Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Jazz Stories X: Billy Taylor

Performing is the heart and soul of a jazz musician’s life, but it’s a hard way to earn a living. So teaching can be the bread and butter that sets food on the table and pays the rent. You might not always know where your next gig comes from and how much it will pay, but teaching gives you a schedule and a dependable sum of money. 


Not all teachers are artists, but just about all musicians are teachers of one kind or another. 

They may hand-pick a few promising students, like the great pianist Art Tatum did for Oscar Peterson, informally take fellow musicians aside to show them things that improved their playing, like Thelonious Monk did for jazz giants like Bud Powell, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and countless more or they might even accept a formal position in a college, as jazz pianist Jaki Byard did at the New England Conservatory of Music. One way or another, they all mix teaching with playing.


But how to keep them in balance? If you’re not alive and vibrant playing the music you love, what do you have to teach? If you have to worry about where the next check is coming from, how can you play without worrying? So many musicians must decide on how to bring the two worlds together.


Billy Taylor was no exception. He got off to a promising start as a jazz pianist by studying with Art Tatum and playing with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and others as the house pianist of the Birdland Jazz Club in the late 1940’s. He made many recordings in the 1950’s and 1960’s and had steady work as a jazz musician.


At the same time, he wanted to uplift the music, the musicians and the listeners through one of the most powerful vehicles for social change—education. In 1958, he became the director of television’s first series featuring jazz and some of its remarkable innovators. Titled The Subject Is Jazz, it featured composers Duke Ellington and Aaron Copland, performers like Bill Evans and Cannonball Adderley, poet Langston Hughes and more. In 1964, he created his Jazzmobile program to present free outdoor concerts, attracting audiences who normally would not attend and bringing jazz to children not allowed in the jazz club. In 1969, he became the first African-American leader of a talk show band on The David Frost Show. All the time performing, writing books and composing music. He was a busy man!


One of his compositions he wrote in 1952 for his daughter Kim, a gospel-style tune singing his hope for a better world for her. He recorded it in 1963 and that same year, played it at a rally with Dr. Martin Luther King. But it didn’t really attract the public until another singer recorded it in 1967 and brought her own soulful feeling to it. The song? I Wish I KnewHow It Would Feel to Be Free.  The singer? Our next featured artist—Ms. Nina Simone!


Meanwhile, here are the lyrics, co-written by Dick Dallas.


I wish I knew how it would feel to be free.

I wish I could break all the chains holding me.

I wish I could say all the things that I should say

Say 'em loud, say 'em clear, for the whole world to hear.


I wish I could share all the love in my heart.

Remove all the bars that still keep us apart.

I wish you could know what it means to be me.

Then you'd see and agree that everyone should be free.


I wish I could give all I'm longin' to give.

I wish I could live like I'm longin' to live.

I wish I could do all the things I can do.

And though I'm way overdue, I'd be startin’ anew.


I wish I could be like a bird in the sky.

How sweet it would be if I found I could fly.

I'd soar to the sun and look down at the sea.

Then I'd sing 'cause I know how it feels to be free.


LISTENING: I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free


Billy Taylor instrumental version:



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