Alumnus and professor Billy Taylor, who helped establish the modern jazz vernacular as a performer and composer and elevated its profile as a professor, advocate and spokesman, died Tuesday in New York following a heart attack.
"Dr. Billy Taylor" as he was universally known, was already famous for his elegant technique and ease at the piano when earned his doctorate in 1975, and was named Wilmer D. Barrett Professor of Music 1987. In 1982 he helped to found Jazz in July with his friends and fellow faculty members Max Roach and Frederick Tillis. The festival has drawn well over 1500 participants with its mix of master classes, performance and mentoring.
Born in Greenville, N.C., on July 24, 1921, he grew up in Washington studied music at what is now Virginia State University. Shortly after moving to New York in 1943, and he began working with the tenor saxophonist Ben Webster at the Three Deuces on 52nd Street, and he remained a fixture on that celebrated nightclub row for many years. He became popular with both swing and bebop musicians and led to his being hired in 1949 as the house pianist at Birdland.
In 1951 he formed his own trio, which was soon working at clubs like the Copacabana in New York and the London House in Chicago. Within a few years he was lecturing about jazz at music schools and writing articles about it for DownBeat, Saturday Review and other publications. He later had a long-running concert-lecture series at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, according to The New York Times.
The composer of more 300 works, he was also well known to radio and TV audiences. He was a familiar voice for more than two decades on National Public Radio, first as host of "Jazz Alive" in the late ''70s and most recently on "Billy Taylor''s Jazz at the Kennedy Center." That series, on which he introduced live performances and interviewed the performers, made its debut in the fall of 1994 and remained in production until the fall of 2002. He also served as an advisor to both he Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington and the National Endowment for the Arts.
In addition to his daughter, Dr. Taylor is survived by his wife, Theodora. A son, Duane, died in 1988.