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The Jazz Life of Dr. Billy Taylor
By Billy Taylor, Teresa L. Reed
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2013 Teresa Reed
All rights reserved.
The seductive power of jazz resides in its distinctive sway, its particular saunter, its gait, its swing. The genealogy of that swing begins in West Africa, where a primal pulse spawned the ritual drumming, call-and-response singing, and orisha-possessed dancing that were the musical and spiritual life's blood of its people. Like an endless vine with roots planted firmly in the soil of its African origin, that dynamic Mother Pulse stretched the length of the Atlantic Ocean and was carried as precious cargo in the musical memories and bodies of the enslaved and scattered people who became the Diaspora. Wherever these enslaved people landed, their African heartbeat, their fertile musical Mother Pulse, generated seedlings, new musical forms specific to their new environments but still identifiably African. In the Caribbean, these seedlings matured in forms like junkanoo, mambo, mento, and reggae. In the United States, the transplanted Africans injected the creative pulse of their homeland into their field hollers, work songs, spirituals, blues, and jazz. When the slave law silenced their drumming, the Mother Pulse persisted nonetheless, emerging as the body rhythms of the ring shout and the juba-pattin' on the plantations, the handclaps of the black church, the vocal percussion of the quartet, the syncopation of ragtime, jazz, the backbeat of R & B, and the beat-boxing of the South Bronx. Songs from their African homeland emerged in new African American melodies that essentially use the five notes of the pentatonic scale; the hollers, guttural tones, and bent notes of the blues and black gospel; the flatted thirds and sevenths of jazz.
In jazz, the African heartbeat, the Mother Pulse of the homeland, is alive and well in its swing, the distinctive rhythms of black bandsmen and piano thumpers whose sound emerged in places like New Orleans, Charleston, Kansas City, Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, various locations in Oklahoma, Chicago, and St. Louis. In the early 1900s, this swing was the musical embodiment of the defiance that African Americans were once forbidden to express in their words or with their actions. In the racially segregated world of yesteryear, where lines were drawn and boundaries were fixed, jazz was bold and free and transcended the metronomic regularity of the European bar line. For African Americans in the early 1900s, the swing in jazz was the equivalent of a head held high with shoulders erect, chest out, and a clenched, pulsating fist waving in the air. The swing in jazz was a dead-on, eyeball-to-eyeball stare between black and white America. That gait, that lilt, that swing spoke volumes in pride, love, longing, struggle, history, and hope. And just as there is no wet without water, there is no jazz without its swing. Call it interesting, call it creative, even call it beautiful; but don't call it jazz unless it swings. The swing is the essence that connects jazz to its creative roots, to Duke, to Art Tatum, to "Satchmo," to Basie, to Dizzy and Charlie Parker, to Mary Lou, and to all the other great masters who birthed, cradled, and lifted this music into the world. I know because I was there. Duke was right: "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing."
The swing in jazz symbolizes the life stories of those who created and championed it. My part of this story begins at a time when all of black America was panting, out of breath from running away from the past and racing full steam ahead toward the promise of the future. I was born in Greenville, North Carolina, in the hot, steamy summer of 1921. My birth year represents both the best of times and the worst of times for African Americans. With souls set afire by the likes of Garvey and Du Bois, young African Americans, including my own parents, were eager to define new possibilities for themselves as well as for our entire race. They wanted to purge from their lives every single vestige of the miserable slave past, and they wanted to live, instead, in a brand-new consciousness of possibility. It was in 1921 that Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle produced their long-running musical Shuffle Along, the first Broadway hit production to feature an entirely African American cast. It was in 1921 that Harry Pace established the first black-owned and -operated record company, Pace Phonograph. During that year, the African American Baptist Church published its time-honored collection of sacred songs, the Gospel Pearls. As that generation pined for a new day, 1921 also saw a revival of the Ku Klux Klan's venomous campaign of white supremacy, especially in the South. And this racist oppression helped bring about the Great Migration, a period in the 1910s and 1920s during which more than a million African Americans left the cotton and tobacco fields of the sweltering and oppressive "Jim Crow" South for better opportunities in the North. For us, 1921 was a year when eyes both bright and dim were fixed on historically pivotal prizes.
