In Memoriam: Billy Taylor
You know, Billy Taylor died Wednesday. Tributes were all over the media. Many editors awarded his passing a front-page niche, including his “hometown” Washington Post.
Billy and I were not friends, but we met in post-war Germany. I was 18 and he was 24, playing piano for Rex Stewart’s orchestra on a tour of Army bases. Rex was a marvelous trumpet player, famous from his stint with Duke Ellington. To avoid segregation then raging in America, he hauled his horn over to Paris, taking along a group of talented musicians, including the young bookish Taylor. He wore oversized glasses even that early.
The Stewart band was booked into Heidelberg’s Stardust, what was billed “as the world largest enlisted man’s club.” The American Forces Network featured a Friday night broadcast from what was once the city council building (Rattenhaus). I was the announcer and a product of the Deep South with all its social strictures.
Billy and I enjoyed each other’s company so much that I stuck out my hand; it was a gesture of comradeship and his sheer likeability. He squeezed back.
Years later after Dr. Taylor’s preeminence in national Jazz educational services warranted an invitation to the Kennedy Center; we met again and the warmth evaporated the 26 years. He recalled our Heidelberg gig. We saw each other several times; we always smiled at each other.
What I never told the distinguished professorial man, who could still pound a keyboard mightily, was that his was the very first Black Hand I ever shook. In the wake of the Civil Rights movement and Lyndon B. Johnson’s success in lifting the high bars that separated our country, my personal breakthrough achieved with him hardly seemed worth a mention.
Dr. Billy Taylor, rest very much in peace. You were a helluva man of any color. You dignified my soul by simply meeting you. Heaven is now enjoying your fantastic piano. I treasure your memory.