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HEDRICK SMITH: Talk to me for a moment about the community you grew up in. What was the African American community in Washington like back then in the '20s and '30s?
DR. BILLY TAYLOR: When I grew up in Washington, D.C., back in the '20s, Washington was a very small town. Especially the black section of town was very confined. We were pretty much in Northwest. There were people in Deanwood and the outskirts of town but most of the people -- the U Street area was kind of the mid section of town and so it went north, not too far beyond Howard University so up to maybe Park Road.
Where I grew up originally in Flagler Place which was over near Howard University near Reservoir. But it was a tiny, just about two blocks, Flagler Place was about two blocks, three blocks long. Everybody knew everybody. It was a very small community, a very small town.
My grandfather's church was on Florida Avenue and Florida Avenue at that point goes--it becomes U Street at one point. Florida Avenue turns and goes north for a couple of blocks and becomes U Street and continues. It goes up, I think 9th Street, and circles around.
My grandfather's church was on Florida Avenue but if you continued from his church down the same street, you came to the Lincoln Theater, which was on U Street.
SMITH: I wonder if you could just capture for me again that notion of the small town and what the feel of that was. So what was your Washington like that you grew up as a boy?
TAYLOR: When I grew up in Washington, D.C., in the '20s, the thing that I remember best is that everything was close by. Theater was close by, church was close by. It was a tiny town. Everything was compact. Movies. I could walk anywhere I needed to go, literally.
I walked to high school. I walked to church. I walked to a lot of places. I rode the streetcar and the bus, too, but more often I walked because it was within walking distance. It wasn't far.
The whole black community was kind of compacted in an interesting way because there was a very small hospital, private hospital over on 4th Street which was maybe a couple of blocks from Griffith Stadium which was where the Washington Senators played.
Now that may not seem odd except that this was a very small hospital in the black community run by a black doctor for black people. We were self-contained, it seemed to me. Most of the people I dealt with and came in contact with were of my own race so the dentist, the doctor, the optometrist, most of the people I would come in contact with on a daily basis were black, except streetcar conductors and police and people who worked for the city, some of them. Firemen, people like that.
SMITH: You're talking about a very segregated city, very southern city. Tell me about segregation. What did that mean and how did that feel to you as you grew up? What did it mean in terms of what you could do, what you couldn't do, what life was like?
TAYLOR: Washington, D.C., was one of the very, very segregated cities of the South. Now this was not in the South. It was between Virginia and Maryland but Washington picked up the worst habits of both Virginia and Maryland. There was--I could not go to theaters on F Street which was the downtown section.
I could go shopping in some stores. I could go and buy clothes and things like that in some stores in that area, in the main shopping area. I could not go to the theater there. I could not go to see a Broadway show. I couldn't go to the National Theater to see -- well I couldn't go to places where the symphony was played or opera.
So all of that took place at Howard University, or in churches for me. I saw it. I had a great bringing up. I heard opera. I heard symphony music. I heard piano recitals, vocal recitals, string quartets, everything, but all the people that played it were black and all the people who sang and did all of those things that I heard on the radio done by white people, were done by black people, I thought, better.
SMITH: What did that feel like? And were you conscious of it? Was this something that was thrown in your face or was this something you adjusted to? What was the experience of that like?
TAYLOR: As a young person I couldn't understand why this situation existed.
Segregation is very hard on a young person. I didn't understand why I couldn't go to -- in my neighborhood -- go to Griffith Stadium, sit anywhere I wanted, eat a hot dog, do whatever I wanted and come right out and go two blocks to the Woolworth store and I couldn't do that. I couldn't sit down and have a hot dog. I couldn't. It was stupid. It didn't make sense to me and I couldn't understand why I couldn't shop or I couldn't go into certain stores. Why can't I go to the theater down there? I want to see the picture. I just read about it in the newspaper. I couldn't go. It didn't make sense to me.
SMITH: You mentioned earlier Howard University. What did Howard University mean to the community? Your dad went there. What was the role and the importance of Howard?
TAYLOR: Howard University was a unique place. It was a cultural center. It was a place where I heard beautiful music. The wonderful artists where I saw actors, where I heard poetry, where I heard all of the cultural things that my parents taught me and that I heard about in school and so forth. I heard it, a practical demonstration of what that was about.
And I heard it at Howard University because Howard University was my father's alma mater. He studied dentistry at Howard. He had gone to Virginia State College for his undergraduate work but he took dentistry at Howard University which was supposed to have been one of the best schools for dentistry at that time.
And so he was a good dentist and heard there were a lot of good doctors and lawyers and people who went to school at Howard, and the amazing thing to me is, I took it for granted that a man could work as a Pullman porter or do some menial job and at the same time be going to study law or dentistry or medicine or something like that.
Because a lot of people did that and were very proud of the fact--and say, oh, yeah, I used to shine shoes. I sold papers, I did this, I did real menial -- but now I'm a doctor.
SMITH: Now you've talked several times about music. You mention music in the churches. You mentioned going to Howard to hear the concerts and so forth. One of the things that's hard, maybe, for us to think of in this era is music -- pianos in everybody's home, that kind of stuff. If you could talk a little bit about music in the life of the community. What it meant. The milieu in which Duke Ellington grew up before you and then you grew up because a lot of what happened there must have come out of that environment. So what was that environment like musically, culturally?
TAYLOR: Washington, D.C. was a unique place. I didn't realize until I went to other places how unique it was. Everybody had a piano that I knew. My relatives, friends, everybody had a piano. You could go to somebody's house and. there was a piano sitting there
And somebody in the family or some friend played that piano. It was a means of entertainment. Someone came and they had parties. A lot of the entertainment that was on a regular basis -- daily, weekly, monthly, clubs and personal associations -- took place in the home and many people in Washington, D.C., in those days, though the houses were not lavishly decorated, they were very comfortable and they were very practical because not only do people have a piano, but some people would fix up their basement as a sort of a playroom or social place where you could go and have a little party or have a meeting or have just a gathering of family or friends, whatever.
It's a big room. Bigger than the living room. More comfortable and more relaxed and so forth, so social life often evolved around music. People sang a lot. Impromptu duets and quartets and popular music and other kinds of music that people had liked for some reason or another, whether it was religious music or folk music or jazz, whatever they felt like it. There was someone who could do that.
We listened to the radio a lot. Everything was on the radio. You could hear -- there weren't the commercials that one associates with radio and television these days. There were long periods of radio. You would hear complete movement of a symphony with no interruption or entire opera with no interrupt -- very little interruption. The only interruption would be similar to an intermission where the people had to rest their voices and you had to do something so somebody would talk and say what you were listening to and what you're going to hear and so forth.
Everything about radio was in the purist sense, what radio was originally designed for. We owned the airwaves in this country. And in those days that was apparent. The radio worked and gave information to brought special events to all of us.
I had no access to white entertainers but I heard them on the radio nightly. I could see them in the movies and so I heard Amos and Andy and Jack Benny and Eddie Cantor and people that I read about.
SMITH: Take me back to the parties, though. You mention the parties. One of the things I think is hard for people today to do is to imagine a world without television. Without being bombarded. You're talking about radio but even back in Duke's time when he was playing in his teens and how good it was or how good Victrolas were. I'm wondering whether or not there's a way you can help us capture how important the piano player was, the ability to play the piano, the ability to create your own entertainment as opposed to getting it piped in.
We live in an era where it's so different, it's kind of hard to put us back so if you can take us back to your youth and help us understand that context.
TAYLOR: People ask me all the time, why do you play the piano. How did you happen to decide the piano was the instrument that you wanted to play.
Well, I had a lot of reasons for wanting to play the piano because I had a lot of people in my family who played the piano very well and one uncle in particular played ragtime -- what we call ragtime stride piano -- my uncle Bob -- so I wanted to do that.
I was amazed many years later to find out that the real reason that I focused on the piano was the same as given by one of my mentors, Duke Ellington. He said the same thing in another context. One of the reasons that I played the piano was because pretty girls came and sat at the piano when you played. That was plenty of motivation. It was a seat just like this so if I was lucky I had two, one on either side. So that was plenty of reason to want to play the piano, very well.
