- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 19, 2002

Jazz impresario Billy Taylor has jammed with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and just about every other jazz great at such music halls as Birdland in New York City.

He also plays such lesser known rooms as the home of Charles Osgood, anchor of "CBS News Sunday Morning."

"He comes to our Christmas parties and plays the piano," Mr. Osgood says of his broadcast colleague of 20 years. "You don't have to coax Billy."

Mr. Taylor's extensive jazz career speaks for itself, but it is his generous nature that friends and colleagues embrace with equal fervor.

Some of those admirers, including Mr. Osgood, singer Nancy Wilson, violinist Regina Carter, actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, will fete Mr. Taylor as part of Billy Taylor's 80th Birthday All Star Concert (He turned 80 July 24).

Mr. Taylor was hospitalized this week, but the show will go on. The sold-out event, to be held at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, also features saxophonist Phil Woods, vibraphonist Stefon Harris and Marian McPartland, host of "Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz" on National Public Radio.

Mr. Taylor, the Kennedy Center's artistic adviser for jazz since 1994, represents the renaissance jazz artist, adept at both performing and teaching his beloved genre.

Mr. Osgood knows Mr. Taylor as someone whose charisma crackles on and off stage. "If he didn't know from a B flat, he'd still be a terrific talker," Mr. Osgood says.

The musician has spent a lifetime talking up all manner of jazz players. His connections translate into feature stories in which the musicians trust their sanguine interviewer.

"Most of the top jazz people are his friends," Mr. Osgood says. "They see him as a colleague. It's not just professional. It's personal."

The results speak for themselves. Mr. Taylor won an Emmy for his profile of musical giant Quincy Jones, and he continues to produce musical features for the CBS program.

Mr. Taylor, a native of Greenville, N.C., grew up in a deeply musical family. He began playing the piano at age 7 and decided to commit to it after abandoning his voice training when he realized his voice lagged behind the melodious sounds of other family members.

Mr. Taylor moved to New York City as a young, unknown musician and quickly found work all along the eastern seaboard, including gigs at the District's Howard Theater.

The 1950s saw his recording career flourish. His most famous track, "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free," became an anthem for the civil rights movement.

Later, he branched out into broadcasting, securing a daily show on WLIB-AM in New York City and then his CBS duties.

As a member of the Kennedy Center's jazz program, he has overseen a number of projects, including the Mary Lou Williams Women of Jazz Festival and the Jazz Ambassadors Program.

Jazz historian Phil Schaap calls Mr. Taylor "one of the primary jazz musicians of all time."

"He could explain things with musical illustrations that I could never do," says Mr. Schaap, a multiple Grammy winner for his jazz prose.

"He combines a first-class artistry with a first-class intellect with a first-class personality," Mr. Schaap says.

Part of Mr. Taylor's artistic grace is the ability and willingness to dig beyond conventional wisdom. Jazz great Lester Young, it had been said, started down a different, darker musical path after his time served in World War II. Mr. Schaap told Mr. Taylor the change had occurred before Young's military duty. To prove it, he played some of Young's music created just before World War II. Mr. Taylor listened and, after a lengthy time, agreed.

It was a lesson Mr. Schaap had picked up long ago from Mr. Taylor.

"I learned from him that the real answers are in the music itself," Mr. Schaap says.

Mr. Schaap says Mr. Taylor's music hasn't skipped a beat. Instead it has evolved along with him.

"He's grown into the patriarch, the senior statesman position [of jazz]," Mr. Schaap says. "He's top shelf still."

Mr. Taylor continues to wear various hats in the jazz community. He still plays with his Billy Taylor Trio around the country, and his band's most recent recording, "Urban Griot," proves he has no intention of relinquishing his studio time.

Mr. Osgood says that in a genre known for its destructive personalities, Mr. Taylor stands as a man admired as much for his character as his musical chops.

"You always have the feeling he values you," Mr. Osgood says. "Not just as a broadcaster, but as a human being."

Before the event, the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage will hold its own tribute to Mr. Taylor, featuring 14-year-old jazz pianist Eldar Djangirov. Eldar was profiled by Mr. Taylor two years ago on CBS's "Sunday Morning."

Eldar won first place over many older competitors in the International Lionel Hampton Jazz Piano Competition, part of the February 2001 Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival.

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