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November 6, 2013 / robinswood

Remembering Dr. Billy Taylor

Dr. Billy Taylor

Dr. Billy Taylor

I recently came across some nice 2007 audio of Dr Billy Taylor playing on Marian McPartland’s NPR show, Piano Jazz; to listen to the program, simply click here. Taylor was a fine pianist and a noted composer, but his real passion was jazz education. He held a Ph.D in music education from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and was the founder of the Jazzmobile program. Among other things, he also served as band-leader on The David Frost Show.

Taylor died after a heart attack on Dec. 28, 2010, at the age of 89, and his funeral took place at New York’s Riverside Church on January 11, 2011, with music by  CassandraWilson and Geri Allen, among others. As it happened I was in New York at the time, on a month-long research trip for my book, and so was able to attend the funeral. What follows here is a brief excerpt from the book’s introduction in which I reflect on part of what I experienced at the funeral.

Clearly the place and prominence of a preacher coming from a highly pluralistic, twenty-first century Canadian urban setting is utterly different from that which both of John Coltrane’s preacher grandfathers would have known in their respective home communities in North Carolina. In fact, my context is quite utterly different from that of a preacher in a black congregation in current day Harlem. This was brought home to me in a very vivid way when I attended the funeral of the musician and educator Dr Billy Taylor, held at Manhattan’s Riverside Church on January 10, 2011. Though Riverside’s own minister offered a formal invocation and words of welcome, there was little question that the person who had the real authority on the platform was Dr. Calvin O. Butts, III, the senior pastor of Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church. By his very presence at the front of the church, Butts clearly commanded the attention of the predominantly black congregation. More, as the memorial drew to a close and without any warning, he called the noted jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis to come out from his place in the pew to play an impromptu version of the old hymn, “Precious Lord.” As he did this, Butts came across as having an entirely unselfconscious sense of authority, such that no one—least of all Lewis himself—would have questioned the wisdom or prudence of his making such an impromptu request. Frankly, in my cultural and ecclesial context, I have no experience of anything even close to that kind of authority.


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