SMITH: You mentioned being a ragtime and a stride piano player. Ellington was known as a young man also wasn't he? Tell me about Ellington. As a young man piano player, wasn't he a stride and a ragtime player?
TAYLOR: Duke Ellington, when he was growing up, was highly influenced by the great stride pianists of New York. Now there's a difference in the ragtime music as it was played in St. Louis. Ragtime as it was played in New Orleans and ragtime as it was played on the Eastern Shore, starting maybe in Washington and going north to New York.
You had a much more sophisticated music that came out of Willie the Lion Smith and James P. Johnson and Fats Waller. They took all of the music that had been done by Scott Joplin and took it to the next step. Their melodies were a little more complicated. The technical facility required to play the ragtime which became known as stride piano was much more involved than some of the earlier things.
SMITH: I want to get you to do a little bit but if you would, connect it to Duke. If you talk about Duke, I'm thinking about Duke 16, 17, 18 years old going out to these parties. What was that like? What was the craze and then what was he playing? If you can give me a little description and a couple of bars that would be wonderful.
TAYLOR: When Duke was growing up the piano--there were no records as there were when I was growing up. Phonograph records had evolved quite a bit by the time I came along. When Duke was coming along, there were phonographs but they were not of the same quality as they later became 10, 15, 20 years later.
So the pianist, the guitarist or someone who could play an instrument was the life of the party. Everything evolved around a guy sitting at the piano and playing. People came over and sang with him, and if he was very good as Duke was, he had his own tricks as he called them. He had the kind of trick that might be something that everyone associated -- oh yeah, that's stuff that he, a little riff he likes to play.
The idea of just being the center of the entertainment of the evening as it were, people were just, that was what they did. There was no -- if you're going to dance, you dance to the music of the piano player. If you're going to sing, you sang with the accompaniment of the piano player and more often than not, he played solos that entertained the whole group.
So this was the kind of thing that really pleased Duke very much. He got to the place where he early on wanted to write something and establish himself as someone who was creative and could do something that was very personal.
SMITH: But you're also talking about not only what he wanted to do but you're talking about his growing up and I don't know what the extent -- yours as well but -- focus on his for a moment. His growing up, it came at a kind of time when this music was spreading like wildfire. When the dance and the parties and the music -- he was just riding a tide. I'm particularly thinking of the teens and into the early '20s before he gets to the Cotton Club. Am I right? Describe that as you imagine that period as you've learned about that period. Duke is coming along at a time when this stuff is just exploding.
TAYLOR: Duke Ellington was very lucky in that he at the time he was in his formative stages--World War I was taking place--or just about to happen and it was during that period that he began to really decide well I want to play the same kind of music I hear on the piano rolls. They had these player pianos. You put something which was rolled up piece of paper, stick it into a part of the piano and then with your feet you would pump and the keys would magically go up and down and there would be Willie the Lion Smith or James P. Johnson playing in your living room.
Well, Duke Ellington learned some of the music from watching the keys go down and figuring out, okay, that's what it is. He learned "Carolina Shout" and a couple of the James P. Johnson pieces from watching that happen with the piano rolls. Because you could slow them down.
SMITH: What was the style? If you were going back to that World War I era, think about Duke, what he was doing, then what kind of music, give me a couple of bars that he would play.
TAYLOR: Well, at the turn of the century you had music (plays some ragtime) -- ragtime in a very simple sense, simple melody and so forth. By the time Duke came along, they were playing much more complicated things. So the melody, that's already harmonically and melodically much more complicated, plus your left hand is still doing that (demonstrates with left hand) -- simple things like that he was doing -- so you have a different chord or a different chord every two beats so you have -- that is in those days, that was pretty complicated and you were playing faster because it was for dancing and people were kind of moving along -- that was kind of the rhythm they were dancing to and basically they made it a little more complicated than that, but that's just one piece.
And that was one of the pieces that Willie the Lion and James P. Johnson and many of the New York players, Eubie Blake and some of the other people who were around at that time, those were the kinds of things that they were playing. Now Eubie Blake did...
SMITH: When you think of Ellington--was Ellington shaped in important ways by Washington, by the community that he grew up in and if so, how was he shaped by Washington?
TAYLOR: Washington had people like Doc Perry and Lewis Brown who were playing in the style that was associated with James P. Johnson. I'll just mention James P. Johnson rather than all the other folks because he optimized a large group of people who were actually playing in the style that I'm talking about. He wasn't the only one but he was the best example. Fats Waller came along as his student and so those were the two people that -- Fats was around Duke's age so Duke is hearing this young guy who's doing things that he wants to do and he's very aware pianistically of what's going on and realizes that he's got to find something of his own that is not like Waller, but is in that style, but says Duke Ellington.
So he began to listen to Willie the Lion Smith and other people who had a different harmonic approach and so he quickly began to develop melodic and harmonic ideas that branched out.
SMITH: Let me come at that in a different way. Let me go back to the community a minute because I don't think I've set this up right. You went to Dunbar High. Talk to me for a moment about going to Dunbar High. What it meant. People speak of the old Dunbar with awe. Why? What was there about Dunbar? Was it a special place and if so what made Dunbar special?
TAYLOR: Segregation made Dunbar, Paul Lawrence Dunbar High School was named after a poet, one of the great black poets. And segregation made that the unique place of learning that it was for many years, when I was a student.
Dunbar High School was a high school named after a wonderful poet and the thing that made it special was that it really was a place where anyone, any student who was accepted there was going not just to high school but going on to college.
When I was growing up in Washington, D.C., there were three high schools for black students. If you went to Dunbar you were going to college. It was a given. If you went to Cardoza you were going into business because that was the focus of that high school.
If you went to Armstrong, which Duke Ellington went to, you're going to be an artist or an artisan. You were going to do something with your hands in a mechanical sense, painter or something like that. So there were three different kinds of schools.
Dunbar was unique because, when I was there, there were five teachers with doctorates on a high school faculty. This is ludicrous for a high school but they couldn't get jobs in the places where they should have been teaching--in a college or in some other place, so they taught at Dunbar High School. It was like going to a prep school. Like going to a private school because the standards were very high. They really made you study.
I wasn't a particularly good student and I mean they really came down hard on me because my folks knew they wanted me to go to college and they made sure that I got in and got out of that school so that I could go on to college. You learn languages. You learn mathematics. You learn all of the things that were necessary to prepare you for the next step in your education.
SMITH: And what kind of colleges did the Dunbar graduates go on to? My recollection is that was a pretty impressive roster.
TAYLOR: People who went to Dunbar ended up going to all kinds of schools. Oddly enough, they got to go to a lot of northern schools like Harvard and Yale and other places because southern schools wouldn't accept them. Southern white schools. Many people who came from Virginia and Maryland and Virginia south, who were black had the same problem. They didn't want them to go to the University of Maryland or the University of Virginia so they gave them a scholarship. Paid for them to go to another school out of the state. And the preparation that many of the people got from Dunbar High School made it possible for them to do that.
SMITH: Now you were in the Cadet Corps there? What was the Cadet Corps?
TAYLOR: Dunbar -- all of the schools had a Cadet Corps. Dunbar, Cardoza and Armstrong and this was preparation, military preparation, for marching for the most part, just marching around with a gun on your shoulder. Sometimes it was a real gun. It was -- if you had any bullets you could shoot it. We didn't have any but you could shoot blanks and so forth. It was an old-fashioned gun but nevertheless you could march around.
We had companies and there's a requirement in the high school that you had to spend a year or two in the Cadet Corps if you were male and so we marched around after school and did a whole bunch of things that were not of interest to me.
SMITH: You were not an enthusiastic cadet?
TAYLOR: Not at all.
