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Remembering the Times and Tunes of Jazz ‘Ambassador’ Billy Taylor

December 30, 2010 at 6:27 PM EDT
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Fans are mourning the passing of longtime jazz pianist, educator and advocate Billy Taylor, who died Tuesday of heart failure. Taylor earned his Ph.D in music education and spread his passion for jazz, lecturing and writing for students and radio and television audiences. Jeffrey Brown looks back on his life.

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, we remember Billy Taylor, jazz pianist, composer, educator, and advocate, who died Tuesday in New York of heart failure.

For millions of listeners and viewers, he was Dr. Billy Taylor, the wonderful pianist who also had a Ph.D. in music education and a passion for spreading his love of jazz.

BILLY TAYLOR, musician: I feel very strongly about the arts. And I feel very strongly about the country that I live in.

JEFFREY BROWN: Taylor began his professional career in New York in 1943, eventually serving as house pianist at Birdland, a legendary jazz club, and playing with many of the era’s greats, including Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis.

He started his own trio in 1951 and also began lecturing and writing on jazz, the beginnings of decades of work in radio, television and schools bringing jazz to a wider audience.

BILLY TAYLOR: I’m Billy Taylor. Welcome to “Jazz Alive.”

JEFFREY BROWN: Taylor was well-known in the public broadcasting world, hosting several programs on NPR from the 1970s until 2002.

In the early ’80s, he became a correspondent for “CBS Sunday Morning.” He interviewed other artists and on occasion performed himself. Taylor also reached out to young people in numerous ways. He took his Jazzmobile into New York’s poorer neighborhoods and around the country. And he worked with up-and-coming musicians in his role as artistic adviser to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Taylor was the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including the National Medal of the Arts. He wrote more than 300 compositions, including “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” which became an anthem of the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

Shortly after 9/11, the Billy Taylor Trio performed the piece as part of a Kennedy Center special titled “A Concert for America.”

Billy Taylor was 89 years old.

Video courtesy: CBS Sunday Morning, The Kennedy Center and WETA.