For the ninetieth birthday anniversary of Dr. Billy Taylor, who passed away last December 28th, I’m posting an interview from October 1999, for the liner notes of a CD documenting a live performance at Manhattan’s Blue Note. For various reasons, the CD was never issued, and the transcript appears here for the first time. The opening section is specific to the recording, but the conversation evolved in interesting directions.
For more, see this video by Bret Primack.
* * * * *
How do you approach a live situation, albeit knowing it’s being recorded, versus a studio situation?
TAYLOR: I actually prefer doing things like that outside the studio anyway. I normally record everything I do. I didn’t have my own soundman at this particular gig for a variety of reasons that had nothing to do with the gig, but unfortunately he wasn’t available to me. So I didn’t record other nights of this particular gig, and I’m sorry I didn’t because I had better nights than the night we actually recorded.
What is it for you that constitutes it being better?
TAYLOR: Well, a lot of different things. Basically, I’m talking about my work, what I do, but secondary is the way the trio comes together with each guy pushing everybody else into something else that they might not normally do. We did a lot of that during this particular engagement, because that’s why I took the gig. It wasn’t meant to be a clean performance, and so a lot of times I’d reach for something and paint myself into a corner, and just say, “Oh, well, okay,” and go somewhere else.
I kind of like that.
TAYLOR: Well, I don’t. The optimum thing is to paint yourself into a corner and get out, and I’ve been able to do that on some occasions.
Tell me about the band.
TAYLOR: Chip Jackson has been with me for about five years. One of the reasons I hired him is because I was looking… I had two musicians who had been with me for — I guess between them — more than 20 years. So they knew me very well and there were no surprises. I was about to enter into a project, and I really wanted to go into some other directions. And it wasn’t about them, they’re wonderful musicians, both of them, and I really regretted that I couldn’t do with them what I wanted to do — but I realized that I just needed to hear something else. So I looked around, and among the… I must have listened to maybe 25 or 50 bass players and rehearsed with them and auditioned them, did all kinds of things, just to hear them play, and then came back to… I didn’t audition Chip. I mean, I had played with him with my former drummer, Bobby Thomas, and I liked his work. So I knew what he did and I knew the caliber of his work. So when I couldn’t find anyone among the people that had been suggested to me that I was looking at, I thought, “hey, let me go check this guy out,” because I remembered him in a very favorable light. I checked him out and he was perfect, just what I was looking for at that particular moment. The thing I like about Chip is that he comes to play. This is a guy who has had a lot of different kinds of experiences, big band, small band; he’s always looking to challenge himself, and every time we sit down to play something he’s going to try to do something that just… He’s like a cheerleader. he’s going to make it happen.
Good time, big sound, good harmony.
TAYLOR: Yes. But more than that, I have a setup… We didn’t use the setup at the Blue Note, and it bothered me a little bit because I’m accustomed to it. I’m accustomed to having him right in my ear. So he’s usually right on my left ear. So that’s something that I work off of. This was a little different setup. This was a more normal setup where the bass player is in the bowl of the piano and the drummer is down at the other end of the piano. I don’t like that. I’d rather be closer physically to the other two musicians.
At the Blue Note you’re about 20 feet away from the drummer.
TAYLOR: Right. And that’s not the way I work. But it was two groups on a bill, and so I had to be flexible on that. I mean, it wasn’t impossible to do, so I didn’t…
You’ve probably been in worse situations at one time or another.
TAYLOR: Well, absolutely, with worse pianos and worse PA systems and worse everything you can think of. But for a recording I like things pretty optimum, and so I really want everything else to be in perfect shape so that I can fall back on that if I have to.
A few words about Winard.
TAYLOR: Winard is a guy I’ve admired for a long time. I mean, when he had his own group with his brother, I thought he was just terrific. When he was with Betty Carter I heard him in a different setting. He’s really creative in the sense of being very musical. He uses the tonal qualities of his various drums in a very imaginative way. He is the kind of person who, even in a situation where he doesn’t have a clue as to where he is going, after a few bars will hear something and will come up with something very musical to fit the situation.