SMITH: Now, you've described a community and I wonder if you can sort of put it together. You've got a bunch of things here. This small town feeling, everybody knowing each other. A professional group of people -- the doctors, the lawyers, the dentists, the strong cultural life that you had here. The Cadet Corps and the parties in this kind of close-knit community.
So I want to go back to that first question I asked you about and just say, if you can put some of those elements together, what that community was like and what it meant to have that kind of a community as you grew up, particularly with the modern vantage point -- you think of the big city, you think of U Street maybe not today but even over the last 20 years, that kind of stuff, you look at the community. What was that community like to you as a kid growing up, all the way from 5 to 20 and on into college?
TAYLOR: Washington, D.C., was the most exciting place I can think of to have grown up in because, first of all, it was a very small community. I knew everybody. It was a very diverse community. You had people who were opera stars who should have been at the Met or someplace like that. They couldn't be there because they were black.
You had people who were very much at the top of their field in terms of their training, in terms of their capabilities and they were not allowed to do those things to the extent that they might have if they were in the broader community and operating full steam with everybody else.
So that was all compacted into this very tiny geographical area where everybody knew everybody. Duke Ellington was available to me. When he came to New York friends of mine were friends of his so I got to meet him face to face simply because he came to the black community and that was where he had to stay. He couldn't stay in hotels downtown. He couldn't even play in the theaters at that point. They weren't hiring his band to play in most of the theaters that had the big white orchestras and so forth. So he played the Howard Theater.
He was available to me. He was available to the black community and so were many other people who were lawyers and who were either at that time or later became tremendously important to the overall society because of the things that they had done in their careers and their lives.
SMITH: Tell me the story of meeting Duke Ellington. How old were you and where were you? As I recall it's at Howard Theater and tell me the story, how did you meet Duke Ellington?
TAYLOR: When I was growing up on Flagler Place, as a kid there was a young fellow who lived around the corner from me. His name was Wallace Conway. His father, Ewell Conway, had been a partner of Duke Ellington in the business of sign painting and Ewell Conway was still at that point when I was a kid, painting signs to advertise whoever would be playing at the black theaters.
In those days instead of just pictures or other ways of expressing, they had lovely placards. They took up the whole front of the theater and they were hand painted and they were in color and it was very attractive and Conway was a master of this. He was very good at this so he did all the theaters, Ewell Conway. So I was very friendly with his son, Wallace, and so when Duke Ellington came to town I said, 'Wallace, could you get your dad to introduce me to Duke Ellington? I really want to meet him.' He said sure.
And so we went to see Ellington, of course, because it was a big deal. It was the first time he had ever played -- in my lifetime -- that he had played the theater and so we went back stage and I went with Mr. Conway and he introduced me to his friend, Duke Ellington. And I was just in heaven because this was the guy that I'd heard on the radio. I'd seen in the movie and it was a really big deal for me.
Once again, people today don't have that kind of access to a superstar of his magnitude, because he doesn't necessarily--a superstar doesn't necessarily come to their neighborhood where people who grew up with that person and know that person could introduce a young person to a superstar like Duke Ellington.
SMITH: What did Duke Ellington mean to you? You were then how old and what did he mean to you? How did you know Duke at that early age?
TAYLOR: Well, I was a pre-teenager. I guess I was about -- I must have been about 11 or 12 years old, something like that. I was really just starting to play the piano, but I had been listening for a long time and I had heard his music, seen him in the movies.
I knew his importance. I knew how great he was in the field. I had other friends -- there was a young saxophone player named Billy White who had taught me Ellington pieces because his dream was to play with the Duke Ellington band. He was a couple of years older than I.
And that was a dream of a lot of young musicians because this band already, when we were kids, represented the pinnacle of greatness as far as jazz was concerned.
SMITH: Did you try to learn Ellington pieces and if so, like what?
TAYLOR: I think his music was hard for me because I didn't have enough harmony, enough of a harmonic background at that point to analyze what he was doing and to realize how he was constructing his work. So I learned some of his simpler pieces.
PLAYS MOOD INDIGO
"Mood Indigo" I could play. It was a very simple piece. It was slow. It was a ballad. It was something that I could physically play but I wanted to play his more rhythmic pieces and I heard. That's a tune that Ellington wrote with Nick Kenny, who was a columnist, and Nick wrote the words and Duke Ellington wrote the music.
And the story is -- I don't know whether it's true or not -- but the story is they were coming back in the car from New Jersey -- they had gone to New Jersey for some reason or other and it was Kenny's car and he said, 'Well Duke, where would you like us to take you?' He said, 'Just drop me off at Harlem. I'll be all right.' He liked that sound and so did Nick and they made up a tune that said, "Drop Me Off At Harlem."
At any rate, a lot of things that Ellington wrote he says came from situations like that and it must have been very interesting to be around him in those days because he came up with a whole lot of catchy titles.
The idea of playing like Duke, though, for me was just to be able to play, "In My Solitude." That was a pop tune. It was a very popular piece of music. Everybody loved it. It was a gorgeous piece of music and so things like that were on the charts of those days, if you will. There were no top 40 or anything like that but everybody had the sheet music to that, "In My Solitude," and "Mood Indigo" and "Sophisticated Lady" and other songs that Ellington had recorded and that we heard on the radio all the time.
Ewell Conway, who was the friend who introduced me to Ellington, had a huge collection of Ellington records. He had the biggest collection of anyone I knew and so I got to hear what then were very obscure Ellington records because he had them. He collected Ellington records. He had these things and he had a wonderful machine. It was a Kapok machine. Now this played records, but unlike my Victrola at home that my father had bought which played one record, you put a record on and took the arm and put it on the record. This was very mechanical. This Kapok -- you put a record in what looked like a dish or something that held the record this way and you put the record in and it played one side, then turned it over and played the other side. Hey, it was a mechanical marvel in those days.
So we would go to his house and he was a person who, because he was an artist and he was an affluent man, he had a very nice home, he had his basement fixed up as a playroom and so he could play the records on his Kapok upstairs and pipe the music downstairs where the party is and whatever the gathering of people were.
SMITH: When did you personally start hearing Ellington? When did you start collecting his records and how did you do it? What did you pay for it?
TAYLOR: My father was a dentist and his office was at 7th and S Street. Actually, his first office was 7th and P Street but at 7th and S, just down the street was a record store. It was right around the corner from Howard Theater and the guy that owned the record store had sold records that were popular in the black community. He sold jazz. He sold blues. He had some old records of things like Jelly Roll Morton and the traditional things and they were back in the back somewhere, all dusty because nobody bought those. Everybody was buying whatever was the hip new Ellington, Billie Holiday, Teddy, whatever was coming out in those days.
That was really what he was making his money on but he was a very nice man. He became famous here in Washington...
SMITH: When did you start collecting Ellington?
TAYLOR: I had been a record collector for awhile. My uncle gave me my first records that I owned. My family had records that belonged to the family but the first records that I owned were given to me by my uncle Robert. Uncle Bob gave me my first Fats Waller record, gave me my first Art Tatum record.
Well, I began to collect other records that they had made and in the process of collecting those kind of records I developed a small collection of things I liked. In particular, Duke Ellington, Teddy Wilson, Fats Waller, other people whose work I felt I could learn something from or I just wanted to listen to. I'd say well I'll play this one when the kids come by because then we can dance to that or something like that. Because this was social as well as something that I was interested in as a musician.
I began to collect Ellington records but Ellington records were a little more expensive then some of the records that I had been collecting. I had been collecting records which cost $.25 or $.35. Ellington recorded for RCA Victor which was $.75 so that was a whole lot of Coca Cola bottles in those days. When you turned in the bottles and got the deposit back, you could come up with a few pennies so if you collected five bottles you had ten cents--you had two cents on the bottle or something like that. So I would do that but that wasn't fast enough.
So I sold papers and I did other things--mow people's lawns and do things to earn money so that I could go to this place which was actually up the street from my father's office. And the guy who owned it--Waxie Maxie--he wasn't called that then but he was the person who owned this wonderful record shop and he was a very nice man.
