Taylor was particularly drawn to the keyboard, and decided at a young age that he would "sing through the piano." It was a fortuitous decision.
Classical piano lessons with Henry Grant and experimentation with saxophone, drums, and guitar prepared the aspiring musician for his first professional appearance at the keyboard at the age of 13. His take for the performance was one dollar.
Some years later, Taylor was enrolled at Virginia State University, where his major was sociology. It wasn't long before he was playing in and leading the college dance band.
Composer/pianist Dr. Undine Moore noticed the young Taylor and advised him that his future was in music and piano. Taylor changed his major to music, and after graduating in 1942 set out for New York City, jazz capital of the world.
Taylor had been in the Big Apple for less than a day when he found himself sitting in at Minton's, jamming with Ben Webster. Two days later he was invited to join Webster's group. That same night he met Art Tatum, who was to become his mentor.
Playing with Coleman Hawkins, Big Sid Catlett, and Charlie Drayton, the newcomer Taylor immersed himself in the local music scene. His light touch and musical intelligence took him to Broadway, where he appeared on stage with Cozy Coles' Quintet in Billy Rose's show, The Seven Lively Arts, and played in the pit band for Ethel Waters' show, Blue Holiday.
He also paid his dues playing with the legendary Machito's mambo band, where he developed his love of Latin music. During this time he played with such artists as Eddie South, Stuff Smith, Billie Holiday, and Slam Stewart.
In 1948, Taylor embarked on an eight-month tour of Europe with the Don Redman Orchestra, the first American band to visit the continent after World War II. After the tour ended, Taylor remained in Europe with his wife and spent some months living and working in Paris and Holland.
Later that year, he returned to New York where he performed with organist Bob Wyatt and Sylvia Syms at the Royal Roost jazz club and played on the the same bill with Billie Holliday in a show enititled Holiday on Broadway.
A year later, he was hired as the huse pianist at Birdland, where he played with such jazz legends as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Stan Getz, J.J. Johnson, and Morgana King. Each week, Taylor had the pleasure of playing with a different all-star group. His first job at Birdland was with Charlie Parker, playing Bird With Strings. Popular response to the piece was so good that after a week at Birdland, the group went over to the Apollo Theater to perform for another week.
Taylor then returned to Birdland, where he remained longer than anyone else in the legendary club's history. He continued to perform with a series of trios and other groups on tour and at home in New York City.
During the 1960s and 1970s, the night club scene began to change. Jazz clubs were crowded, overpriced, and excluded young people. Realizing the need to bring his music to a broader audience, Taylor began to focus on performing in larger venues. He was among the first to make his music accessible to a broader range of people by performing in concert halls, arts and community centers, and universities. Although he still plays in jazz clubs today, he is most often found in the larger venues.
Under the umbrella of Jazz at the Kennedy Center, Taylor produces and participates in some of the most innovative and exciting programs and performances in jazz: the Art Tatum Pianorama series, the Louis Armstrong Legacy series, the annual Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival, and a series of performances with his own trio and numerous special guest artists throughout the year.
In New York, his long-running Jazz Models and Mentors series of concerts takes place four times each year at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He has toured with such diverse groups as the David Parson's Dance Company, the Juilliard and Turtle Island string quartets, the New York Jazz Repertory Company with pianist and friend Ramsey Lewis, his own Billy Taylor Trio, and the North Carolina Symphony.
In 1984, Taylor was awarded Downbeat magazine's Lifetime Achievement Award.
Taylor's recording career has spanned five decades, and includes more than two dozen albums which he has recorded as a leader.
Among Taylor's 1950s recordings is an album he made with the legendary Cuban percussionist Candido, who had joined his band after Dizzy Gillespie introduced the two musicians. Some of the other albums recorded in the '50s were My Fair Lady Loves Jazz, Billy Taylor/Cross Section and Taylor Made Jazz, which featured Duke Ellington's sidemen. The 1960s saw the release of Custom Taylored and Brazilian Beat with the Billy Taylor Septet as well as I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free, whose title song is probably the most popular tune Taylor has written to date.
Following a self-imposed hiatus in the 1970s, during which he focused on broadcasting and performing, Taylor returned to recording with renewed gusto in the 1980s, with There've You Been, You Tempt Me, Billy Taylor Solo, and We Meet Again with Ramsey Lewis. In the 1990s, Taylor has kept the music coming, with Dr. T (featuring Gerry Mulligan), It's a Matter of Pride, and Homage.
In 1996, the indefatigable pianist signed an exclusive recording contract with New York's Arkadia Jazz label, for whom he has completed two albums and has several others in the works, including an educational video and enhanced CDs. His first Arkadia project, Music Keeps Us Young, was released in 1997.
In addition to playing and recording, Taylor is a gifted writer of and about music. By the mid 1940s, he had begun to compose the first of what was to become a body of nearly 300 songs.
In 1949, he published his first book, an instructional manual for bebop music. His most recent publication is Jazz Piano-Jazz History.
His song, "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free" was written in the 1960s and deals with the issue of civil rights. Selected by The New York Times as "one of the greatest songs of the sixties," this Taylor composition was featured as the theme over the opening and closing credits for Rob Reiner's Castlerock film, Ghosts of Mississippi.
The range and depth of his work in the jazz arena has spawned numerous symphonic works for jazz piano: His "Theme and Variations" was commissioned by the Kennedy Center to be performed by the National Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Leonard Slatkin. "Step Into My Dream," the richly interactive trans-media collaboration between David Parson's Dance Company and Taylor, was commissioned by the Krannert Center for Performing Arts at the University of Illinois. Taylor's score was inspired by his time on the New York jazz scene from the 1950s to present.