Going into the Blue Note, did you know you were doing this record during the sets that were recorded?
TAYLOR: Oh yeah.
Tell me about setting up the repertoire, then. I suppose I should ask you if you’ve decided what the actual CD sequence is going to be.
TAYLOR: No, I haven’t yet. I’ve been listening to it. But it will be a combination of the two sets as opposed to one set or the other. I haven’t really listened to it sufficiently.
But obviously, one set is primarily compositions, with one exception, and the other set is, with one exception, standards and tunes you have very intimate and long-term associations with.
TAYLOR: You know, I didn’t plan it that way. It just happened that way. I really was torn between two things, knowing that… I deliberately didn’t rehearse for this gig. I wanted to go in, and… I knew I was going to play some things that had particular arrangements, but I wanted to see what Winard would do when he heard it. Maybe he’d come up with something different. And he did on each occasion.
“Theme And Variations” was a piece that evolved out of a composition that I wrote many years ago. I was asked to do something for the National Symphony, and I took that particular theme and wrote variations on it for the orchestra. Then I went back to it a few years ago and said, “I’m going to play it as a tune again.” So this was the first time we had done that. It’s never been recorded as “Theme and Variations.” It had another title. But the melody and the way we approach it is evolving. Because I want to do something different with it as a trio. Which is why I started it off in a semi-contrapuntal fashion. I was really just figuring what are some of the things that I might want to do with this. So I just kind of fooled around with it to get started, then I played a little introduction, and we went into it.
“His Name Was Martin.” I guess I know who that’s about.
TAYLOR: Yeah, right. That was the second movement of a long work that I did for a symphony orchestra called “Peaceful Warrior.” Of the three movements, it’s the one that I like the best, because it really is a simple theme, and when I do it right it really works. I wasn’t particularly happy with my performance on this one. I’ve done better performances of it. It had nothing to do with anything. It’s just that, you know, I didn’t say what I wanted to say.
Was it written in the ’60s or afterwards?
TAYLOR: No, it was written way after. I’m terrible on dates. I was actually commissioned to write it by the Atlanta Symphony. I was the first American composer that they asked to do something with the orchestra in a series of commissions for American composers.
At what point in your career did you begin writing for large orchestras?
TAYLOR: I was on the National Council On The Arts back in the ’60s, and I was asked by Maurice Abravanel… He heard me play at a party, and he said, “That was delightful; could you write something like that for the symphony.” It was a party. So I said, “Sure.” I didn’t think any more about it. A few days later he was back home and he called me from Salt Lake City and said, “I was serious. I really like what you did, and I’d like for you to write something and come out and play it with the orchestra in the Mormon Tabernacle.” I said, “Beg your pardon?” [LAUGHS] So to make a long story short, I wrote a piece, and he sort of nursed me through it. Because he programmed it as Mahler, Bartok and Taylor, just those three on the program. And I don’t often get stage fright, but boy, I was a bundle of nerves that night. But it turned out really well. I mean, it was a wonderful audience and they received it well. I was surprised. I really was. That particular piece was from “Suite For Jazz Piano and Orchestra.” I didn’t play anything from that.
“Soul Sister” is a blues that I wrote many years ago. I was playing at a club in Harlem, the Prelude, on upper Broadway, and I wrote it, played it there on several occasions, actually recorded it around that time, and it’s been in my repertoire ever since. I started playing it when Chip came in the band. I had been playing with Ramsay Lewis, so I had taken it out of my trio repertoire, but I started playing it with Chip because he has a really good feeling for the blues. He really gets into some serious things, and he takes it somewhere else every time he plays it. So that’s one of the things that I play with him a lot.
“Titoro,” apart from your inventions, is Winard Harper’s first set drum feature. Does that go back to your days with Machito?