He allowed me to come in and knowing that I was interested in music and he would allow me to play -- not a lot but the things that I liked. The Nat Cole Trio a little later and things like that and different kinds of records that were appealing to me.
So many of the things I couldn't afford -- Ellington records -- I would play there and really kind of try to get it in my ear and then run home and try to remember what I heard.
SMITH: What's the first tune you remember that you -- of Ellington's -- that really caught your...
TAYLOR: Well the first tune that I actually learned of Ellington, I believe was one of two tunes. I can't remember which one I learned first but they were both very hard. They were both ballads. One was "Sophisticated Lady" and ... I still play it.
I recently recorded the second tune that I learned in that context which was this ... I didn't play it like that in those days and as a matter of fact, I didn't play any of the Ellington tunes because I didn't have the harmonic concept to put them together that after some years of playing them and listening to the way he played really beginning to understand his harmonic directions, I began to be able to handle that kind of material a lot better.
For instance I was fascinated by the fact that Ellington took ... which is a very simple progression ... and I couldn't -- how did he get there? And how's he going to get away from there?
In those early days I couldn't figure ... It's very logical when you understand that his progressions are going in a certain direction.
SMITH: Where did Ellington learn this? Who's the source? Why did Ellington go to Henry Grant and what did Ellington learn from Henry Grant?
TAYLOR: I wanted to learn much more about Ellington in particular and I was very fortunate in that when I got to Dunbar High School I had really begun to study with a man who lived across the street from me whose name was Henry Grant. He was a great musician. He was one of the five musicians of the early 1900s and he chose to become a teacher.
He was an excellent teacher. I'm sure he would have preferred to have been a composer in the European tradition and to take things that people like Will Murray and Cook and other composers of his age, of his generation, were doing.
But for whatever reason, he became a teacher and I wanted to learn about Ellington and so forth, and I talked to him as my teacher. He was teaching me things by Nathaniel Depp and he had me playing music by black composers as well as Chopin and Bach and the usual music that one studies with a classical teacher.
SMITH: Why would somebody go to a teacher like Henry Grant who's a classical teacher if you're interested in learning jazz. Now to you that makes good sense but I'm asking this from a layman's standpoint. What is it that draws Duke Ellington first and then Billy Taylor to Henry Grant, a classical music teacher?
TAYLOR: I began to play jazz by ear. I began to teach myself and that was a very slow process, and I was very frustrated and I realized that I had to go to someone who knew more than I did. I took a couple of lessons with Louis Brown who was a jazz pianist here in Washington, D.C., who was along in Ellington's generation.
But that didn't take me where I wanted to go and I realized that one way to do that was to ask serious questions of my piano teacher, who was at that time Henry Grant. I realized that I want to get the technical facility to do some of these things and I can't get it by myself. I need some help so I went to Henry Grant who really, unlike my earlier teachers, my first teachers, had me playing really ... Hannon and things that were very good. I should have remained there and learned what they were trying to teach me, but I was young and impatient and I didn't think that was helping. I wanted to play ... I wanted to do that right now and so I wanted to start on that.
In those days you could not study jazz so if you're going to learn a musical instrument, you had to study classical music. That was what was available so the idea for me was to learn what I could from European classical music and use that in jazz.
Unfortunately, I was so wrapped up in that concept I didn't take advantage of some of the things that I should have taken advantage of in learning the repertoire of European classical players. I studied Debussy, I studied Revel and many other contemporary, in the first part of the 20th century, composers. I learned a lot from them.
Henry Grant was the person who showed me that the chords that I was interested in -- he said, what is this chord ... I don't know, what is it? So he showed me that this was the 13th chord and I said, 'What do you mean it's the 13th chord?' He said, well there -- chords are built in intervals and he gave me a quick music lesson. He said this is ... triad ... this is the 5th ... so this is the 3rd, one, two, three ... coming right up the scale. Well I'll do this in C.
Okay so I have three notes, these two notes, 1st, 3rd note of the scale, 5th note of the scale, 7th note. Now if I want to make the kind of chord that I'm looking for, I'm going to have to lower that note and then I add up 9, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 ... So if I've got that, that's the kind of chord I'm looking for.
So he said, 'Well, that's one but this is the 13th.' I said, 'Why?' He said, 'Because 13 notes apart.' So I said, 'Okay, so what's so special about that?' He said, 'That's what you're listening to.' So I said, 'Oh ...'
SMITH: So why would Duke have gone to Henry Grant? What would he have learned that was important to his jazz?
TAYLOR: Duke was a self-taught musician and Henry Grant was a friend of his who was a music teacher, very well schooled. He was a college graduate, graduated from the Conservatory. He was a fine composer, fine arranger and he had the answers to many technical questions that Duke needed so Duke would call him on the phone.
When I was studying with Henry Grant, he would get a phone call and I'm right in the middle of my lesson. The phone would ring. He'd go, he'd be gone for 10, 15 minutes and he'd come back and he'd apologize. He'd say, 'I'm very sorry but there was something I had to take care of with Duke Ellington.'
Duke Ellington, oh really? And he'd say, 'Yeah, we were talking about something that he's working on musically.' And probably in that way, realizing how interested I was Ellington's music, he would then come back to my lesson.
He said, 'Now, the very things that I've got you working on in Debussy you'll find in Ellington's work. For instance, you've been studying harmony with me and we've been talking about harmonic development and we've been talking about chords and I had you playing triads ... and we talked about 7th chords ... and 9th chords ... and 13th chords.' ... And he said, 'You find that in Ellington.'
You take there's a ... same chord ... now see, that's the way Duke Ellington, he's telling me, that's the way Duke Ellington puts those together. It's not all 13th chords. They're moving tones and it really gave me a great lesson as to how Ellington would ... so he's now on the 9th chord ... here's the 13th ... 9th but he uses different voicing. So my teacher's explaining this to me -- how it goes together. I said right, he gave me more than I needed to work on for the next few weeks. And it was very exciting.
SMITH: So Henry Grant was really a very special influence on Ellington and then on you.
TAYLOR: And every body else he came in contact with. Henry Grant was the kind of person who, because he was so knowledgeable and he was a very soft spoken man, he said things without a lot of pretense or without -- in a very matter of fact way when he was teaching. He'd say look -- I mean he was enthusiastic but he would say, look, this is something you ought to know and he'd go about it, really, you're right.
It would just nail it that you said well, yeah, gee, and it was something for me that I could use and I know that's the way it worked with Duke Ellington.
SMITH: Did Henry Grant influence Ellington's music and if so, how?
TAYLOR: I'm sure Henry Grant had a tremendous influence on Ellington in terms of understanding the kinds of harmonies that Ellington wanted to use, because by the time I was a student and Ellington was beginning to make arrangements and he was beginning to write down these special approaches to music that he was thinking about, he had already listened to Wilmarion Cook, he had listened to some of the other people, Will Vodrey and these were colleagues of Henry Grant.
Henry Grant had gone to the same kind -- had had the same kind of training that they had and so I think it was Ellington, was influenced by all of these people. How much of this or that I couldn't say, but each one, because of their application of European techniques to ragtime music and the music that was growing then, the jazz that was then growing out of jazz, they showed him how it could be done in their style and he just took it to the next level and made that his style.
SMITH: I asked you earlier how Washington had shaped Ellington and your answer was very much in the musical sense -- you were talking about musical influences. Let me ask you more in cultural influences. But before I ask you that, when you went to the Howard Theater and you saw Ellington. Ellington came out and the spotlights came on him or the pin spots were on him or Johnny Hodges or whoever it was on, I just wonder what that was like for you as an experience and what Ellington's presence was like when he came on stage. As you're sitting in whatever row you were in, front row I guess, what was Ellington like? What did Ellington symbolize to you? When did it look like a performance?
So let me ask you how old you were when you first started going to the Howard Theater and what was the Howard Theater like? What did it mean as an experience and what did it look like?
TAYLOR: The Howard Theater was a magical place for me because this is where music and artistry came alive. It was where I saw funny comedians and I saw great tap dancers and people who did kind of ballet dancing and I heard wonderful artists and they were true artists doing whatever they did.
