Pianist, jazz ambassador and NPR host Dr. Billy Taylor died on Tuesday night of a heart attack, according to his daughter Kim Taylor Thompson. He was 89.
Born in 1921, Taylor had been a professional musician for more than six decades. After graduating from Virginia State College, he moved to New York in 1944; there, his first big gig was in the band of saxophonist Ben Webster. He would end up playing with essentially all the greats of that era, and many of them since. As a recording artist, he’s best known as the leader of a trio, a format he maintained since the 1950s, and also as the composer of the song “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free.”
Dr. Billy Taylor — his common appellation, as he held a Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and many honorary degrees — is also remembered as an educator who traveled widely for clinics and lectures. Since 1964, his JazzMobile organization has presented free concerts and workshops in New York City (and primarily its heavily African-American neighborhoods). Those who knew him universally speak of his personal warmth, and of his missionary-like zeal for introducing jazz music to people.
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