TAYLOR: No. Actually, I went to Haiti. This was before I went into Birdland. I was a co-leader of a band that played at a Latin festival down there many years ago. We were invited and we stayed in Haiti for a month. There was a drummer there whose name was Tiroro, so I wrote this piece to be played by him and by the young man who was playing with me in those days, whose name was Charlie Smith, who like Winard was a very imaginative and very musical drummer, and I just thought that this would make a good combination. I didn’t know what I was getting Charlie into. Drummers take that challenge thing very seriously. So they really kind of went at each other whenever I played it. It’s been in my repertoire ever since. It got the title “Titoro” because Tito Puente recorded it, and his record company thought he wrote it, so they said, “Well, let’s not call it ‘Tiroro,’ let’s call it ‘Titoro.’ Well, he sold a lot of records, so I didn’t change the title.
Can you tell me a bit about your time with Machito? You’re one of the earliest African-American musicians to blend with Latin bands in a somewhat different way than Dizzy Gillespie did it even.
TAYLOR: Well, I was influenced by the same man who sort of indoctrinated Dizzy — that was Mario Bauza. Mario was the musical director of the Machito band, and he was one of the greatest musicians I’ve ever met. I mean, he was just wonderful. A fine teacher, a very inspirational mentor. He just picked me… I was working in the relief band, and their piano player, Joe Loco, was drafted, and Mario picked me to play in the band until they could get another pianist up from Cuba. They had a guy they wanted to bring because they knew Joe was going to be drafted, but evidently he was called up before they were ready and they couldn’t get this guy up. So I got a chance to play with the band until he arrived.
How long was that?
TAYLOR: Not very long. It was at an engagement at a place on Broadway called La Conga. In those days were several Latin clubs right on Broadway. Noro Morales was playing around the corner from us.
Was it a dance club or a sit-down club?
TAYLOR: It was a club. We had to play a show. And they had dancing. Nearly all of those clubs had dancing. But there was a show, and it featured people singing and dancing and doing comedy and so forth. It was just a regular Broadway type club show.
Was playing in clave a big adjustment for you at that time? Did it seem strange? Was it natural?
TAYLOR: I didn’t have a CLUE as to what that was about until I joined that band. It was really an education. Mario explained to me that playing out of clave was like in jazz clapping your hands on the 1 and 3 instead of the 2 and 4. Well, that’s pretty clear. [LAUGHS] I don’t want to do that. Mario was a wonderful jazz musician. He’d played with Chick Webb and Calloway. So he really knew how to give jazz phrasing without fighting the clave, and that was really amazing.
Have you continued to be absorbed in clave and Latin music through the years? Has it been a continuing preoccupation for you?
TAYLOR: Oh, yes. It’s something that is an important part of my style. I wrote a book, “How To Play The Bombo” and some little piano books back in those years. Whenever I play there’s always something Latin in it. It’s just something that’s part of the way I like to play.
It would be great to hear you again with an idiomatic Latin band.
TAYLOR: But over the years they’ve gotten closer and closer to what we do, so I’m not careful with the clave as I used to be, because you don’t have to be.
The next original is “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free,” which you did on one of your recent records on Arkadia. It’s one of your anthems.
TAYLOR: Mmm-hmm. This is a totally different version of it, though. This is more extensive, and I’m playing things in it to test different reactions that I’m getting from Winard in particular. It was fun. I enjoyed playing it. That turned out very interesting. I played many things that I don’t normally play when I play it, and then I played some things that I always play. It felt good.
When did you wrote it?
TAYLOR: I wrote it in the ’60s. I wrote it for my daughter.
Then we get to this wonderful suite of standards. “The Man I Love” is a real highlight for me. I don’t see it on any of the recent recordings.
TAYLOR: I’ve never recorded it. I wish it had been recorded the night before, because it was a much better performance. It’s something that I’ve been doing in concerts for a while. I even have better tapes on it. I’m nitpicking. It was a good performance. It’s one of those pieces that really defines Gershwin for me. What he does with harmony there, and what he does with that very simple melody just knocks me out. I really like it, and I’m going to keep on working on it til I get it right!