Acrobats or whatever and so it was variety. It was vaudeville. It was variety and it was exciting. It just kept me glued to my seat and just paying attention to whatever was going on on-stage.
Ellington fit right into this because as a person who had studied to be an artist, he had a visual concept that was different from anybody else that played the Howard Theater. Usually when I went to the Howard Theater, an off-stage voice would say, you'd hear something going on in the background an off-stage voice would say, "and now ladies and gentlemen, the great Tiny Bradshaw or the great Mills Blue Ribbon Band or the great whatever, Check Webb and his famous band with Ella Fitzgerald" and it was excitement.
When Ellington came, it was totally different. Even the motion picture, it was always a movie in addition to this show, the show would go off, the theater would get dark, all of a sudden an off-stage voice would come into the theater and someone backstage was saying, "and now ladies and gentlemen, the internationally famous Duke Ellington orchestra." And the curtains would part and instead of the bright lights and the band blasting and swinging and everybody patting their foot, it was very quiet. What you heard, you didn't see anything. It was dark.
They would probably be playing something like "Mood Indigo" or one of the lovely pieces of Ellington and the spotlight would hit Johnny Hodges and just a pin spot and everybody else is behind a scrim in darkness so you see out shadows of people and this one spotlight on one identifiable musician and then it broadens out to maybe two, three, and then the whole band and so finally you see everybody and they play this tune and they keep building and finally they get to something else and they break into maybe, something that is more rhythmic, "Caravan" or something like that. And when they do that, then Ellington walks out -- immaculate in some tails, white tails and it was just show biz.
Visually it attracted you and musically it just held you -- between those two things there was no way you could think that this was anything but the greatest thing you ever saw in life.
SMITH: So you're talking about Ellington as a guy whose performance is much more than the music. It's visual. It's style. It's a whole lot of stuff. So when I asked you earlier, how Washington had shaped Ellington, I guess part of what was in my mind was there were a lot of other influences besides musical influences -- the style, the dignity and so forth but from your perspective, how do you think Washington shaped Ellington?
TAYLOR: Washington gave Duke Ellington what it gave many other people who were developed. Whose musicality was developed in this city. It gave him a sense of perspective. He knew that he personally could do something that was not going to be done by someone else.
He had been taught that, in jazz, you look for your own voice. You have to -- you can't get anywhere sounding just like Fats Waller or somebody else that you might admire so you have to develop your own way of saying things musically. He did that and he did that in a way that was so attractive and so complete in terms of what he was doing.
He said, 'I'm going to develop something which is going to appeal to a total audience.' He had the opportunity in New York to play for a white audience that he didn't have in Washington, D.C. So he's not thinking of, this is only for people of my own ethnic group, but this is broader than that.
I'm not going to lose my way of saying things but I'm going to bring everybody into my circle -- and that's what he did.
SMITH: But you talk also about the flare, the elegance, the style, the white tuxedo. Do you think Washington and the kind of community it was, with its Dunbar High School, with its professionals coming out of Howard, the lawyers, the doctors and so forth, with its churches, its religious tradition and with a very solid established black middle class -- which must have been somewhat unusual for cities in America at that time -- at the era that he grew up, do you think Washington shaped any of that style, that elegance, that flare of his?
TAYLOR: Yeah, I think Washington, D.C. gave Ellington the confidence to do what he wanted to do, but he had models in the Cleft Club Orchestra in terms of what, how to dress and how to appeal to an audience that was broader than a black audience.
So he had James Resurup who was giving concerts in Carnegie Hall just before the First World War. He had people like Eubie Blake and Nobel Sissel who wrote a major Broadway show in 1921 featuring all kinds of people of color. These two people -- Nobel Sissel and Eubie Blake -- were the first two black entertainers who refused to go on what was, I guess, the predecessor to movies -- Movie Tone or Videograph or something like that, whatever it was--they refused to wear black face. Everybody else including some of the greatest...
SMITH: So what you're saying then is that Washington gave him a sense of confidence. Also gave him a sense of his own full potential.
TAYLOR: But he had a model. All Washington did to lay the groundwork. Washington did for Ellington what it did for me, I think. I came out of Washington, D.C. convinced that I could do anything I wanted to do. I was educated. I was prepared for anything that the world would throw at me, I thought.
I look back today and say, 'Wow, was I kidding?' But in those days I had a great deal of confidence. I felt that I was prepared and that I could handle any situation. He must have felt the same way because having come up in the cultural situation that I did, you were supported. You were told, if you can do something five times as good as everybody else, then you're going to make it.
So he said, yeah, okay, I'll do seven times as better so I got to make it. That worked for a lot of folks. There was a saying that if you work twice as hard as a white guy, you'll get half as much. And that worked. And you said, I'll do my numbers, twice as hard, four times as much, five times as much, six times as much. What do I need to do?
SMITH: But there was tremendous pride.
TAYLOR: Absolutely. The one thing Washington, D.C., instilled in almost everybody that came up in Ellington's generation and it spilled over into mine was a feeling of pride in yourself -- you had self respect. You believed that you were somebody, that you could do something, that you were entitled by virtue of your wanting -- your work ethic. I'm prepared to do what's necessary and if I do it, I expect to be rewarded because I can play the piano better than anyone. I can write better music than I can. I'm a better doctor than somebody else. I can take better photographs then somebody else so if I can do it, people will come to me. And in many cases they did.
SMITH: And that's important. It was really critical for you. I want to go back to this question of Henry Grant again because -- succinctly to get at it. Ellington as a teenager is already playing. He's making money. He's a man now. He's doing parties so why does Ellington go to Henry Grant?
Ellington--he's 16, he's 17, he's 18 years old. He's hot. He's at parties. He's working the ragtime. He's a hit. He's making money. So why does he go to a classical piano teacher like Henry Grant. What's he look for?
TAYLOR: I don't know when Duke Ellington first met Henry Grant or what their relationship was. I do know that by the time Duke Ellington was successful there were a not a lot of people at that point in the mid, late '20s and early '30s that he felt comfortable going to.
He didn't want to study. He was already successful. He had written music for the Cotton Club. He had already done a lot of things so in the '30s, say in '36, '37, by that time he'd done movies, he'd done all kinds of stuff yet there were certain things that he, not having -- because he was not musically trained there were certain things that he wanted to know.
Who do you go to? One of the people he went to was Henry Grant because Henry could give him succinct answers to his musical questions and move him from one place to another -- help him from one place to another.
SMITH: What did Grant tell you that he had taught Ellington?
TAYLOR: He never--Henry Grant never said to me, I taught Duke Ellington this.
SMITH: I thought you said to me the last time when we talked some months ago that when you were studying with Grant and Grant was teaching you Revel (ph.) and Debussy and classical and you were taking it but not enthusiastic about it, that he said to you, I taught this to Ellington. This is how Ellington learned harmony and this is what...
TAYLOR: No, he didn't say--I misspoke if I said that. What he did--what Grant gave to Ellington I believe was a concrete--was a direct way of approaching European classical music and using it to help him solve some of the musical problems that were coming to him.
SMITH: You mean Henry Grant was taking classical music and helping Ellington create jazz?
TAYLOR: No, I'm not saying it very well. The simple answer to what you said, yes, that's exactly what he was doing but that's not what I said. It's hard. You ask me questions I have to put in context because otherwise the answer is wrong.
All the way back to Scott Joplin and before, musicians used -- this is not part of the answer. I have to set it up. Musicians like Duke Ellington were in a tradition of using European techniques of harmony and theory and musical development in terms of how do you develop a melody, how do you develop a long composition, something longer than 32 bars or something like that. How do you develop a theme and so forth.
Those kinds of questions -- one answer was to watch what had been done or to study what had been done by the masters of the European classical music and so someone would like Ellington would take Chopin or take Revel and Debussy and say this is the way this composer approached music in terms of melody or this is the way -- these are some of the devices that this composer used in harmony.
