New York City has quite a few streetsigns that honor iconic jazz musicians where they once lived. The corner of 88th Street and West End Avenue in Manhattan is “Arturo ‘Chico’ O’Farrill Place,” for the Latin jazz bandleader and composer who died in 2001. My favorite, at the cul-de-sac on West 63rd Street, off West End Avenue, is “Thelonious Sphere Monk Circle” (though it took a while for the city to get that one right).
Perhaps no musician is more deserving of such an honor than pianist Billy Taylor, because he quite literally brought jazz to New York’s streets in exalted and empowering fashion. Taylor will get his due when East 138th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues, near where he raised his family, gets dubbed “Dr. Billy Taylor Way” through a ceremony from 4-6pm on June 21. (The page on the Harlem Cultural Archives website says “bring your lawnchair and enjoy the festivities.”)
That’s just the sort of invitation Taylor offered New Yorkers in all five boroughs through JazzMobile, the nonprofit music organization he founded in 1964 with arts patron Daphne Arnstein. Jazzmobile’s annual Summerfest stood as the city’s oldest continuous summer event devoted to jazz, reaching 100,000 listeners annually, mostly where they live. A wheeled float transported by pickup truck served as the stage at most sites, setting up shop for a night in one community or another.
Taylor, who enjoyed a storied musical career (he was house pianist at Birdland during its heyday) and served as arts correspondent for CBS-TV’s “Sunday Morning” and for National Public Radio), reflected on all that in 2010, just months before his death, for a Wall Street Journal piece.
As he explained, in 1964, after hearing of plans to reduce arts programs in New York schools, he used his then-daily radio show on local station WLIB as his pulpit.“I was pretty upset, so I started yelling about it on the air,” he recalled. “But I also set out to do something about it.” Together with Arnstein and members of the Harlem Cultural Council, which she had founded, Mr. Taylor created Jazzmobile. “The emphasis was on empowerment,” he said. He played the inaugural season’s first show, rolling through Harlem streets atop a float provided by Ballantine Beer. He leaned on his friends and colleagues—Dizzy Gillespie’s band played the next concert; Lionel Hampton’s the one after that.
Taylor’s many accomplishments off the bandstand—he was artistic director for jazz at the Kennedy Center, earned an Emmy and two Peabody Awards and held a dozen honorary degrees in addition to his doctorate in education—sometimes overshadowed the distinction of his playing and composing. And his national profile via TV and radio was simply an extension of his profile in New York City, where he was a straight-up hero for music in the streets, and in Harlem, where he soaked up tradition firsthand at spots like Mary Lou Williams home, and then passed it on with the same direct and loving hands-on attention.