When he wasn't presenting lectures or producing jazz programs on network television, Billy Taylor spent his free time composing and performing jazz. He appeared on more than 40 recordings, mostly with trios and quartets. He was 67 years old when he released his first album on his own label, Taylor-Made.
Billy Taylor was born in Greenville, North Carolina on July 21, 1921. He began taking piano lessons from one of his uncles at age seven. Two of his greatest influences were jazz pianists Fats Waller and Art Tatum. But, Taylor once said it was a little-known musician who had the most impact on his music.
Billy Taylor earned a degree in music from Virginia State College in 1942. Two years later, he moved to New York City and landed a job with the house band at the famed Birdland nightclub. He played piano there until 1951 when he formed the Billy Taylor Trio. Members of his trio included bassists Charles Mingus and Oscar Pettiford, as well as drummer Billy Cobham. In 1969, he became the first African American band director for a network television series, "The David Frost Show."
In addition to his work as a composer and performer, Billy Taylor was one of jazz's most dedicated supporters. He founded Jazzmobile, an organization that produces inner-city jazz concerts. He also hosted a weekly jazz program on public radio called "Jazz Alive"; he produced stories on jazz for the television magazine news show "CBS Sunday Morning"; and he was the Artistic Advisor for Jazz at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Taylor explained that his love for jazz came from his expertise on the piano and from performing.
"Everything that I've done stems from those two things; the fact that I love to play the piano and I love to perform for people," he said. "I also like to write music which other people play."
Billy Taylor received "Down Beat" magazine's Lifetime Achievement Award, and he was inducted into the International Association of Jazz Educator's Hall of Fame. He won a Grammy Award, two Peabody Awards, and an Emmy Award for his "CBS Sunday Morning" segment on Quincy Jones. In 1996, he performed in an all-star jazz tribute to his close friend, VOA jazz host Willis Conover.
They don't get an opportunity to have access to musical instruments as I did when I was in public school," he said. "They don't have enough music teachers because most communities don't realize that the aesthetic part of the human being, the ability to express oneself through the arts is a very important part of growing up."