Now he would just extrapolate that, not in terms of the context of the piece itself. He'd extrapolate that device, then use it in his own way.
Ellington wanted to go further than that. He wanted to be his music to do something else and in order to have it do something else, he had to go to someone who had studied this and who really knew more about European classical music than he did.
So he went to Henry Grant and said Henry, he'd call him and say, I want to do this. How would say, Debussy or somebody like that -- how is this approached in European classical music and Henry might say, well Bach did this or Chopin did so and so and give him an example that he could work with. I don't know if I said it any clearer.
SMITH: What would that become if you play a few chords that would illustrate that?
TAYLOR: In jazz, for instance, there are all kinds of ways to put two or three melodies together or say two melodies. Bach did that in a certain way and so, but Ellington didn't want to sound like Bach, so he might ... so he would use the same device but he would use it from his point of view. And he might couple that with ... so he's thinking of intervals in a jazz sense using a device that maybe he got the idea from Bach but it doesn't come out sounding as though Bach wrote it.
The same thing is true in listening to some of the things that Debussy did. Whether he's talking about ... now I never heard anything like that in his music. I did hear him do this ... he did it on the piano. He would take -- but it's not in the same context that ...
SMITH: He's taking Debussy's harmonies and using it...
TAYLOR: And using it in a way which is Ellington.
One of the things that he did--Ellington would take something, for instance like you would hear this in Debussy ... now from "Claire de Lune" he might take that idea and say ... and it might come out another way.
SMITH: Now I want to go back to the question about the piano player in the early society. So let me just ask you succinctly, if the piano player -- what was the piano player in that era? The heart of the party, I guess. What was it? What was the importance of the piano player?
TAYLOR: For many years, going right into from the turn of the century to the '30s, the piano player was the center of attraction. Everybody had a piano and you could -- there was a group of 5 or 6 people. You could go to the piano and play something. Everybody would relate to it, either as a piano solo or they may gather around the piano and sing or someone might dance to what you're doing.
So the pianist had an opportunity to really do certain things that were intriguing in a social sense. And so Ellington, as a pianist, came up with this kind of spotlight always on him. He enlarged that when he began to play with his band and he really took it to the next level but the pianist had just a very special position in terms of being the life of the party.
SMITH: Is that what attracted you?
TAYLOR: One of the things that I loved about the position of the pianist when I was growing up was the fact that pretty girls always came sat on the piano stool and hey, that was motivation, for real.
SMITH: What did Ellington mean to you as you were growing up? Becoming a piano player -- was he an inspiration?
TAYLOR: Ellington never in the early days influenced me as a pianist. I was interested in it as a composer and as someone who did wonderful things with music. My idols were Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum. Before that Fats Waller and I related to Ellington as a pianist because even in those days I realized he was doing things that were not easy to do.
I wasn't particularly interested in his piano style because I wanted to do things on another level, but I learned from Ellington. I was talking about his harmony a minute ago. I developed a whole style of accompanying and playing melodies based on an introduction that he did to intermellow tone ... That was his introduction.
That he did that because Jimmy Blanton was playing something like that on the base and he wanted to be up out of the range of what the base was doing. When I was developing a piano style, I wanted to do that. I heard it. I liked it. I said there's got to be something I can do so I began to use other chords ...
As a matter of fact one of the first tunes I recorded is really based on that concept. The very first record I made was really a steal from this -- I changed the ... That was a tune I wrote called The Mad Monk, it was dedicated to a friend of mine who had been highly influenced by Duke Ellington whose name was Thelonius Monk. Now the, what I was trying to do when I wrote that piece was to take things from my style and put them into bee-bop. Monk had done something along those lines. So you know to me there is a logical line that goes from Ellington through what I do to people who emulate what I am do.
SMITH: If you're primary piano idols as it were, were Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson and I can understand that, they're both phenomenal pianists, what did Ellington mean to you as a person, as you were growing up, 10, 15, 18, 22 you know. I mean what he is to you as, coming from the same community, actually studying with the same piano teacher. Going to the Howard Theater seeing him on stage. What does Ellington mean to you as a person?
TAYLOR: Ellington always was for me someone who set a standard that I wanted to emulate. I didn't necessarily want to play like him, I didn't want to write like him, I didn't want to create music that sounded like Ellington, although that would have been wonderful, I wish I could. That wasn't what I had in mind. I was taught very early, as he was, that you have to find your own voice. That you have to do you know, we've already got an Ellington. So if you write like that the best you can be is a second rate Ellington. And so I wanted to use things that I learned from him in a way that came out Billy Taylor such as what I just did a moment ago.
It's his device but it's me doing something with it. It's not necessarily as good as or even remotely on the same level, but it's mine. And so I, and I acknowledge the source.
SMITH: When we were talking once before, you said that it was impossible to exaggerate his influence, he was bigger than life, he was an inspiration, he was a model. I mean it's more of a generic thing I'm asking you here. What did Ellington mean to you and your sense of your own potential and what you wanted to do? What was Ellington's importance?
TAYLOR: To me Duke Ellington was the greatest composer of the 20th century. He was unique in so many ways. He epitomized the trip that jazz took during the 20th century. He did all of the things that were done by other musicians in his own way. He took the very beginnings of the music, did it in Ellington way so that you could hear rag time, you could hear the early styles of jazz. He pointed the way toward many other styles, bee bop and soul and all kinds of things.
He took the way of performing a lyrical piece of music, something that was a ballad and made it sing even though he was not using the vocal, used Johnny Hodges and other people to make the music sing in that, in the purest sense. He took, he did music. He wrote music for every conceivable situation. He wrote music for church, he wrote music for nightclubs, he wrote music for dance, he wrote music for plays, he wrote music for movies, he wrote music for television. There is no media that he did not cover in his lifetime that exists now.
His music is even being screened on computers, even though he's not around to do it. It was stuff that he wrote which suits that. So what Ellington means I think to the 20th century, is that here is a self-taught genius who really takes all of this natural ability, takes the kind of situation that he as a child was exposed to, where people said, 'We believe in you, we think you can do something unique and special, not just unique and special to the world, but special to you.' And he believed that. And so he fulfilled the prophecy.
What he did was to create music which is perhaps the biggest influence on jazz as a genre, I mean his music as a genre is the biggest influence on jazz because in it you can find something of Latin jazz. You can find something of things which are very abstract which one doesn't normally associate with Duke Ellington. You can find things which are very beautifully organized, very rhythmic, very danceable. You name it, it's there.
SMITH: And Washington had something to do with that?
TAYLOR: Washington, he grew up here as I said at the beginning of that. He, the idea of you can do, people here gave us concrete examples with Paul Robeson, with other people, how something could be done. In Ellington's you're confusing the place and what he learned as someone who lived in Washington with what he took away from Washington and used with James Reese Europe and Will Marion Cook and Will Vogtry and others as concrete examples of what was being taught, what he was taught.
SMITH: Let me ask you how you remember the Howard Theater, what it looked like. Was it gilt? Was it big? Was it fancy? What the inside of the Howard to you as a ten year old kid going in there.
TAYLOR: When I was grown and I came back and played the Howard Theater with Flam Stewart, I was amazed at how small it was. I mean when I was a kid, this was a huge, big just gorgeous place with I mean balconies, I mean it just looked big. I can't think of anything else. It was just a very large, to me as a child, a very large theater. In reality, it was not. It was about the, it was a typical small vaudeville house. Not a lot of dressing room space in the back. Not the kind of room that I would associate now as a performer with proper dressing rooms and proper backstage and so forth.
But in those days, the first time I played an amateur night, this was, to walk from the wings to the piano, seemed like ten or fifteen miles. I mean that was the longest walk that I can imagine. I was so nervous I thought I was going to trip, I thought I was going to be, into something terrible was going to happen before I get to the safety of this piano. So to me the Howard Theater was a magical place. It was the kind of place where wonderful artists performed. To see Cab Callaway there and see this guy doing this highty-ho and the band and all of those kinds of... Once again like Ellington, they all dressed up, they looked great. To see the tap dancers like Honey Cole and Atkins. These guys looked so, Charlie Atkins, these guys looked so poised. They were absolutely in, they were doing these fantastic dances effortless, I mean just nothing you know, anybody can do this. I mean isn't this simple and the whole idea of professionalism came through to me in a way at the Howard Theater that has formed whatever I try to do.