It occurred to me for some reason that all the standards seem to be associated with things Coleman Hawkins was playing around the time when you came to New York and got onto 52nd Street. He recorded “The Man I Love” in ’43, “Night and Day” in ’44, “Yesterdays” I think he did around that time, and also “S’Wonderful.”
TAYLOR: Well, it might be subliminal. Coleman Hawkins is someone I’ve admired, looked up to and been influenced by since I first heard him in 1939, when he first came back from Europe. And to get an opportunity to play with him when I finally came to New York was just a wonderful experience. So I’m sure that had something to do with it. However, “Night and Day” is on the very first record I ever made; it’s always been one of my favorites. And I recently re-recorded it. I had forgotten all about it, and for some reason I was thinking about Earl Hines. (I’ll be doing a project on Earl Hines in a couple of weeks.) But back then, which was a couple of years ago, when I made the Ten Fingers, One Mind record, I was thinking about Earl Hines, and that’s what prompted me to play it. It had nothing to do with either my first record or Coleman Hawkins.
Teddy Wilson played on his version.
TAYLOR: Yeah, I remember the one with Teddy, but none of that had anything to do with it! I was thinking of Earl Hines. I was working with Eddie South, and Earl Hines played the tune on… We did a concert together in Washington, D.C., my home town. That was the first time I had ever played opposite Earl Hines. I did several times later, but that was the first time I’d ever played opposite him. And he was one of those guys who I looked up to when I was a child, man. I used to listen to him on the radio and see him when he had the great bands that he would bring to D.C., including the band that had Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. I just couldn’t believe I was on the same bill with him. So that night when he played “Night And Day,” I was all ears, because I had never heard him play that. I heard him play stuff with bands, you know. And he just wiped me out. It was just beautiful. After all these years, I’m sure there’s nothing on there that I played that I got from him. But just the memory of him doing it inspired me to do it.
Within these, your Tatum reference is evident all the time because of your two-handed orchestral thing, but the Bud Powell vocabulary is so prominent in the voicings.
TAYLOR: Well, Bud was influenced by Tatum, and so some of the things that are similar in our work, we both got from Tatum — or our take on what Tatum did. I had a very difficult time making the changeover from some of the things that I loved in the style that I like to call Prebop. It was beyond swing, but it was the kind of thing that Don Byas and Coleman Hawkins and Ike Quebec and Budd Johnson and Lester Young… A lot of musicians played in this style that was not yet Bebop. They could play fast like the Beboppers, they could use very intricate harmonies and make all kinds of melodies using that harmony, but they didn’t have the rhythmmic change that came with Bebop yet. Some of them did later, but at that time they didn’t. So I was trying to come to grips with all these things that I loved in music, and I wanted to make the change to it. I didn’t want to lose something just to gain something. So it was a very difficult time for me.
When would you say that you formed the style that we associate with Billy Taylor?
TAYLOR: I would say when I was with Don Redman, when I was in Europe, when I finally… I was away from the scene, and I really began to think about the things that I knew and the things that I wanted to say musically, and so it began to come together then.
In forming your style, you had a rather extensive musical training, and from what I know about you, always played music, had a lot of lessons, had always a facility for the piano, were talked into making it your life’s work by a teacher at Virginia State University…
TAYLOR: I think you did your homework.
When did you start being cognizant of pianists with styles, with individual voices coming through the piano, and who were the first people you emulated?
TAYLOR: My uncle was the first one. He played different from anyone in my family. Everyone in the family played European Classical Music. And my uncle Robert played Stride piano. I thought in those days, because I hadn’t heard a lot of pianists that he sounded like Fats Waller, because I had heard Fats Waller on the radio. I realized later, when I began to hear the difference between Eubie Blake and Fats Waller and some of the other stride piano players, that he sounded more like Willie “The Lion” Smith. He had kind of the lope that I associate with Willie, although he was kind of melodic in that sense. It was a little different from Fats; it was melodic in a different sense. But Fats Waller really was the first stylist that captured me. I just thought that was wonderful, and that was what I wanted to do, and I wanted to play like that. Then I heard Teddy Wilson, I heard Art Tatum.
