Billy Taylor - piano; Jimmy Heath - tenor sax; Howard McGhee - trumpet; Lyle Atkinson - bass; Bobby Thomas - drums; Special guests: Illinois Jacquet - tenor sax; Vic Dickenson - trombone; Slam Stewart - bass; Jo Jones - drums
To open this "52nd Street Revisited" program, emcee and eminent author Arnold Shaw provides a little background on that strip of real estate in midtown Manhattan where the bebop scene took hold back in the mid-1940s: "While Harlem was the incubator of bebop, it was 52nd Street that brought the music to the public, and in so doing, itself became a musical scene of musical conflict…Jimmy Ryan's was the bastion of the two-beat crowd as The Three Deuces, Spotlight, Downbeat and Onyx provided a showcase for fanatics of the flatted fifth." Shaw goes on to explain how the Oscar Pettiford-Dizzy Gillespie band was the first group on 52nd Street playing bebop. A young pianist named Bill Taylor, who was working at the Three Deuces with his own trio, subbed for Pettiford's regular pianist George Wallington one night at the Onyx, igniting his life-long infatuation for these new harmonic and rhythmic concepts in jazz.
Thirty years later, Taylor was on hand to celebrate that golden era of bebop in this special Carnegie Hall concert on May 25, 1974. Accompanying him are bebop stalwart Howard McGhee on trumpet, Jimmy Heath on tenor sax, Lyle Atkinson on bass and Bobby Thomas on drums. Together they burn through three bop staples frequently heard on 52nd Street back in the day -- Charlie Parker's chops-busting anthem "Donna Lee," Thelonious Monk's moody meditation "'Round Midnight" and a rousing rendition of the popular Duke Ellington-Juan Tizol jamming vehicle, "Perdido."
Thomas' irrepressibly swinging ride cymbal pulse fuels the heated proceedings on their sizzling rendition of "Donna Lee," which opens with tight, blistering unison lines on the head between McGhee and Heath, who each turn in potent solos as the piece develops. Taylor (who would later be known as Dr. Billy Taylor) reveals the considerable influence of another 52nd Street regular, piano great Art Tatum, with a remarkably facile solo here. And in classic bop fashion, McGhee and Heath take turns exchanging whirlwind eight-bar phrases with the excitable drummer through the second half of Bird's invention on the chord changes to the Swing-era staple "Back Home in Indiana."
McGhee next lends a bracing trumpet intro to Monk's hauntingly melancholy ballad "'Round Midnight" before gradually embellishing on the familiar melody. Thomas underscores the proceedings with sensitive brushwork as Taylor outlines the harmonic contour of Monk's most beautiful and oft-recorded composition on his own solo. Heath's tenor solo here is particularly affecting, full of emotion and the sound of longing while also exhibiting the uninhibited bravado of the bona fide bebopper. The band then takes it out using Dizzy Gillespie's famous Latin-flavored coda.
They conclude their set on a high-flying note with a jam on the Ellington-Tizol nugget, "Perdido," featuring special guests Illinois Jacquet, who stretches out on honking tenor sax, and Jo Jones, who fills in on drums. Both trombonist Vic Dickenson and bassist Slam Stewart (famed for his simultaneous bowing and scatting on his melodic, singing solos) also get in their solo tastes on this spirited set-closer.
An ardent jazz fan, activist and educator, as well as an accomplished pianist-composer, Taylor was also a pioneering jazz broadcaster. In 1958, he became the Musical Director of NBC's The Subject is Jazz, the first ever television series focusing on jazz. The 13-part series was produced by the new National Educational Television Network (NET, a predecessor of PBS) and hosted a wide range of guests including Duke Ellington, Aaron Copland, Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley, Jimmy Rushing and Langston Hughes. He also worked as an on-air host and program director on radio station WNEW in New York during the 1960s and at station WBAI during the 1970s. From 1969 to 1972, while serving as music director for television's The David Frost Show, he became the first African American to lead a talk show band. In 1981, after being profiled by CBS News Sunday Morning, Taylor was hired as an on-air correspondent. He proceeded to conduct more than 250 interviews with musicians for the show, receiving an Emmy Award for his segment on the multi-talented Quincy Jones. Since 1994, he was the artistic director for jazz at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Taylor suffered a stroke in 2002 and later died after a heart attack on December 28, 2010 at the age of 89. Eminent jazz critic Leonard Feather once said, "It is almost indisputable that Dr. Billy Taylor is the world's foremost spokesman for jazz."
-Written by Bill Milkowski