Because the models that I think back to like some of those that I just named and others, it was that here is someone who is entirely in control of craft. This person, male or female, if it's a singer, she can do whatever you're supposed to do with a voice. If a dancer, I can do everything that I need to do with my body. If it was a musician, these guy's got all the technique that you could ever want. And I know as a human being, that's not true. But that was the effect that they had on me.
SMITH: Talk for a moment about the Ellington School for the Arts and what you think it means. Is it helping keep Duke alive, Duke's music alive, Duke's tradition, his legacy alive? How important, what do you make of the Ellington School?
TAYLOR: I think the Ellington School is a wonderful idea. It's an arts school. And it's the kind of school where all of the students that are accepted there are trained to do something in the arts. I wish there were more evidence of Duke Ellington in the school in terms of everybody, whether you're a singer or a dancer or a playwright or an aspiring playwright or doing something technical. I think there are lessons to be learned from Ellington that could be used more effectively there.
I think Davie Yarborough, DaveYarborough is doing a fantastic job. He's a wonderful musician. He's doing things with young artists. He's a real teacher, he brings his experience to these young people and inspires them to do the same kind of thing that Ellington did. In the music area, I think they are doing a wonderful job of keeping Ellington's tradition alive. I wish it would expand in the same way through the whole school.
SMITH: Now you've actually gone there and done some teaching, done some sessions, and you've had some students come and work with you on the piano. Talk a little bit about just your involvement with the Ellington School for the Arts.
TAYLOR: Well I've at one point, I was doing a lot of work in schools other than the schools where I'm currently teaching. And time permitted it and I was able to do master classes and to do clinics and so forth. I particularly enjoyed what I did at the Ellington School because the kids were so well performed, well prepared at the time that I was there. And they performed beautifully. I mean I later brought a young kid who was then I think about 12, 13 years old and I was really intrigued because now here's a kid who's not in high school yet and he was already had a record contract and he was doing, which is why I brought him.
I brought him to the school and said, you know here's a protegee doing some things. So don't think that because you at 17 or 18 are going to get out and you're going to be well prepared. This is some of the kind of competition and they're getting younger and younger and younger. So you got to be ready for the competition. And the kids really responded, I mean they asked questions of him. They, I talked to several after the performance and they were intrigued at some of the things he did. And said you know it gives me an idea, a good idea of some things I want to work on. So I felt that bringing him there really served a useful purpose.
SMITH: Didn't Davie Yarborough hook you up with, I don't whether you're still teaching, with a guy who just graduated, a young guy there. I mean who was that, Doug?
TAYLOR: No his name is completely out of my head. Daniel. Davie Yarborough is my kind of teacher. He came backstage at the Kennedy Center at one of my performances and twisted my arm and said I've got a kid, you've got to work with him. I mean he didn't ask me if I would work with him. He said I have a kid, you got to work with him. And I knew that I had enough respect for Dave to know that if he is saying that about somebody, then you know it's my obligation to be helpful.
And the kid is wonderful. I mean Davie has brought him to the place where he is absolutely comfortable with the European tradition as well as in the jazz and popular tradition. And he is putting these things in the perspective that I think are going to help him take whatever level his talent will take him to. And he was lucky, the kid, Dan was lucky to have the support of a wonderful mother and a wonderful teacher like Davie who said, once again as Ellington was done, you can do this. I know you can do this so now you go and take everything this guy's going to give you and I want you to bring it back and show me what you got. And he did.
SMITH: Do you see Davie keeping Ellington's legacy alive?
TAYLOR: I think Davie Yarborough is one of the people who personally is trying to keep the Ellington legacy alive and he's doing it in a very practical way. He's doing it in a way in which he brings his experience as professional, his experience as someone who knows what the jazz scene is, to people who don't have that experience yet. So that he can direct them, keep them from making some of the mistakes that when you try to teach yourself or when you try to go, take a shortcut or something like that, he can keep them from making those kind of mistakes.
And I, when I look at the kids that come out of that situation and have gone on to other things, I think he's really to be complemented. He's a very fine teacher and a very fine player.
SMITH: If you had to pick a single story that for you epitomizes Duke Ellington, that is Duke, what would it be, what story would you tell about Ellington?
TAYLOR: The story that I'd tell you if I was asked to pick one which is most important to me in terms of Ellington's importance, was the first time he played Birdland. The first time Duke Ellington played Birdland I was house pianist. And my job was to play the lull or the intermission when the band was not playing. Now this was, the band was so hot at that particular time. He had Louie Belsom playing drums with him. He had this all-star band with all these great artists. They took the, they literally took the roof off of Birdland that opening night. I mean it was just bedlam when they finished. They closed with a piece that Louie Belsom had written. I can't recall the title of it now, but it was a drum solo.
And the audience just went crazy. I mean they were standing up cheering, they were, I mean it was just, a wonderfully enthusiastic performance. When they got through, instead of walking off the stand, taking a deep bow and walking off and letting the MC come back and introduce the next act, he stayed there. Stayed on stage, the audience is making a lot of noise and he begins to talk to them. He says, 'Oh, we all love you. Louie Belsom loves you, Johnnie Hodges loves you, Cootie Williams loves you.' And he went through the whole band, name by name.
As he's talking the sound of the room is coming down, down, down. Finally it's quiet. People, he's got them quiet, as he wants them. And he says then to them, ladies and gentlemen I have a young man from my home town, Washington, DC, who's going to play the piano for you in a minute. I want to hear him play, I hope you want to too, Mr. Billy Taylor. Well you couldn't get a better introduction than that. I mean if I had gone on with all that noise, the noise would have continued, nobody would have paid any attention to what I did. But this was Duke Ellington's show and he wanted every bit of it, including the intermission piano player, to be memorable. And so he set it up that way.
SMITH: That's a great story. Tell me that first night when you met him, what was it like? You went back stage with your friend and his father and what did Duke Ellington do when you met him?
TAYLOR: When Ewell Conway introduced me to Duke Ellington, I couldn't say anything. I mean this is the man who's bigger than life and you know so, I want to say something, but I don't know what to say. So I'm standing sort of shuffling from foot to foot. And he was very, I'm sure came, just happened to him on many occasions. He said, 'Well young man I understand you play the piano.' And he talked to me. And I mumbled something and he said, 'What kind of music do you like?' 'Yours.' And so he said, 'Are there any particular things of ours that you like?' I said, 'Oh yeah.' And I rattled off about ten things that I had the records and said so. That got me started and then you know, a few minutes of that kind of conversation. And other people and he, Yule Conway, as friends had things to talk about. So I kind of backed off. And I standing there saying, I should have told him. It was just the wonderful idea of being in the presence of someone who has done so many things that you want to do at that time to just say, well maybe one day I'll get a position to talk, to have a conversation with him. And I did many years later.
SMITH: So he was very gracious?
TAYLOR: Very gracious.
SMITH: So that also is a memory. I mean both of those stories talk about Duke Ellington's grace and his warmth and his consideration. And that's obviously your point, that's the Ellington you knew.
TAYLOR: Another part of the Ellington that I knew was the, there was a time when I was playing at the Hickory House. And we would play the Hickory House for months at a time. During that period Duke Ellington would come in and he was always with an entourage. He would have maybe six, seven, ten people with him. And everybody's ordering steak or whatever it is for dinner and so forth. He had a big glass of ice cream, all different flavors, about like that. And so since he was leisurely eating his ice cream and not eating like a steak or something, I would after, between sets I'd go and talk to him. And he was very accessible cause I'd always play something of Ellington's.
