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Greats Live On Through Pianist Taylor

Jazz: The noted musician keeps the past alive with lectures and demonstrations. He plays tonight at the Irvine Barclay Theatre.

May 22, 1997|BILL KOHLHAASE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

IRVINE — Other young pianists might have stood speechless in awe at a chance meeting on the street with the great jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton.

Not Billy Taylor.

"I was a nosy kid," he told an audience of about 100 students and others at UC Irvine, where he'd arrived directly after his plane touched down at John Wayne Airport. Spotting Morton on New York's 52nd Street, "I just went up and said, 'Mister, can I buy you a drink?'

"He was a very strange-looking man, very well-dressed, but in a very old-fashioned style. He had a diamond in his tooth."

At this, members of the decidedly young audience, some sporting multiple earrings and tattoos, laughed.

"I'm old enough to have been able to talk directly to many of these people" about the early days of jazz, Taylor continued. "And they answered.

"Much of what I write and say about jazz comes from them."

This former "nosy kid" spends much of his time passing on what he learned when he hounded the greats of jazz for stories. For more than 40 years, Taylor has championed the music at schools and on radio, television and the concert stage. He is in residence at UCI through Friday as a UC Regents Lecturer in Music, under the auspices of the school's new jazz studies programs. In addition to a number of public lectures and demonstrations, the noted pianist will perform a solo concert tonight at the Irvine Barclay Theatre.

The day before he arrived in Orange County, Taylor explained why he is so involved in bringing the story of jazz to the public.

"I've been doing this kind of thing for years," the 65-year-old Taylor said by phone during a rehearsal at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, where he was preparing another in his series of live concert broadcasts for National Public Radio. This edition of "Billy Taylor's Jazz at the Kennedy Center" will feature Los Angeles-based trombonist Bill Watrous. "When I was a disc jockey, I found that if you talk intelligently to people and not talk down to them and play good music, then they'll respond."

*

During a panel discussion for the UCI students, he responded to questions from flutist, composer and UCI instructor James Newton and pianist-instructor Kei Akagi. He outlined the progression of jazz piano through ragtime and Harlem stride schools. He talked about the influences a young Duke Ellington had as he was growing up in Washington, D.C. He discussed the precursors of the bebop movement, telling how Basie drummer Jo Jones started the process that later was picked up by bop drummers Kenny Clarke and Max Roach.

Taylor was born in Greenville, N.C., educated at Virginia State College and moved to New York in 1942, where he began playing with saxophonist Ben Webster, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, saxophonist Charlie Parker and others. He was the house pianist at New York's fabled Birdland in 1951, and a year later began appearing with his own trios.

Though he still records and performs, Taylor is probably best known to the public as the voice of jazz on radio and television. He began as a fill-in disc jockey at New York radio station WLIB in the early '60s and has gone on to host a number of programs including "Jazz Alive" and "Taylor Made Jazz" for NPR.

In 1981, he began doing jazz features for Charles Kuralt's CBS-TV program "Sunday Morning"--he received an Emmy for his segment on Quincy Jones--and is now in his 16th year with the show. He has been involved in educational programs continually since 1964, when he helped create New York's "Jazzmobile" program, one of the first jazz education programs to put musicians in direct contact with students and the general public.

That Taylor is outspoken about his love and devotion to the music is no secret. When Akagi asked about the place for what's labeled "contemporary jazz," Taylor doesn't hesitate.

"That has to do more with the manner the music is merchandised," he replied, "and I feel we have a responsibility to clarify it. Call it what it is: popular music. Yes, it is jazz-oriented, much like ragtime was, but it's geared for popular consumption, which in this culture means to play down to the audience."

When Newton asked what advice Taylor has for aspiring musicians, the pianist responded assertively: "Every serious musician should study as much about the history of the music--where it came from--as they can. Not just reading about it but also listening to it. . . . Go back to the early days. Take advantage of your teachers. Drive them crazy with questions."

And he had more specific advice as well. "Form your own corporation," he suggested. "You'll be surprised what you can do with a couple of hundred bucks. Get your own CD made, and that will open doors."

* Billy Taylor plays tonight at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine; 8 p.m. $12-$25. (714) 824-2787. Taylor also gives the following presentations free and open to the public: "Jazz--America's Classical Music," today at the UCI Fine Arts Village Theatre, 12:30 p.m. "Jazz Piano Techniques," Friday at the UCI Fine Arts Village Concert Hall, 1 p.m. Information: (714) 824-4281.

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