Duke Ellington looms so large in jazz that he’s practically exempt from comparison with our city’s other jazz musicians. So the second best should really be listed as first—with an asterisk to denote the Ellington exception—and for that ranking, there’s only one real choice.
He was born in Greenville, N.C., but “everything I learned about music when I was young, I learned in Washington,” says Dr. Billy Taylor, who moved to the District in 1926 at the age of five. He would become house pianist at Birdland during bebop’s height; composer of 350 tunes, including the civil rights anthem “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free”; musical director of the first jazz-based TV program, NBC’s The Subject Is Jazz; correspondent for CBS Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt; and a pioneering jazz educator and broadcaster. But before that, Taylor was listening to his uncle play stride in his living room, going to Saturday jazz shows at the Howard Theater, and taking piano lessons, both at Dunbar High School and in his neighborhood. His was the musical lineage of James Reese Europe and Ellington—he even studied with one of the Duke’s teachers, Henry Grant—making him one of the last surviving links to Washington’s regional style of ragtime and early jazz.
Now that he’s in New York, Taylor’s main connection to his hometown is his position as artistic director for jazz at the Kennedy Center, which he’s held since 1994. It’s not a terribly personal connection, but he has used it to institute innovative programs such as the annual Women in Jazz Festival. “What I heard when I was a kid was, ‘Yeah, she plays nice for a girl,’” Taylor says. “And even all those years later, when I went to the Kennedy Center and told them I wanted to do a women’s jazz festival, they didn’t believe I’d find enough women to justify a big feature,” he chuckles. “I was able to immediately give them a list of 100 women.”
His work with the Kennedy Center also finds Taylor speaking on any number of the institution’s panels and roundtables on jazz. His stories about seeing Duke Ellington play the Howard as a kid, or about his first meeting with Thelonious Monk (when the two young players unknowingly put on a recital for the masters of Harlem stride piano), are terrifically entertaining, but more to the point, they’re rich with information about the history and culture of the music. Jazz lovers and musicians in this town couldn’t ask for a better ambassador.