Billy Taylor – America’s Jazz Legend

Billy Taylor quote

As part of Black History Month, we’re celebrating African American musicians who made great contributions to our culture. Dr. Billy Taylor is a legendary Jazz musician, who is known for his music, his advocacy for jazz, and his contribution to the African American community. 


Dr. Billy Taylor was born in 1921 in North Carolina to a musical family, where everybody played piano and sang. Classical piano lessons with Henry Grant and experimentation with saxophone, drums, and guitar prepared the aspiring musician for his first professional appearance at the keyboard at the age of 13. At Virginia State University, where Taylor was enrolled as a Sociology major, composer/pianist Undine Moore advised Taylor that his future was with music and piano. Heeding Moore’s prescient counsel, Taylor stepped up his musical studies while in college. Then, shortly after graduation in 1942, Taylor set out for New York City, jazz capital of the world, to see where his talent would take him. 

In New York, Taylor quickly immersed himself in the local music scene. He was invited to be part of Ben Webster’s group, and came under Art Tatum’s mentorship. ’s jamming with Ben Webster. Two days later he was invited to join Webster’s group. That same night he met Art Tatum who was soon to become his mentor. Playing with Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Don Byas, and Oscar Pettiford, the newcomer quickly immersed himself in the local music scene. His light touch and musical intelligence took him to Broadway – where he played with Cozy Colt’s Quintet for Billy Rose’s show The Seven Lively Arts”, to Machito’s mambo band, to gigs as an accompanist for Kevin Spencer at the Cafe Society Uptown, and to the piano chair of the Slam Stewart Trio.

Billy Taylor thru piano open lid

In 1946 Taylor embarked on an eight-month tour of Europe with the Don Redman orchestra, the first American jazz band to visit the continent after World War II. He returned to New York in 1948 to form a duo with organist Bob Wyatt and to play with Billie Holiday in a Broadway revue called “Holiday on Broadway”. A year later, he was hired as the house pianist at Birdland, where he played with the all the greats, remaining there longer than anyone else in that legendary club’s history. He has gone on to play solo and with a series of trios that rightfully belong in the pantheon of jazz history.



Billy Taylor’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” is a testament to the power of music. Taylor originally composed the song for his daughter Kim, inspired by her singing a spiritual. The tune was recorded as an instrumental with a big band on November 12th,1963. 10 days later John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and the world’s social and political landscape drastically changed. The turbulent era of the 1960s saw the rise of the Civil Rights movement, with many artists taking part in the movement through their music. Billy Taylor’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” gained momentum when lyrics were added to the tune.

Kim Taylor recalls: “Dad initially recorded it as an instrumental. But, as I recall, he had written the first verse of the lyrics pretty early on. He got stuck at one point and invited [lyricist] Dick Dallas to collaborate to help him finish the lyrics and that’s when we got the later verses. I’ve always felt that there was a difference between the first verse and the later ones. I think you hear my dad’s voice most clearly in the first verse.”

“I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” was recorded by Nina Simone in her 1967 Silk & Soul Album, and was later covered by artists like Don Shirly, Solomon Burke, John Legend and the Roots, and and The Blind Boys of Alabama featuring Béla Fleck. It was selected by the NY Times as “One of the Great Songs of the Sixties,” and featured as the anthem of Rob Reiner’s film, Ghosts of the Mississippi, playing during the opening and closing credits. 

This beautiful song continues to impress listeners, and carries the power to move us. Here’s Billy Taylor performing “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free”:


Billy Taylor was a passionate Jazz educator. He was a founder of New York’s successful Jazzmobile community performance and school-without-walls, founded in 1965. He earned his doctorate in music at the University of Massachusetts in 1975, with a dissertation entitled The History and Development of Jazz Piano: A New Perspective for Educators. Taylor subsequently taught at Yale, Manhattan School of Music, Howard University, University of California, Fredonia State University, and C.W. Post College. His experience at the University of Massachusetts led to a lead faculty position at the university’s annual summer intensive program, Jazz in July.  

Billy Taylor was an advocate of jazz, and actively educated the public about the genre’s history and significance. Here’s Billy Taylor in a special feature, talking about how African American’s created Jazz

In the 1990s, Taylor became artistic director of the Jazz at the Kennedy Center program in Washington, DC, from which he launched his syndicated NPR radio series, Billy Taylor’s Jazz at the Kennedy Center. He was the recipient of two Peabody Awards, an Emmy, a Grammy, and a host of prestigious awards, such as the Tiffany Award, a DownBeat Lifetime Achievement Award, and the National Medal of Arts (1992).

Billy Taylor passed away in 2010 but his legacy remains very much alive. As critic Leonard Feather said, “It is almost indisputable that Dr. Billy Taylor is the world’s foremost spokesman for jazz.”

“Taylor weaves wonderful magic on the keyboard. It is jazz the way jazz ought to be.”
– Don Adderton, Sun Herald


BILLY TAYLOR: Music Keeps Us Young
Arkadia Records was fortunate to work with Dr. Billy Taylor on a number of Albums, most notably “Music Keeps Us Young”, described by the critics as “refreshing, elegant, stimulating and truly AMAZING.”
Learn more about “Music Keep Us Young” on the Album’s page

Read Billy Taylor’s full biography HERE
Stay tuned for 2 more Albums of Billy Taylor’s music – Short Cuts (from Music Keeps Us Young), and Music Caravan. Both Albums will be released later in 2024. Keep checking Arkadia’s website and our social media. 
Happy listening!


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