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The Urban Griot, Dr. Billy Taylor: A Centennial Celebration

American jazz pianist and composer Billy Taylor (1921 - 2010) at his home in New York City, 18th April 1991. (Photo by Barbara Alper/Getty Images)
American jazz pianist and composer Billy Taylor (1921 - 2010) at his home in New York City, 18th April 1991. (Photo by Barbara Alper/Getty Images)

In the grand history of Black American music, no one ever embodied a combination of instrumental prowess, composerly ambition, educational authority and institutional savvy quite like Dr. Billy Taylor. A pianist who honed his skills at the dawn of modern jazz, Dr. Taylor made his most lasting contribution as a spokesman for the art form — indelibly coining the phrase "America's classical music" and going on to spread its message on National Public Radio, on CBS Sunday Morning and through the educational organization Jazzmobile.

"He helped always tell the story of Black music in America," says Jason Moran, who succeeded him as artistic director for jazz at the Kennedy Center. "And he told it from the piano, and somehow he was able to distill the language that was always appropriate for expressing the construction and the emotion of the music."

American jazz pianist Billy Taylor performs at the Peacock Alley night club, St. Louis, Missouri, 1974. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Hulton Archive / Getty Images
American jazz pianist Billy Taylor performs at the Peacock Alley night club, St. Louis, Missouri, 1974. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This year marks Dr. Taylor's centennial, along with the 50th anniversary of NPR. So in this episode of Jazz Night in America, we're celebrating that legacy with a look at his multifaceted career, his musical philosophy and the imprint he left on the cultural scene. We'll hear testimonials from Moran and other experts, like Teresa Reed, scholar and coauthor of The Jazz Life of Dr. Billy Taylor, Chip Jackson, bassist in the Billy Taylor Trio, and Winard Harper, drummer in the Billy Taylor Trio. And we'll hear plenty of Dr. Taylor's music, including a portion of Suite For Piano & Orchestra and his enduring civil rights anthem, "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free."

Set List:

The following songs were composed by Dr. Billy Taylor and were pulled from the album: Taylor Made At The Kennedy Center.

  • "Birdwatcher" feat. Billy Taylor, piano; Terence Blanchard, trumpet; Stanley Turrentine, saxophone; Russell Malone, guitar; Stefon Harris, vibraphone; Chip Jackson, bass; Winard Harper, drums
  • "Theodora" feat. Billy Taylor, piano; Russell Malone, guitar; Chip Jackson, bass; Winard Harper, drums
  • "Suite for Jazz Piano and Orchestra" feat. Billy Taylor, piano; Chip Jackson, bass; Winard Harper, drums
  • "Titoro" feat. Billy Taylor, piano; Chip Jackson, bass; Winard Harper, drums
  • "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free" feat. Billy Taylor, piano; Chip Jackson, bass; Winard Harper, drums
  • Credits:

    Writer, Producer and Project Manager: Suraya Mohamed; Editor, Alex Ariff; Host: Christian McBride; Senior Producer: Katie Simon; Executive Producers: Anya Grundmann and Gabrielle Armand; Senior Director of NPR Music: Keith Jenkins.

    Special thanks to Jason Moran, Kevin Struthers, Teresa Reed, Chip Jackson, Winard Harper.


    Stream Jazz Night In America on Spotify and Apple Music, updated monthly.

    Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.