In a film clip from the mid-1980's Billy Taylor performs his original 1952 composition "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free." The song immediately became a popular anthem during the Civil Rights Movement. Nina Simone covered it on her 1967 album "Silk and Soul" and is probably the best known version though this tune has been covered and recorded by over twenty major artists.
Billy Taylor was born on July 24, 1921 in Greenville, North Carolina but moved to Washington, D.C. when he was five. He grew up in a musical family and learned to play different instruments as a child, including guitar, drums and saxophone. But he was most successful at the piano and took classical piano lessons with Henry Grant, the same teacher that had educated Duke Ellington a generation earlier. He made his first professional appearance playing keyboard at the age of 13 and the compensation was one dollar. Taylor attended Dunbar High School, America's first high school for African American students. He went to Virginia State College and majored in sociology. Pianist Dr. Undine Smith Moore noticed young Taylor's talent in piano and he changed his major to music, graduating with a degree in music in 1942.
Taylor set out to New York City after graduation and started playing piano professionally from 1944, first with Ben Webster's Quartet on New York's 52nd Street. The same night he joined Webster's Quartet, he met Art Tatum, who became his mentor. Among other musicians he worked with, he played with Machito's mambo band, when he developed a love for Latin music. After an eight-month tour with the Don Redman Orchestra in Europe, Taylor stayed there with his wife Theodora and worked in Paris and Holland. Taylor returned to New York later that year and cooperated with Bob Wyatt and Sylvia Syms at the Royal Roost jazz club and Billie Holiday in a successful show called Holiday on Broadway. A year later, he became the house pianist at Birdland and performed with many of the greatest jazz talents in history, including Charlie Parker, J.J. Johnson, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. He played at Birdland longer than any other pianist in the history of the club. In 1949, Taylor published his first book, a textbook about bebop piano styles.
He continued dozens of the recordings in the 1950's and 1960's, notably the album he made with the Cuban percussionist Candido Camero titled Billy Taylor Trio with Candido, My Fair Lady Loves Jazz, Cross Section and Taylor Made Jazz.
Billy's broadcast career also thrived and in 1961 he founded New York's Jazzmobile, which provides arts education program of the highest quality via workshops, master classes, lecture demonstrations, arts enrichment programs, outdoor summer mobile concerts, special indoor concerts and special projects. In 1958, he became the Musical Director of NBC's The Subject is Jazz, the first ever television series focusing on jazz. The 13-part series was produced by the new National Educational Television Network (NET) and hosted guests including Duke Ellington, Aaron Copland, Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley, Jimmy Rushing and Langston Hughes.
*In 2010 Billy Taylor was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame.