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Distinguished ambassador from the world of jazz
to the world at large, Billy Taylor was born in Greenville, NC in 1921.
His musical education began seven years later in Washington D.C. At 16, he
enrolled as a sociology major at Virginia State University. Not long after
graduating, Taylor moved to New York City where his first important engagement
as a jazz pro was with Ben Webster. Throughout the 1940s Billy played
with several big names and great musicians, including Dizzy Gillespie,
Stuff Smith, Cozy Cole, Machito, Slam Stewart, Don
Redman and Charlie Parker. As the house pianist at Birdland - (a
chair he occupied beginning in 1949) - he supported many of the era's standouts.
From 1952 on, Taylor has principally performed as the leader of his own trio,
which has featured Ed Thigpen, Earl May, Oscar Pettiford,
Art Blakey, Charles Mingus, Jo Jones, Victor Gaskin,
and Freddie Waits. Present-day members are Chip Jackson and
In addition to playing music, Taylor is a prolific writer about jazz. In the
late 1940s, he published a manual for be-pop piano, and since then he has
written more than a dozen others, as well as numerous articles. His most recent
publication is Jazz Piano: A Jazz History (Wm. C. Brown). He has some 300 songs
to his name too, including "I Wish I Knew How It Felt To Be Free," which is
featured in the opening and closing credits of Rob Reiner's film, Ghosts of the
In recognition of his musicianship and his many efforts on behalf of the arts,
Dr. Taylor was appointed by the president to the National Council for the Arts,
the first jazz musician since Duke Ellington to be so honored. He has also been
awarded the National Medal of Arts - the only other jazz recipients are Dizzy
Gillespie and Ella Fitzgerald. He has led State Department-sponsored tours to
Hungary, the Middle East, and Latin America. Since 1994 Dr. Taylor has served as
artistic advisor for jazz at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in
Washington, D.C., which is the home to NPR's Billy Taylor's Jazz from the
Kennedy Center. For 10 years running, he has also presented a series
called "Mentors and Masters" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
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