Before & After: Billy Taylor

When Dr. Billy Taylor passed away last week at the age of 89, it inspired me to create this blog and share a Before & After listening session I did with him for JazzTimes in 2007. Following our interview, Taylor played the keyboard in his Watergate Hotel room and discussed his recovery from the stroke he suffered four years earlier:



“I couldn’t find a teacher that could help me do what I wanted to do, so I went back to five finger exercises. It’s slow. There are things that are coming back to me still, but I could always play ballads. My years with Ben Webster taught me that and it came in handy. I feel much more relaxed than in several years.”

Before & After


by Larry Appelbaum


1) Nat “King” Cole

“How High The Moon” (from The Best of Nat “King” Cole Trio, Capitol Jazz). Cole, piano; Oscar Moore, guitar; Johnny Miller, bass. Recorded in 1947.

Before: That’s really funny. I know it’s not me but it sounds like me in 1950-something. That was the way I was playing when I was recording for Prestige. The pianist has a very lovely touch and the ability to take be-bop and play it melodically. Marian McPartland sounded like that, Hank, there were several of us that wanted to play be-bop but wanted to make it sound pianistically.

After: Nat Cole? Wow! I’ll be darned. Everybody I mentioned was influenced by him. Nat Cole had a wonderful touch. Everything was relaxed. He liked be-bop and he played it, but before he could really get deeper into the music he started very successfully singing. In the1940s he was one of the most imitated pianists until Garner came along. I met him in New York and he took me to the studio where he was recording. He was just a very nice man. The only thing I didn’t like about him is that he stole my guitarist, John Collins [laughs]. You sure started with one of my favorite pianists.

2) Randy Weston

“Portrait of Frank Edward Weston” (from Zep Tep!, Random Chance). Weston, piano; Alex Blake, bass; Neil Clarke, percussion. Recorded 2005.

Before: Very good. He’s doing the kinds of things we all did in the ‘50s. What he was doing with one hand is what most of us did to get out of the way of all the conga drums and bongos. I kind of started that. Dizzy Gillespie found Candido at the Palladium one night and brought him to where I was playing just down the street. He said he wanted to hear this conga player, Candido sat in and got the gig, so I had a quartet from that point on. This guy, whoever is playing, sound like Ahmad Jamal in that period where he wasn’t laying back so much, ‘cause he could really dig in when he wanted to. It was danceable and very melodic. I’m sorry this drummer didn’t take a solo. The fills he was playing were beautiful.

After: Hello. Randy was the guy-I caused him to go to Africa. I had just started working at WNEW and as soon as I got the job I was invited to go to Africa. I couldn’t go so I sent Randy. He went over and stayed for a while and became a legend over there. We were old friends. Of all the people I knew, he was the best suited to go to Africa because he was one of the few musicians in those days who pulled together all the aspects of Africana. He was the only one I knew who had done it to that extent. He was very sincere about it since he was a teenager. He had been reading about Africa and he jumped into it and never looked back. We were both judges at the Monk Piano Competition. We kind of agreed on what was happening.

Can you talk about those deliberations?

No, it’s too personal. Both Randy and I disagreed with a couple of other people. We’re older and we had different reasons for doing that. It had to do with the history, as we see it. And I have too much respect for the other people on that panel, because I know they’re absolutely as sincere as I was. It’s interesting to hear what younger people think. We talked about how if it’s gonna be jazz it has to swing in a certain way. There are African elements and we approach those elements differently.  Some of it is a feeling. You hear it in gospel feeling. You hear it in the spirit of the things and everybody hears it differently.. Who’s to say one guy’s right and the other guy’s wrong? For me, this is what jazz is all about.

3) Keith Jarrett

“Part III” (from Carnegie hall Concert, ECM). Jarrett, piano. Recorded in 2005.

Before: That’s beautiful. The pianist is wonderful and has a very soulful approach. That’s not soul like gospel, but I feel it. He’s playing simply and the touch is just perfect for this kind of thing. He’s singing. It’s beautifully articulated. I like it. He said what he had to say and it flowed.

As a pianist, how do you make the piano sing?

It’s hard [chuckles]. Touch and pedal.

After: Ha! I should have known. He does that. He was the first one who came to mind but I hadn’t heard this. He has one of the best jazz groups. And that Charles Lloyd Quartet was beautiful. I saw them once when Keith and Jack (DeJohnette) switched instruments. I cracked up.

4) Helen Sung

“H*Town” (from Helenistique, Fresh Sound New Talent). Sung, piano; Derrick Hodge, bass; Lewis Nash, drums. Recorded in 2005.

Before: [listens straight through to the end, then chuckles] You know, that’s intriguing. I love it when guys do that. This is someone who, if they chose to, could make it an Art Blakey kind of swing. He’s swinging but he’s doing a different thing with time. And the composition demands that you do something else. That’s terrific. It’s imaginative and you can dance on that. He was using all the elements of swing but applying them in different ways.

After: I know who she is but I don’t know her. This is Monkish. I didn’t even try to count that [time signature], but I liked the fact that I didn’t have to. This is so organic, it worked.

5) Jan Johansson

“Prisma” (from 8 Bitar/Innertrio, Heptagon). Johansson, piano; Gunnar Johnson, bass; Ingvar Callmer, drums. Recorded in 1961.

