Thursday, February 12, 2009

Dr. Billy Taylor performs with VocalEssence

On Sunday, February 15, jazz legend Dr. Billy Taylor and his trio will join VocalEssence  to honor the 80th anniversary of the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The centerpiece of the annual WITNESS concert is Taylor’s Peaceful Warrior, a work in three movements inspired by words Taylor heard his friend King say in the 1960s.

The two men were attending a benefit for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. A teen approached King and asked, “How would you feel about someone like myself who prefers Malcolm X as a hero?” King replied, “Son, you should be proud to choose your hero. It’s a matter of pride.” Peaceful Warrior’s first movement is called “It’s a Matter of Pride.”

Later that day a woman told King, “I’d like to come south and participate. I have three kids and can’t do that, but I want to help.” King answered, “If you are really concerned, then you should show it where you are.” The third movement: “Heritage: If You Really Are Concerned, Then Show It.”

The second movement, “His Name Was Martin,” makes sure everyone knows King’s name and who he was: dreamer, man of God, activist, peaceful warrior.

A pianist, composer, and jazz educator now in his 87th year, Taylor first performed Peaceful Warrior with VocalEssence in 1998. In 2002, he suffered a stroke that crippled his left hand. He exercised and practiced his way back but officially retired from the concert stage in 2005.

Meanwhile, VocalEssence conductor Philip Brunelle wanted to bring back A Peaceful Warrior for the organization’s 40th anniversary season. The energy, the jazz style, and the message had stuck with him. When Brunelle asked, Taylor said yes.

“It was a nice invitation to come back and do something we had done very successfully ten years ago,” Taylor told MinnPost by phone from his home in New York City. “And I like St. Paul.”

Will it feel different performing his work for Dr. King now that Barack Obama is President? “He is, I’m told, a jazz fan,” Taylor said. “I’m very excited because he’s president. I didn’t think it would happen in my lifetime…. How will I feel? I’ll be happy. A lot happier than I could have been.”

The WITNESS program is nationally recognized for its efforts to promote African American choral music to today’s youth. It’s about education. Taylor has been an indefatigable educator for most of his life. He was music director of the first jazz education series on television, part of the National Council for the Arts under President Nixon, host of the NPR program “Jazz Alive,” and arts correspondent for “CBS Sunday Morning.” Since the 1990s, he has served as Artistic Advisor for Jazz to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Despite the decline in jazz audiences, Taylor is sanguine about jazz education. “In high schools and colleges alone, we have over 40,000 jazz programs around this country, and I’m probably undercounting. There are a lot of places to study jazz.”

Where can people who aren’t students go to learn about jazz? “That’s a difficult question. It’s not what it used to be. It’s not possible go to the clubs I played in when I was trying to make a name for myself. That was a tradition of over 100 years and it has just about disappeared…. You can’t find it on TV. I used to be able to turn on the radio from the time I was five years old and get jazz anytime during the day…. There are not a lot of radio programs anymore.”

On the bright side, Taylor says, “I have every reason to believe jazz will be part of the White House.”

Dr. Billy Taylor and his trio (Chip Jackson on bass, Winard Harper on drums) perform with VocalEssence on Sunday, February 15, at 4 p.m. at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets: $20, $30, $40. Student and partial view tickets half price. Group discounts available. 651-224-4222;

Originally published at on February 12, 2009