Did your folks take you out to hear music.
TAYLOR: No-no, oh, no…
Did you go to theaters?
TAYLOR: I went to theaters. Every week in Washington, D.C., there was a different band at the Howard Theater. I got to hear all the great bands. I heard Ellington, I heard Cab Calloway, Fletcher Henderson; you name them, I heard them, every week. Jazz was the popular music of my childhood. When I was growing up, you could turn on the radio and hear in the afternoon, “And now from the Savoy Ballroom the Chick Webb Band with Ella Fitzgerald” and all that kind of stuff.
When did you first start working? Did you do little gigs as a teenager around Washington?
TAYLOR: Yeah, when I was 13.
What sort of gigs?
TAYLOR: Dance band. That and parties were the only things around. Every now and then somebody would ask me to play a party or something like that, which was sort of semiprofessional. But the professional things, I’d get a chance to substitute for a real professional piano player in a real band, which was terrific!
So really for 65 years you’ve been playing in public. A few words about your association with “The Man I Love.”
TAYLOR: Well, Gershwin is one of my favorite composers. I play a lot of Gershwin. And I learned a lot about him from people like Willie The Lion Smith and some of the older piano players, who actually knew him and who hung out with him, and they talked about when he would come up to Harlem and some of the things they would do, and the tricks they’d play on him and vice-versa. They had all these tales about him and other composers who came to Harlem to kind of listen to what was going on. I realized that one of the reasons why jazz musicians play the musicians of the ’20s and ’30s so much is because those composers really hung out with the jazz musicians of the time, and so the things that they were writing were commingling. I mean, everybody was influencing everybody else.
A few words about your association to “Yesterdays.”
TAYLOR: That’s Jerome Kern, and that’s always been… The first time I saw the sheet music to that, I just loved the piece. I fooled around with it and fooled around with it; I’ve been playing it for many years. I always find something different in it. It’s a wonderful composition. That and “All The Things You Are” are two of the most interesting compositions in the American Pop-Broadway kind of repertoire for me.
Are you a lyrics man? Do you know lyrics for all the standards that you play?
TAYLOR: No, I’m just different from most of my friends who learn lyrics to these things. I don’t even remember my own lyrics, the ones that I write to pieces. I just don’t have a memory for words like that. I don’t know why. I guess because I don’t sing enough. But I think lyrically. In terms of anything I write, I sort of in the back of my mind figure, “One day I’m going to write a lyric to that.” So I think melodically in that sense.
Who are some of the Classical composers who inflect the way you think about improvising?
TAYLOR: Bach, Chopin, Debussy. They’re probably the biggest influences. But there are things there that go back to Mozart, go back to some Beethoven things that are embedded somewhere in my mind.
Have you continued to make Classical music part of your practice repertoire over the years?
TAYLOR: No. I really found that there was so much that I wanted to do in jazz that I’ve really focused on that, even in my writing. All the pieces that I’ve written are jazz pieces. Because since jazz is America’s classical music, I wanted to do what Duke Ellington did. He wrote for everything. I mean, he wrote for Broadway, sacred pieces, he wrote for movies, he wrote for nightclubs, he wrote for vaudeville — he did it all. And I’m saying, well, if the music is that flexible, I’d like to try to get into as many areas as I can. So I’ve written for dance, for television, I’ve written commercials and things for “Sesame Street.” “Homage” is actually a string quartet with a rhythm section. So I try to do things that are true to jazz, but in the same spirit that people like Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington have done before me. They wrote with…even though they may have used a form that was associated with Mozart or with somebody else, the form didn’t dictate the content.
Could you, as Dr. Billy Taylor, evaluate the position of Billy Taylor the pianist in American music and in jazz lineage?
