Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Dr. Billy Taylor on the music of freedom, and more

The great jazz pianist, composer, and educator Dr. Billy Taylor has passed. I had the opportunity and the privilege to interview him in February 2009, when he came to the Twin Cities to perform his work Peaceful Warrior with VocalEssence led by Philip Brunelle. We spoke by phone ahead of time, and I attended both the performance at the Ordway on Feb. 15 (which was stirring and beautiful) and a presentation Dr. Taylor gave for educators at Plymouth Church the next day. Drawn from my notes from the interview and the presentation, these are his words.

Laura Caviani with Dr. Taylor, 2/16/2009
"I was born a musician, born into the Baptist church. I wanted to play stride. Someone gave me a record by Art Tatum and I wondered, 'Who are those two guys?' I wanted to play like my Uncle Bob—stride learned by ear—then realized I had to do what my dad wanted me to do and pay attention to my music teacher. She prevailed."

"When I first started working on 52nd Street [in NYC], I had all the history of jazz around me. There were 25 clubs in a two-block area, playing Dixieland, show music, dance music... Everything happening in jazz was there. I would talk to all of these guys. I had to learn to capture the moment—to say 'This is what I want to learn from you.' Many people who teach jazz [today] make it unnecessarily complicated.... I'm nostalgic for the days when music meant dancing."

"In high schools and colleges alone, we have over 40,000 jazz programs around this country, and I'm probably undercounting. People come here from Israel, from Greece, from a lot of places [to study jazz]. They're attracted to the music and want to use it as a means of personal expression. Where we're having a problem now is I have more [students] from those places than I have from Harlem."

"When I was touring, I tried to be one of the best advocates [for jazz] I could be. People would ask me, 'Why don't the people at home support you like we do?' The first time I was away from [the United States] after World War II, I was supposed to go for six weeks but stayed eight months. People I met in Paris, Belgium, and the Scandinavian countries made me more patriotic than I had been before. This served me well for the rest of my life. All of the places I've gone, I've been able to say, 'Despite what you may have heard or read about us, I wouldn't trade.' Many of us found that even though some of the things we did were not appreciated at home, we have freedom. The music speaks of freedom."

Here's what Peter Keepnews wrote about Dr. Taylor for the New York Times. Here's Matt Schudel for the Washington Post. Here's NPR's "A Blog Supreme."

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