My earliest memories are of the places we lived in the South, first in Greenville, and later, in Raleigh, North Carolina. I remember that Greenville was a pleasant country town with tall cornfields and the Tarr River nearby. My father, Dr. William E. Taylor Sr., was a dentist, and his best friend was a doctor. The two of them decided to set up offices together and begin practicing in Greenville. My mother, Antoinette Bacon Taylor, was a Washington, D.C., native and a graduate of Howard University's Miner Teachers College. She started her career in one of the small, rural, segregated schools in the Greenville area. For people like my parents, a little town like Greenville was filled with contradictions. On one hand, Greenville might have been the perfect place for two young, educated African American professionals, a place with a desperate need for those who were qualified to serve and enhance the community. On the other hand, however, Greenville, like most southern towns, struggled beneath the weight of those unfortunate times. In many ways, the South of the 1920s was little improved over what it had been during slavery. Too many southern African Americans were impoverished, barely literate sharecroppers, people who labored in cotton and tobacco fields from sunup to sundown and who lived in constant fear of burning crosses and lynch mobs. Their lives were focused on survival, and to a great extent, surviving in the South was a matter of "knowing your place." Keeping African Americans in their "place" was a major function of the educational system in a town like Greenville, where, at that time, racial segregation was both pervasive and blatant. White schools were well funded, well equipped, well staffed, and exclusively for white children. African Americans, by contrast, struggled to provide education for their children. Black schools in the South, if not in churches or in private homes, were often little dirt-floor country shacks, single rooms crowded with eager children of all ages. With very little money and few resources, many of these schools typically operated five or six months of the year. In many cases, the subjects taught to southern black children only reinforced the presumption that they were inferior and therefore could look forward only to a life of servitude, sharecropping, or other manual labor. My mother's brief teaching experience in Greenville was one reason that she convinced my father that we should consider living in a larger town. We soon moved to Raleigh, where I recall that there were more children for me to play with and our home there was just across from Shaw University. Founded just after the Civil War, Shaw was the oldest African American college in the South. Living in the slightly more urban town of Raleigh must have given my parents an opportunity to enjoy more culture and recreation, since I distinctly remember chasing tennis balls when my father played there with other athletically minded friends. I was told that I actually attended kindergarten in Raleigh, but I don't remember that at all. What I do remember, however, is being at a dance and seeing a small jazz band perform. I especially remember the drummer. He was a real showman and did all kinds of magical and funny things with his drumsticks while the people danced around the band.
Raleigh was much bigger and better than Greenville, but still too far south for my mother's taste. So they decided that we would join the great northward migration and move back to Washington, D.C. It was perhaps fortunate that I was big for my age, since this enabled my mother to enroll me in grade school in Washington, D.C., when I was only five years old. Even at that young age, I recall the wonder and intrigue of being in the nation's capitol, a place so beautiful that it seemed to be a majestic sandstone and marble wonderland. The president and I lived in the same city!
And that is exactly how my parents wanted me to feel—carefree, safe, and full of optimism and bright-eyed wonder. They didn't want me to know, for example, that at the same time I started school in this fascinating new city of mine, the curious people of Washington were lining the streets for a parade, not in honor of some visiting dignitary from a foreign nation, but to marvel at a spectacle of another kind. On September 13, 1926, thousands of men in their white robes and pointed white hoods stretched the expanse of Pennsylvania Avenue. Bearing their American flags and arranged in formation, they marched triumphantly, some of their number creating the shape of a large letter K at the front as the dome of the nation's capitol stood in the background.
Our parents wanted to shelter us from scenes like these; so they fashioned for us a self-sustaining community, a city within this city, a section of Washington, D.C., away from this marble wonderland. My boyhood Washington, D.C., was an entire universe of its own—rich, vast, vibrant, noisy, and colorful. It was an African American world in which I could go anywhere and become anything I wanted; and yet, it was all entirely within the distance of a short walk from my home.
In this urban hamlet bursting with vitality, history, and hope were the ties that bound us all together. Whether on the playground or at Sunday school, at the barbershop, at the drugstore, or at the theatre, I felt a certain kinship to those around me. At every turn, there were stories of our achievements and constant talk of progress from adults who lavished us with good advice and older folks who nurtured us with well-spun tales, hot-buttered grits, fried okra, sweet potato pie, and hearty laughter. We were wealthy in Henry O. Tanner's art, in Claude McKay's poetry, and in James Weldon Johnson's literature; and we were filthy rich in music, so culturally affluent, in fact, that it was unnecessary to venture beyond the boundaries set for us. Segregation fused all of the ingredients of our creativity into one magnificent stew, the power, flavor, and intensity of which pervaded everything around us. Segregation hid us from the rest of the world but saturated us in our own splendor.
