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Black History Month: Dr. Billy Taylor's anthem

Pianist and jazz educator Dr. Billy Taylor
North Carolina Music Hall of Fame
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Pianist and jazz educator Dr. Billy Taylor

For Black History Month, Robin Lloyd honors Dr. Billy Taylor and his Civil Rights anthem “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free.”

Pianist Billy Taylor was born in North Carolina and raised in the Washington, D.C., where his grandfather was a co-founder of the Florida Avenue Baptist Church, close by the Howard Theatre, an important venue for Black performers. He was equally influenced by the music of the Black church, classical music and popular music.

Taylor was responsible for formalizing much of what we call jazz education these days and for exposing broader, whiter audiences to jazz throughout his career. He wrote jazz piano instruction books, hosted public television’s first TV series about jazz and brought jazz to the inner-city neighborhoods with the JazzMobile outreach program.

He started and hosted NPR’s Jazz Alive series, a history of jazz program called Taylor Made Piano, and Billy Taylor’s Jazz at the Kennedy Center. Taylor served as the Kennedy Center’s jazz director from 1994 until his death in 2019.

Taylor’s most enduring composition was written in 1966, in the heat of the Civil Rights movement. "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free" has been recorded by countless artists, Black and white. Most versions stick to its original gospel feel; others stray more into the pop styles of the moment.

Honoring Dr. Billy Taylor and his unforgettable anthem for Black History Month.