Yet, Taylor’s Jazz At Kennedy Center was on the air but seven years. It seems much long, so effective and memorable was Taylor as he hosted performances at the performing arts center in Washington D.C. With youthful enthusiasm, a quick wit and ever-present love of the music, Taylor brought jazz to radio listeners around the country. In the process, he helped the Kennedy Center build its jazz program to one of the most respected in the country, much of it due to Taylor’s unremitting efforts.
But that wasn’t all. Taylor also appeared regularly as a host on CBS Sunday Morning, bringing visual interest to the playing of jazz, as well as aural fulfillment. Interviewing hosts of jazz musicians, such as his memorable combination of mentor/protégé, Oscar Peterson/Benny Green, Taylor personalized the art form, removing much of its mystery to the general public and bringing the humanity of the music to the surface with his incisive questions. Always energetic, Taylor, identified immediately by his cheerfulness and signature plastic-framed glasses, was always ready to demonstrate the joy of the music by sitting down at the piano and playing on the spot, as well as showcasing deserving jazz musicians.
In tribute to Taylor immense contributions to the development of Kennedy Center as a recognized jazz venue, the the Center has released a CD of some of Taylor’s concerts there, and it’s available only through the Kennedy Center gift store or through its web site.
The emphasis of the CD isn’t on Taylor’s articulate ability to conduct an on-stage interview with a jazz artist. Rather, it stresses his music the joyfulness of his playing, the effortless technique as he accompanies or improvises.... and the breadth of his compositions (a talent well known by other musicians like Marian McPartland, who has been known to perform some of Taylor’s music in her concerts). Taylor Made: At The Kennedy Center includes solely Taylor compositions, from the intertwining bebop lines of "Birdwatcher" to the spiritual nature of his "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free." The recording of the latter tune comes from Taylor’s performance just 13 days after 9/11 before an audience that included dignitaries like First Lady Laura Bush, certainly at a time when music could help heal wounds.
The standout piece for the CD is Taylor’s "Suite For Jazz Piano And Orchestra," which Taylor plays without an orchestra, though its premiere did include the National Symphony Orchestra. Over its 15 minutes, the Suite covers much territory, from Taylor’s initial appealing melody to the precision and the clarity of his playing when the improvisation enters a double-time section and then on to a rubato, heavily chorded section restating the theme.
Some guests join Taylor on half of the tracks, the most surprising of whom is the masterful Stanley Turrentine, who passed away in September, 2000. How gratifying it is to hear Turrentine again on a previously unreleased recording. But a check of the liner notes reveals that the two tracks including Turrentine were recorded in Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater on the last day of 1999. In addition, Dee Dee Bridgewater sings Taylor’s "If You Really Are Concerned," the only song on the album that includes lyrics. And Arturo Sandoval shows up with Steve Terre and Cyrus Chestnut on piano in a tribute to Taylor from 2002, recalling Taylor’s work with Dizzy Gillespie, certainly two of the most respected ambassadors of jazz in the second half of the twentieth century.
Still, one can’t help but be delighted by the spirit and flawless articulation of Taylor’s playing, such as his 1999 performance of "Titoro," moving from its initial swing to the heightening of his improvisational complexity throughout successive choruses, as drummer Winard Harper pushes the beat, certainly giving Taylor’s playing an exciting edge.
Despite Taylor’s decision to withdraw from active performing as he slows down as a result of a recent stroke, he remains an artistic adviser at Kennedy Center, as well as a ceaseless promoter of the beauty of jazz wherever he appears.