Editorial: Jazzing up the culture

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 6, 2011

Since Salisbury is home to a thriving yearly blues and jazz festival, as well as local clubs that regularly showcase such performers, it behooves us to note the passing of a jazz legend with Tar Heel ties.
Dr. Billy Taylor, acclaimed jazz pianist, died last week at age 89. Although he lived most of his life in New York, Taylor was born in Greenville in 1921, so North Carolina can lay claim to at least a minor note in his illustrious career. Taylor was an accomplished performer and composer, accompanying and recording with the likes of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Gerry Mulligan as well as his own trio. Among his hundreds of compositions was the civil-rights anthem, “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free.” Yet even while maintaining a demanding schedule as a performer and songwriter, he devoted much of his seven-decade career to advocating jazz as a quintessential American art form — “America’s classical music,” he called it. In that role, he profiled musicians for CBS’ “Sunday Morning” show, hosted a popular jazz show on National Public Radio and helped launch the Jazzmobile, a parade float that brought live jazz to inner city neighborhoods. He also lectured and taught extensively at colleges and conservatories.
For Taylor, jazz wasn’t simply a musical genre. It was an essential segment of American culture, one that too few of his compatriots took time to appreciate, either musically or historically. “One of the things that we have not done is to put jazz in the position that it deserves in our society,” he said. While that’s true, Taylor’s indefatigible efforts enhanced the careers of many jazz artists while nurturing generations of appreciative audiences.
Taylor would find kindred, finger-snapping spirits among members of the local Blues and Jazz Society, whose mission is to “preserve, promote and present” the American art form that Taylor so passionately espoused, as a musician and an educator.