Dr. Billy Taylor (1921-2011) (Photo: Courtesy North Carolina Music Hall of Fame)
Dr. Billy Taylor, the pianist, educator and broadcaster whose spirited jazz anthems provided a soundtrack for the Civil Rights Movement, was born on this day (July 24) in Greensville, North Carolina, in 1921. Taylor got his start in the bands of Ben Webster and Don Redman in New York City. After a stint in Paris with the Don Redman Orchestra, he returned to New York to serve as the house pianist for the Birdland jazz club, where he had the opportunity to play alongside Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and other bebop figureheads.
In 1952 he composed what would become his most famous composition, “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free,” which he originally wrote for his daughter, Kim. The song, with its stately melody and strong gospel roots, was embraced by leaders of the Civil Rights Movement as a message of peace and dignity. The instrumental live version provided here as our Song of the Day is as soulful a take as you’re likely to hear. In his lifetime, Taylor had been awarded 20 honorary doctorate degrees, an Emmy Award, an NEA Jazz Master Fellowship and a Peabody Award for his work with the educational program Jazzmobile. H died in 2011 at the age of 89.