A Eulogy for Dr. Billy Taylor
by Loren Schoenberg
My perspective on Dr. Billy Taylor is different from most. We were next door neighbors for the last 16 years, and although I knew him professionally before that, our relationship took on a different cast after we began sharing a wall.
Much has been said about his career and public persona. Like many of you here this evening and thousands upon thousands, indeed millions, of others, I first learned of Billy Taylor through his radio and television work as an eloquent and elegant spokesperson for jazz. It's worth not only noting but underlining the fact that when Billy Taylor was born and came of musical age, there was no Billy Taylor to emulate. In the same sense that Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins and Sidney Bechet not only created beautiful music, but also created professions that did not exist in the world into which they were born, Billy Taylor truly had a vision and managed to turn it into a reality whose influence will long outlast both him and all of us. It was a vision born of inclusion, intelligence, humor and above all, the conviction that jazz was good for you. For those us fortunate to live in such close proximity to him and his lovely wife Teddi, he was a wonderful person to encounter on a regular basis in a domestic setting. It sounds too simple to say that running into him in the elevator or the hallway was like encountering a ray of sunshine, but that's what it was like. He radiated positiveness. Billy gave generously of himself, of his time, his knowledge, and had an innate interest in YOU. He was not only an expert speaker, but an equally brilliant listener. Negative viewpoints didn't interest him in the least; the glass was always at least half full to him.
Billy (I should note that early attempts to call him Dr. Taylor were so strongly rebuffed that I will defer here to his wishes) never lost his passion for education and passing along the legacy of the music he lived. Think of it: teenage encounters with Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Waller, lessons from Duke Ellington's piano teacher, a featured spot on 52nd Street in the 40's with Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins and others, stints with Dizzy Gillespie that included the young, unknown John Coltrane, a week or two with Charlie Parker and strings at the Apollo, and all this before forming his own trio in the early 50's, in which Charles Mingus and other notables played.
And it was from this vantage point that he began his career as a public spokesperson for the music, helping Americans to see beyond the tired stereotypes that surrounded (and still do in some cases) the music. Billy Taylor, in his devotion to jazz and all the people he encountered over 60 years of public service, was truly the indomitable jazz man.
But I'd like to create the image in your mind of the non-public Billy Taylor, one who was, as hard as this may be to believe, even nicer and warmer than the public figure you saw on the stage, on the television. I watched him recover from his first stroke several years ago, step by step, and then, just recently, stoically start on the road to recovery from yet another stroke and, this time, serious heart surgery. He was in the midst of making yet another miraculous comeback just a few weeks ago. And although I wanted to know how he was doing, how he was feeling, he would always steer the conversation back to me or my partner, what was new for us, and always, his thoughts and counsel supporting the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, where he served for over a decade as an active advocate and founding board member. I am proud to announce and humbled to accept the family's donation of his music library to our archives, to create a Dr. Billy Taylor Collection.
As long as there is music, Billy Taylor's spirit will reverberate somewhere. To paraphrase the title of one of his most popular compositions: with Billy in mind, it'll ALWAYS be a grand night for swinging.