enthusiastic regular. One of the theater's most enduring qualities was its cultivating of a young art form known as jazz. As jazz expanded and new artists came to the forefront, the Howard, listening to live broadcasts on the radio and hearing music locally, proved vital in showcasing the plethora of black talents to Billy Taylor.

At the same time, Billy seriously pursued his studies and graduated from Virginia State College with a B.S. in Music in 1942.

After taking a couple of years off for more practice and study, Billy Taylor arrived in New York City in 1944, on a Friday evening quickly made his way to Minton's Playhouse in Harlem. The club, bebop’s birthplace, was the setting for the hottest jam session in town. When Billy played the piano that night at Minton’s, fate intervened. One of his idols, Ben Webster, was part of the jam session, and he stood by the piano while Billy played. Ben was one of Billy’s idols when he was considering becoming a tenor player.

Ben invited Billy to audition for his group at the Three Deuces and two days later, the young pianist began his professional career with Webster's quartet (which also included drummer Big Sid Catlett and bassist Charlie Drayton) at the Three Deuces on 52nd Street, alternating sets with the Art Tatum Trio. Billy’s admiration and respect for Tatum touched the Piano Master and the young man soon became Tatum’s protégé.

Billy also began his recording career at the same time, in a trio with Al Hall and Jimmy Crawford for Savoy.

When Dizzy Gillespie first opened on 52nd Street, with a band that featured Don Byas, Max Roach and Oscar Pettiford, he didn’t have a pianist. So although Billy was working another gig across the street, he sat in with Dizzy between sets. Billy remembers that “Bud Powell was supposed to be Dizzy’s pianist but Bud’s guardian, trumpeter Cootie Williams, was concerned about the under-age musician running around 52nd Street, so he wouldn’t let him work the gig, which was lucky for me because I got to play with Dizzy.”

As word quickly spread of Billy’s keyboard acumen, he began working steadily, with Machito's Afro-Cuban ensemble, Eddie South, Coleman Hawkins, Wilbur de Paris, Roy Eldridge and Jo Jones, his "self appointed guardian.”

He played in the pit band for "Blue Holiday," starring Ethel Waters, Mary Lou Williams and the Katherine Dunham dancers, and then served as the featured piano soloist in Don Redman all-star orchestra, the first American band to tour Europe after World War II. When he returned, he opened for Billie Holiday in "Holiday on Broadway," in a piano-organ duo with Bob Wyatt, and he worked with Cozy Coleís quintet (who replaced the Benny Goodman Sextet) in Billy Rose’s Broadway show, The Seven Lively Arts.

After replacing Erroll Garner in the Slam Stewart Trio, he played Café Society Uptown and Downtown and the Iceland restaurant with Artie Shaw. And during this period, the late 40s and 50s, Billy began playing lot of solo gigs up and down the northeast corridor: The Earle Theater in Philadelphia, The Royal Theater in Baltimore, the Howard Theater in D.C. and the Apollo in New York.