Homage, nominated for a Grammy Award, was commissioned by the Madison Civic Center in Madison, Wisconsin, in honor of the center's 10th anniversary. His Peaceful Warrior is a work he wrote and dedicated to the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King. It was commissioned by Robert Shaw for the Atlanta Symphony. With Make A Joyful Noise, a six-part suite commissioned by Tufts University and inspired by the 97th Psalm, Taylor follows in the tradition of Duke Ellington in his Sacred Concerts.
Other notable composition credits include For Rachel, a dance suite which resulted from a collaboration with choreographer Rachel Lampert, the score for Wole Soyinka's off-Broadway hit The Lion and the Jewel and Suite for Jazz Piano and Orchestra, Taylor's first major composition for an orchestra, which was commissoned by Maurice Abravenal for the Utah Symphony.
Despite his other accomplishments, Taylor is perhaps best known as the public face and voice of jazz. During the 1960s, alarmed by the attention paid to rock and roll by his then-record company, Capitol, Taylor decided to forget recording for a while and devote himself to radio and television. He began as a summer fill-in on New York's WLIB.
His easy, conversational tone combined with his obvious love and knowledge of the music gained him popularity. Over time, Taylor effectively changed the listening habits of jazz radio audiences in New York. He eventually became WLIB's program director and general manager.
In the 1970s, Taylor found a new home at The David Frost Show, where he served as musical director for three years. Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Benny Goodman and Buddy Rich were a few of the jazz legends who played on the show. Taylor produced yet another show, aptly titled The Billy Taylor Show, which aired on New York's Channel 47 and featured talents such as Kenny Burrell and an unkown guitarist by the name of George Benson.
He later served as musical director for Tony Brown's Black Journal Tonight, which aired weekly on PBS. Taylor also hosted his own jazz piano show on the Bravo network, Jazz Counterpoint.
In 1981, after being the subject of a profile for CBS News Sunday Morning, he was tapped to be an on-air correspondent, a post he still holds today. To date, he has profiled more than 250 artists. Taylor received an Emmy Award for his segment on the multi-talented Quincy Jones.
Taylor has found perhaps his most supportive and responsive jazz audience over the years on National Public Radio. Over the years, Taylor has presented seven series of programs for NPR, including Jazz Alive, TaylorMade Jazz, and Dizzy's Diamond. His latest series, Billy Taylor's Jazz at the Kennedy Center, is recorded live and features a mix of performances and interviews, affording audiences a rare insight into the lives of the artists and the way they create their music. Some of the artists Taylor has presented in this forum include Joe Lovano, James Moody, Joe Williams, Benny Golson, Aruturo Sandoval, Marian McPartland, Stanley Turrentine, Harry "Sweets" Edison, Clark Terry, Nancy Wilson, Nicholas Payton, Bill Watrous, Kevin Mahogany, Randy Brecker, and Nneena Freelon.
From the beginning of his career, Taylor has sought ways to educate the public about the idiom he loves. His first endeavor in broadcasting, in 1958, was a 13-part series, The Subject is Jazz, produced by the new National Educational Television Network (NET). Guests on this ground-breaking series included Duke Ellington, Aaron Copeland, Bill Evans, Cannonbal Adderly, Jimmy Rushing and Langston Hughes.
After serving as a visiting professor at Howard University, he went on to teach at C.W. Post, The Manhattan School of Music, and the University of Massachusetts, where he earned his doctorate during the 1970s.
He holds the Wilbur D. Barrett Chair of Music at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, is a Duke Ellington Fellow at Yale, and holds 17 honorary degrees.
In 1979, he was named to the Hall of Fame of the International Association of Jazz Educators (IAJE). He recently received the New York State Governor's Arts Award for his contributions and achievements in the arts.
Dr. Taylor is the proud creator of jazz awareness and educational programs for students at all grade levels, kindergarten through adult. Through his playing and communication skills, Taylor has brought jazz to the masses at the grass roots level as well as more formal arenas. As co-founder and past president of New York's Jazzmobile, Taylor has provided free concerts and musical clinics to thousands of people since 1964. In his capacity as advisor for jazz to the Kennedy Center, Taylor is currently involved in a cooperative venture with Hylton High School in Virginia's William County Public School System to explore "distant learning" via satellite and a student-run television studio.
A recent program featuring Taylor and his trio, "Jazz and the Young Performer," was awarded Best Direct Satellite Broadcast/Special Events by N.A.T.A.S., edging out stiff competition which included the Turner Broadcasting Company.
Taylor's passion for jazz and his talents as a communicator have brought him into public service circles as well. Dr. Taylor was awarded the National Medal of Arts by former President George Bush in 1992. It is the nation's highest award for distinguished accomplishments in the arts.
Dr. Taylor has led State Department tours all over the world and was recognized internationally by the International Society of Performing Arts Administration when it awarded him its coveted Tiffany Award in 1991. Also during that year, Taylor received the APAP Award of Merit, presented to those whose talent has had a far reaching impact on the performing arts world. He is a two-time winner of the prestigious Peabody Award for excellence in journalism, and the proud recipient of the NEA's Jazz Masters Fellowship Award.
Dr. Taylor has performed at the White House seven times and was appointed by the president to the National Conference for the Arts, the first jazz musician since Duke Ellington to be so honored.
Having marked more than 50 years in jazz, Dr. Billy Taylor shows no signs of slowing down. His passion is still alive, and his piano still sings.