TAYLOR: Well, that’s difficult for me. I mean, I have influenced a lot of people, but it’s not obvious, and unless they acknowledge it I don’t… Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m hearing things…
Apart from the influence, what is your contribution?
TAYLOR: I wrote the first book on how to play Bebop. So a lot of people got the idea of the fact that Bebop was serious music and that it could be studied and so forth, based on this book I wrote back in 1948 or 1949 entitled Basic Bebop Instruction. So I guess one of the things that I have really focused on for most of my life is to try to develop my own…to say what I had to say musically to as broad an audience as I could, and show through my own work that jazz was serious music…that it was all the things that I think it is.
So it’s to communicate without dumbing-down.
TAYLOR: Yeah, that’s exactly correct. I resent the things like in the ’70s where everybody said, “Let’s do Jazz-Rock so we can win over the young people.” We didn’t win over a soul. That was just a terrible time in terms of people delivering misinformation. Yet at the same time, while all this misinformation was going on, there were people who were coming from jazz and coming from R&B, and really doing things that were exceptional, that have become a part of the music. But the record people and the music business people are too stupid to know what that is.
Let me ask you about the three Ellington tunes that comprise a kind of suite. I think I read a story that a friend of yours called Billy White in high school turned you on to “Sentimental Mood” back in the day. “Caravan” seems to be a thing you use as a drum feature for a while.
And you’ve done that arrangement, that slowed down “Take The A Train,” which forgive me, but I seem to remember Coleman Hawkins doing on that 1962 Impulse record…
Oh, maybe that was “Cherokee” he did it with.
TAYLOR: Yes, it was “Cherokee.”
I have Coleman Hawkins on the brain.
TAYLOR: Hey, listen, you can’t do too much better than that. Actually, there’s a story behind that. I actually had been playing…not always in public… I started playing it at Billy Strayhorn’s funeral. I was asked by Reverend John Gensel to play at the funeral, and I did. This is when he had a church up on Broadway. So I was up in the choir loft, playing. While I was playing, during the service, Ray Nance came up and said, “Reverend Gensel said I could play something.” I said, “Okay, what do you want to play?” He said, “A Train.” Well, I thought he was going to play it fast, because that’s the way I’d always played it. So he said, “Let me start it.” I said, “Okay.” So he played a little cadenza and then started it as a ballad. And I never until that moment realized how beautiful the melody was! So I said, “Hey!” So I started to play it like that, and I’ve continued to play it like that ever since.
A few words about the dynamics of the “Sentimental Mood” that make it so attractive to you.
TAYLOR: Well, Duke Ellington was a master at doing a lot with a little. He took a very simple harmonic device (and that’s what I do in the very opening of my introduction to the melody) where he plays a minor chord and then he lowers the tonic a half-step, then another half-step. It’s a device that’s used by many people. It was used harmonically in the tune “Blue Skies” by Irving Berlin. It was used in “My Funny Valentine” by Rodgers & Hart. It’s a really common device. But he uses it so beautifully, and he’s so original. He comes up with a melody you just wouldn’t expect from that combination of chords.
The impression I always get of you is that you’re perpetually looking forward to the next project, forward-looking, and amazingly youthful. A recording like this, and particularly the second set is such a beautiful dialogue with the past. One of the things I love about jazz is that constant interplay of past and present.
TAYLOR: Well, for me, in many cases, the past is the present. I realize that what’s happening now, jazz is going through a period of reevaluation. People like Wynton Marsalis and other talented young people are looking back, as I did when I was their age, and saying, “Here are some things that were done by mentors and by predecessors, and I want to really look carefully at that, because I want to build something… I don’t want to do what they did, but I want to build something on it.” I hear so much of that now, I’m really excited by it. It’s something that many people of my generation have done, but we do it from a different perspective. So it’s just delightful to hear some of the young players now, trombone players and trumpet players using a mute to wah-wah kind of thing that Duke Ellington did. They hadn’t done that in years. And to hear some of the pianists utilizing two-handed playing, whether it’s stride or some other form of two-handed playing. It’s really very refreshing to realize that it’s not just some of the things that one has heard other pianists do, Bill Evans or… They’re doing some different things.