So one day I'd asked him, 'Duke, how did you ever come to the harmonic idea of going down a half step when you take the bridge to Sophisticated Lady? The tune is in A flat, but the bridge is in G. That's very, how did you, what was the process that you went through? What made you think that you could do that?' He said, 'Well, I discovered that I could do things like that when I discovered that A flat was not G sharp.' Now, here's, I've read this in other things where he's using C sharp and D flat. So obviously someone else asked him the same kind of question.
What he means is that it's the same note on the piano. So C sharp, so if you're going to be playing an A flat, this is C sharp, but it's also a D flat. So if I'm playing D flat, if I'm using it as C sharp. As C sharp it goes, goes somewhere different. Same note, goes somewhere different each time. So it's, with that in mind for him to say, this tune, that takes a very fertile harmonic mind to get from A flat to G and back. You can get there, but how are you going to back? He did both with just genius.
SMITH: Your personal memories of him are the things that I think that in some ways are the most touching. Some people have said that Duke traveled, as you said, always with an entourage. But that in fact he was a very private person, that he was remote. I wonder if that's your experience as well.
TAYLOR: Very much so. He would be sitting with a large group of people. Everybody would be vying for his attention in some cases. And he would find ways to focus without necessarily shutting anyone else out. He would find ways to focus on someone. And in many cases he would start a conversation or start something that would involve these two people or these three people. So you never hear so and so and so, and they would, and it wouldn't leave the other people out in an impolite way, but he's dealing with something that only involves, at the moment, that only involves these two people.
And it's, and I don't know anyone who could do it quite like he did it. I saw him do that on several occasions and it was very interesting to see how he would manipulate that. He was particularly gracious to women. It was legendary the kinds of things that he said to women and how they reacted to what he did. And he took great pleasure in making women very comfortable and feel that they have his fool attention and so forth even though in many cases they didn't. And his whole idea of saying, I'm going to play, we're going to play our next piece for the most beautiful woman in the world, she knows who she is.
SMITH: Now that's a special quality of Ellington. You rattled off all the names that played at the Howard. Cab Calloway and Lunceford and many others. Was there something special when you were growing as a kid, was there something special about when Duke Ellington came back to the Howard because he was a hometown boy?
TAYLOR: There was an electricity and there was something in the air about an Ellington week at the Howard Theater. And it was basically because so many people had personal associations with him. And these were people that went all the way from the shoe shine boy to his doctor or someone that was had gone to school with him. All these people had special ties, from their perspective, to Ellington. And he was very, very good at helping them feel that this tie was unbroken. I mean you know, I remember you from school. Or you know, sure I remember when we worked together on that particular case. And oh yeah, that's and how's your wife, I mean is she as lovely as she was when I last saw her? I mean he had all of these things that he did to just make someone in the crowd feel that. You know when I went up and spoke to him, all of those folks heard him ask about my wife or remembered that I was in school with him or whatever it was.
SMITH: Did he feel, do you think, a special link with Washington, at least until they did the thing with the cemetery and moved his grandfather and so forth. Did he feel that link with Washington?
TAYLOR: I don't think, he didn't think of Washington in the geographical sense. He thought of all of these people that he had special ties to and he felt that for all of his life, I believe. There were many, there were not as many people as he grew older because many had died, many had moved and so forth. But it was about people. Whenever he came to DC, he would show up at, you know, some other place in town and everyone was, that was a big topic of conversation. Oh yeah you know, Duke was over at the barber shop and so and so and so. And whatever he did that during this period here, it was a topic of conversation.
SMITH: You also talked about his being a genius for getting around segregation with the business with the, was it Pullman car, what was that all about?
TAYLOR: Duke Ellington had a great deal of pride and it just really galled him that he could play in certain places and he had to go in the back door and you had to do all of the things that a black man in his generation had to do to survive. A big band could not survive without going South. And so he devised a way of going South and still maintaining a certain amount of dignity. He rented a Pullman car, two Pullman cars and they had everything that you would have in a hotel.
The car or cars were pulled over on a siding and that was their hotel, so they didn't have to say, well I can't stay in the biggest hotel in town or whatever it is. We don't have to deal with it. I don't want to stay there, I want to stay here. You know and so he solved that problem. In some respects people who were friends and who lived in those places were a little disappointed because they would have liked for him to, they would have liked to have had him stay at their house, as many black artists did. When you, Count Basie or some of the other bands went South, they had this whole group of friends who made sure. They said, 'Now when you come to Alabama, you know where I live, you've got that phone, call me and let us know when you're coming. Your room is ready.' You know, so many of the major stars had that.
But Basie and others always had the problem of guys who were not major stars who worked with them. You know it's not right for me to be getting all of this and have other guys practically sleeping on the street. And so they were all very conscious of trying to make sure that there were places for the musicians to stay that were comfortable and everything was as good as they could make it.
Ellington in particular was concerned about this because having played for the crowned heads of Europe and had all of this international good treatment, he just in his own mind, couldn't deal with some of the things that were problems. He was very severely criticized for not taking more physical part, a more physical part in the protests of the '60s. But he protested in his own way and he is the man, he did, he raised money, he did the things that he was comfortable with. People don't understand that for a man who is as visible as an Ellington was in those days, it probably would have been physically much more dangerous for him to do, to march or to be accessible to some of the idiots who were doing these cruel things to the marchers. Beating them and putting out cigarettes on their head and doing all that kind of stuff.
And so it wasn't a matter of bravery or anything. It was just a matter of what do you do best, he felt. So he said, 'I can raise money, I can do the things that will make a difference in terms of the people who are going to put their lives on the line.'
SMITH: I just wonder how, in a way, you would tie Ellington and his legacy in the community of Washington together. It's a little bit hard, that's not a very precise question. And I'll give you a moment to think about it. But to what extent did he epitomize an era and to what extent is he a product of an era and to what extent is he a model for the current era as it were? I mean U Street is reviving slowly. They're bringing back the Whitelaw Hotel and True Reformer's Hall. It's coming slowly, it isn't all there. And the Ellington School for the Arts, you mentioned its imperfections, but there is an effort in Washington to reach back to that era. It was a great era. Ellington epitomizes it. There were lots of other people, Charles Drew and the people of Howard and Dumbar and you've mentioned a number of them, you're not alone. What that era was, what it meant, what it said about Washington and then how the present can draw strength from that era. Any thought, any theme there that strikes you?
TAYLOR: Duke Ellington would have been 100 years old this year. I hope that all of the things, the many things that have been done in other places. Winston Marsalis' year long or more than, multi-year tribute to Ellington. The various things that he did in schools and so forth. Now the things that we did at the Kennedy Center, what the Smithsonian has done to show Ellington's importance as an artist and as a human being. I hope all of those things have laid the groundwork for Washington, DC now to do things are not just in Ellington's image, but many people like Charles Drew. People like the Supreme Court Justices, we've got doctors, we've got all kinds of people without just going through a litany of names.
And we've got all these people who have done, brought wonderful things to credit, to the city of Washington, DC. Former Senator Eddie Brooke. I was talking about being the cadet, he was my commanding officer in the cadets. He went on to be a United States Senator. Any number of things have happened. The executive producer of this film, his father was one of the people who was outstanding in dentistry in New York City. These people don't necessarily make headlines in the paper or do things. But the significant things that they have done in the fields that they have been trained to serve in, really I think stand as pillars for the rebuilding of Washington.
Just like Ellington had a James Rejuert and Will Vogley and Will Marion Cook and Hubey Blake and a lot of other people to look up to and say, here are some examples from someone who may live in Washington or may live in Baltimore, or wherever. But it's close enough in geographical terms for me to relate him into this society.
We need to build on things like that. We need to build on things so that U Street which, when Ellington was growing up, was from one end to the other, filled with entrepreneurs, people who did things for the community. Now whether it was a photographer, whether it was someone who owned a nightclub or whether it was a dance hall or whether it was a private bank. All of these things were on U Street. We need to look at what that was and realize that it was there once. We can do things like that again. It's not that it was there because it was needed before. It should be there now because we want it there.