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Dr. Billy Taylor Will Operate With His Trio

The jazz pianist-TV personality-musical ambassador will play Sunday at Fess Parker's Winery.


You may have seen the good doctor on TV, doing profiles as a regular correspondent for the CBS "Sunday Morning" program. Perhaps you've heard him on the NPR program "Billy Taylor's Jazz from the Kennedy Center."

And then there is Dr. Billy Taylor the musician, an acclaimed veteran jazz pianist--born in 1921--whose credits date back to the bebop ferment of the '40s. Taylor will bring his trio, including bassist Chip Jackson and drummer Steve Johns, to the idyllic turf of Fess Parker's Winery on Sunday for a rare Southern California appearance.

Taylor's outspoken advocacy of the jazz tradition predates those of musician-proselytizer Wynton Marsalis. Like the young trumpeter-cum-jazz spokesman and programmer, Taylor has long taken seriously the task of educating the American public about the significance of jazz.

Tellingly, Taylor's list of achievements and honors--including two Peabody Awards, an Emmy, a Grammy nomination, the National Medal of Arts, a Jazz Masters Fellowship from the NEA and a presidential appointment to the National Council of the Arts--are for his music as well as for his efforts on behalf of his musical tradition.

After some lean years in terms of recordings, Taylor has been productive in the '90s, with three albums for the GRP label, and works in progress for a new label, Arkadia. Whether in interviews, at the piano or on his various podiums, Taylor represents jazz with an intelligence and energy that would be the envy of musicians half his age.


Do you have a particular fondness for a piano trio format?

Yeah, I love a trio format, because I get to play. One of the things that always happens to me whenever I put together a larger group is that I get very comfortable in the role of an accompanist. Usually, I play with someone like Gerry Mulligan, who I enjoy, so I want to hear what he's playing.


What is the history of this trio?

It goes back about three years. At one point, I was so comfortable with my previous musicians, I just felt that I needed a change. They were fine, no one could ask for better musicians to play with. They were sensitive and were just what I needed, but it was like a comfortable old shoe. It didn't kick me up in the rear and say "go do something else."

So, I thought maybe if I could get some other guys who didn't know my work so well, who would do something different in response to what I did, maybe it would inspire me to go off in different directions. And it has.


Obviously, you've worked all along, for decades, but there was that period in the '70s when acoustic jazz almost took a back seat in the culture. Was that a frustrating period for you?

No, as a matter of fact, it was one of the busiest periods for me. I worked all through that period, doing colleges and all kinds of things. For a long time, I have sought out different audiences. So, instead of going to jazz festivals and doing what everybody else was doing, I was playing colleges and playing the locations that normally presented European classical music.


Do you feel that jazz has now, more than before, been embraced as a serious music?

It has not gotten the consistent attention that it deserves. We have to give Wynton Marsalis a lot of credit for the things he has done at the Lincoln Center. He has proven, with his own work and the things he has presented, that it deserves a place there. The kind of publicity that he has generated has helped make jazz fashionable. If others can continue, in their own way, to do these kinds of things, then it makes a big difference.


You've obviously played an important role in that process of bringing jazz to the surface, publicly.

I've had access to TV and for the last 16 years, I could present all kinds of musicians on the "Sunday Morning" show. We get cards from Oregon and Iowa and places which are not necessarily hotbed centers of jazz. The people love the music and want to know more about it. People are out there. We need to do it in ways that are not insulting. You don't need to spoon-feed them.

This whole thing about cool jazz, presenting something which is really pop music under the guise of jazz, I think, is disconcerting. First of all, it's not truth in marketing. It is not jazz. I don't have any problem with it as pop music. Kenny G's competition is Madonna, it's not Phil Woods.


Do you feel that you've arrived at a kind of healthy balance through all your activities?

Healthy in the sense that, in the last couple of years I've really focused much more carefully on composing and playing the piano. I resigned from all the boards I was on and I've gotten out of all the things that I thought could run OK without me. The only regret I have is that I have not been able to put the time and effort into the National Endowment for the Arts. That's the one nonmusical thing that needs help and needs to be understood.


* WHAT: The Billy Taylor Trio.

* WHEN: Sunday, doors open at 5 p.m. for a barbecue, with the concert starting at 7:30.

* WHERE: The Fess Parker Winery, 6200 Foxen Canyon Road, Los Olivos.

* HOW MUCH: Tickets for the dinner concert are $45.

* CALL: (800) 841-1104.

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