One of the great things about jazz is that it seems self-regenerating within its forms. When we talk about it as “classical music,” we’re not talking about it as a museum, but as a living entity.
TAYLOR: Many people misunderstand what I’m saying when I say jazz is classical music. When they think of classical music, they only think of European classical music. But they refuse to recognize that there’s Chinese classical music and there is Indian classical music, both of which have things which are similar to jazz in terms of improvisatory aspects within the forms that they generate and things that are unique to the moment in both of those types of classical music. So classical music doesn’t have to come to the conclusions that European classical music came to. European classical music, unfortunately, in the ’60s or ’50s began to go into an area which excluded the audience. It became so intellectual that the audience was excluded and the audience rejected it. So now, many of the composers who were trained in that form are looking to other means of expression. I was reading a review or something of Bill Bolcom the other day, an opera he’s just written, and it was a good review, so evidently he’s reaching out to the critics as well as the audience. I hope that’s a trend which will continue. Because there have always been people who wrote in the European tradition, like Leonard Bernstein, who was put down heavily because he was reaching audiences. Everybody said, “How good could it be? The audience understands it.” And it was ridiculous, because here was a man who was a genius, and who really did wonders with the things that he learned and respected from Mahler and from all the great writers, and yet he was just as good…
[END OF SIDE OF FIRST TAPE]
Leonard Bernstein was to me one of the great musicians of the century. He was a wonderful pianist, a wonderful composer, a wonderful conductor, and one of our great teachers. I look at him as one of the directions that European Classical Music could go in, because he was very American in what he did, even though he was steeped in the European tradition.
One final question, which is a sort of silly one. Do you have a most exciting bandstand moment that you can single out over the years?
TAYLOR: Well, there are so many of them. I’ve been playing a long time. And every time someone asks that question I say, “Well, this was terrific, that was terrific” — any number of things. In nightclubs, one of the great moments for me was when I played opposite the Duke Ellington Orchestra in Birdland. It was a solo performance. It was opening night, and Duke Ellington had just brought the house down with Louis Bellson’s drum solo, and just… I mean, the place was literally screaming; the people were just yelling and screaming and standing up. It was bedlam in the place, you know. Instead of taking his bow and thanking them profusely and walking off, he thanked them, and he stood there, and he thanked them again, and then he began to say, “Louis Bellson loves you madly, Johnny Hodges loves you madly,” and he began to go through the individual names of all the members of the band. As he was saying that, the whole sound in the room lowered so that they could hear what he was saying. And when it was sufficiently quiet, he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a young man from my home town who is going to play the piano for you. I want to hear him. So I’d like you to join me in listening to Mr. Billy Taylor.” Well, I’ll never forget that.
Do you see your sound as transcending style? As Ellington might say, as being beyond category?
TAYLOR: Well, I hope so. Because I try to include… He was a big influence on me, Tatum was an influence, Don Redman was an influence, Don Byas was an influence. I have so many things. Coleman Hawkins. When I worked with Coleman Hawkins, I knew the solo in “Body and Soul,” and he didn’t — because he never learned that solo. It was an improvisation.
Did he always improvise “Body and Soul”?
TAYLOR: Yeah. He would never play that solo. People would come in every night and ask for it. He’d play “Body and Soul” but he’d never play that solo.
All the musicians knew it but he didn’t.
TAYLOR: That’s right. Everybody in the band knew it, but him. I made several records with him, but the one that I remember was with Papa Jo Jones.
TAYLOR: That’s right.
You play “Cheek To Cheek”…
TAYLOR: That’s correct. That’s the one.
…and “Jitterbug Waltz.”
TAYLOR: For me, that was one of those dates that if I never made another record, I’d say, “Well, thank you.” [LAUGHS] Just to be with those guys on that occasion.