Before: [big smile] Yeah, harmonically that’s very adventurous, very imaginative. When he went to the release he began to swing in a little different way. I like that. Here’s a guy who is being very adventurous harmonically and very traditional rhythmically.

After: I don’t know his work. That was very nice. One of the things I’ve noticed is that many of the players in Sweden, Denmark and places like that don’t swing as hard as they did when I was there. I went over right after the war and Sven Assmussen and those guys were swinging hard, man. I know that Stan Getz went over there and a lot of guys got into the cool thing.

6) Eldar

“Take The A Train” (from Live At The Blue Note, Sony Classical). Eldar Djangirov, piano. Recorded 2005.

Before: This is an excellent pianist but he doesn’t have a left hand. He may have small hands. He’s using octaves. Sounds good. He’s clean as a whistle. He’s playing like Tatum, and does that very well. I get a big charge when I hear a younger person doing this. I was afraid it was going to skip that generation because so few young guys can do that.

How can you tell it’s a younger person?

Rhythmically, what I hear sounds more like a younger person. An older player who plays that style would be playing more tenths in the left hand.

After: Ha, ha, ha! I’ll be darned. Sounds good. And he does have a small hand. At his age there are certain things he could do to stretch that. But he’s doing other things and he’s doing them very well. This kid is one of the best musicians I’ve worked with, but I’m so disappointed in what they’ve done with him. I don’t know what’s wrong with these people. They should promote him. He’s got original compositions that are beautiful. It’s a waste. I hate to see that. He can play with Roy Hargrove and make it work, and I’m glad. But why can’t the people who handle him be more thoughtful about his potential? Not everybody has his potential, the facility, the control and all the things he does so easily. So do more with it. He’s a beautiful player. I wrote a thing in fourths and he came in and ate it up. He’s a wonderful player but none of that is on this record.

7) Martial Solal/Dave Douglas

“Have You Met Miss Jones” (from Rue De Seine, Cam Jazz). Solal, piano; Douglas, trumpet. Recorded 2005.

Before: Well, I’ll tell you. That’s one of my favorite Rodgers and Hart tunes. The fact that Coltrane got the Giant Steps idea from the bridge from that, it always fascinates me to hear what other people do with it. The interplay, harmonically and melodically, was fascinating to me. That’s like a musician’s joke. Unless you’re a piano player, it doesn’t mean anything to you. They were playing off of one another, man. I like that very much. They play very well together.

After: Solal. Oh yeah. When I first met him he was very into the Tatum-esque thing. I’m a big admirer of his. When I did my disc jockey show I played him a lot. People would call and say, “who is that?” The audience was a lot hipper then than they are now.

8)  Cecil Taylor

“In Florescence” (from In Florescence, A&M). Taylor, piano, recitation; William Parker, bass; Greg Bendian, drums. Recorded in 1989.

Before: Can you turn that up? That takes me back. In the ‘50s, I used to go to a lot of contemporary concerts. People would sometimes ask me if I ever played anything without predetermined harmony, melody and rhythm. And I would play something abstract. It was fun, but for me it’s a dead end because I’m too oriented to melody, harmony and rhythm and I want to use them in whatever way that I can. But I’ve done that several times on television on a couple of shows I did. And it always worked because all the musicians always got into it. And this reminded me of that. It was fun. Try to make something out of that idea or thought you start with. Any number of things that are non-musical can give you a way to go. I liked that but I haven’t done a lot of that. I like the idea.

After: that’s who I thought it was. We played together in Italy. I knew Cecil when he came to the club I worked at. He was going to the Boston Conservatory in those days. When I heard him he was playing all the contemporary things and doing his own thing with them. That record he made with Coltrane was the first time I heard him do that. I used to play Cecil’s things whenever I could get away with it. I used to play him on WLIB. I would tell the listeners, “Here’s something by Cecil Taylor and he’s gonna play something you’ve never heard before.” Very interesting response. Not everybody hated it. It’s art music. I wanted to do a piece on him for CBS Sunday Morning but they said no. He was one that I really wanted to do.

9) Fats Waller

“Love Me Or Leave Me” (from If You’ve Got To Ask, You Ain’t Got It, Bluebird/Legacy). Waller, piano. Recorded 1929.

Before: [laughs with delight] Willie “The Lion” Smith? Oh my goodness. Sounds like him. James P. [Johnson]? No, the left hand wouldn’t be enough for him. I’ve heard this record. Sounds like Fats Waller. My uncle used to sound like that. This is what I meant when I was talking about the left hand. Those are tenths. And that’s his trademark on the end.

After: Yeah, he was such a wonderful pianist. He played “Handful of Keys” and I wondered how could he do that? I saw him play at the Lincoln Theater here in D.C. when I was about 11 years old. He played the organ and I went to see him. I wanted to tell him how much I enjoyed the music. I was very young and I didn’t know how to say anything. I went backstage and he was holding court and then he walked right by me and I didn’t say anything. He went next door to a little place and he must have eaten a dozen hamburgers, laughing and joking and eating. That was the only time I saw him close up and I never said a word. And I swore if I ever got that close to anyone I admired as much as I did him, I was gonna talk him to death. There was so much I wanted to ask him.

Billy Taylor (© by Larry Appelbaum)


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