Howard University, the Howard Theatre, my grandfather's Florida Avenue Baptist Church, and everything from grocery stores to cafés and delis, from schools to movie houses, were all within minutes of my doorstep. A young boy like me could get a sandwich at any one of several cafeterias lining U Street, places where you could count on good food, the latest gossip, and reminders to stay out of trouble. I could stroll to catch a movie at one of several theatres—the Lincoln Theatre, the Republic Theatre, the Booker T. Theatre, and the Howard Theatre—all within walking distance and just a few blocks away from each other. I could play with the other kids at the 12th Street YMCA, or see our local Negro Leagues stars, the Homestead Grays, play baseball at Griffith Stadium.
My grandfather's church was adjacent to the fence around Griffith Stadium. For my father, who was the choir director at his church, the temptation of baseball proved irresistible. There was one particular occasion when my grandfather's inspired preaching moved the hearts of the faithful, and as is customary in the black Baptist tradition, the sanctuary soon filled with the joyful sounds and exclamations of the Spirit. My father, however, filled with love of sport, took advantage of the situation: We all looked up to notice that, during the rousing of the congregation by the Holy Spirit, my father had abandoned his musical post, and my uncle was directing the choir in his place. My father had slipped out the back door of the church to go to the game!
Interestingly, even though Griffith Stadium was in the heart of the black community, it happened to be the only ballpark in Washington, D.C., at that time. It was host to both the Negro Leagues teams and the Washington Senators, a major-league team. Therefore, it was absolutely normal for white baseball fans to come into my neighborhood on game days. Yet I was forbidden to cross into the white neighborhood on any day, one of the many oddities of segregation.
My neighborhood showcased the gamut of who we were, from street sweepers and domestic workers, to professional and well-heeled society people who dressed in their finery and attended elegant dances at the Lincoln Colonnade, and sophisticated banquets and other affairs at the Whitelaw Hotel, or at the Dunbar Hotel. Thanks to segregation, almost every establishment in my neighborhood—from Scurlock Photography Studios, to Freedmen's Hospital, to the Afro-American Newspaper—was black-owned. For a young African American boy like me, the black community of Washington, D.C., in the 1920s and 1930s was but an extension of the house where I lived, a place where friends and neighbors felt more like cousins, where the grown-ups were variations of my own parents, and where the places across the street or around the corner felt every bit as safe and embracing as my own living room.
I grew up surrounded by role models, and I came of age under the protective and reassuring gaze of relatives and neighbors who expected great things from my generation. After all, it was the age of the "New Negro," of W. E. B. Du Bois, of the "Talented Tenth." African Americans were abuzz with the notion of advancing the race. And while history records that there was a renaissance under way in Harlem, there was an equally significant artistic and cultural movement among our people during this same period in my hometown.
African Americans in Washington took race progress very seriously, a fact that becomes clear when considering the number of luminaries that lived in the very neighborhood where I grew up. Well before I came on the scene, Washington, D.C., already boasted a rich heritage of African American achievement. The eminent poet Paul Laurence Dunbar was a Washingtonian who lived on U Street beginning in 1898, and it is for him that my alma mater, Dunbar High School, was named. The incomparable Duke Ellington was born in Washington, D.C., in 1899 and returned there frequently to perform. Dr. Charles Drew, the inventor of the blood bank, was born there in 1904 and was a graduate of Dunbar High. Harlem Renaissance legends Langston Hughes and Alain Locke both lived for a time in Washington and had connections to Howard University, as did historian Carter G. Woodson, who taught there beginning in the late 1910s. Much later, in the 1930s, Thurgood Marshall lived just a few doors up the hill from me on Fairmont Street, just two blocks west of Howard University. He would become the first African American justice on the Supreme Court. To be African American in Washington, D.C., in the 1920s and 1930s was to be in the epicenter of progress and pride, pride fueled by the awareness that the colorful, noisy, wonderful world in which we lived was of our own making.
My family was full of musicians—cousins, aunts, and uncles who sang beautifully and played various instruments. My father was a remarkable man who was not only a dentist, but was also a four-letter athlete, a great singer, and the choir director at my grandfather's Florida Avenue Baptist Church. He was known throughout the community for both his musical leadership and his riveting baritone solos. Our first house in Washington, D.C., was on Flagler Place, just two blocks south of Howard University. There were times when my dad's choir came to our house to rehearse for some special occasion, for Christmas, for Easter, or for some other religious gathering. There were also several different instruments around our house, including a baritone horn and a C melody saxophone. I am not sure how we acquired those instruments, and I don't know exactly who might have played them, but I suspect that my father may have taken them up at various times in his life. In addition to the horn and saxophone, we had a player piano, and I remember placing my tiny fingers on the keys in many eager yet futile attempts to match the nimble, rapid motions of the invisible virtuoso.
Excerpted from The Jazz Life of Dr. Billy Taylor by Billy Taylor, Teresa L. Reed. Copyright © 2013 Teresa Reed. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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