Promoting Duke Ellington and Billy Taylor: Some Unforgettable Memories, by Renatta DeBlase
I had never even heard of the famous jazz pianist, composer, and educator, Billy Taylor, until I saw him on PBS television one evening in the spring of 1967. There he was, a handsome, erudite, soft-spoken gentleman who was seated behind a beautiful white grand piano and was lecturing to a national audience about such historic jazz legends as Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith. This was the first time I had seen a jazz musician present a lecture about jazz. “Priscilla,” I exclaimed to my college roommate at Rutgers, “Billy Taylor is the jazz world’s equivalent of Leonard Bernstein, and I would like to meet him someday!”With Stars in My Eyes is an interesting account of the years in which I did promotional work for Billy Taylor as well as Duke Ellington. My happiest memories are of going to hear Billy play at the Top of the Gate–his playing was expressively beautiful and restrained, because of his classical training–and then speaking with him during one of his breaks on a variety of subjects, ranging from civil rights to my recent job interviews, to discussions of books that I had just read. I knew that Billy was a great star but never dreamed that his star would rise so high in coming decades.
I recall asking him if he composed religious music, which was so popular during the late sixties and early seventies because of Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts, and Billy replied, “Yes, I do compose religious music, but please don’t get the wrong impression of me–I’m just regular and not a very religious person.” Dr. Taylor was also very impressed with my youthful appearance and desire to help African-Americans gain full equality in all aspects of their lives. I also recall visiting Dr. Taylor at radio station WLIB in New York when he was program director in the late 1960s. One afternoon, I brought Derrick to meet him at the radio station and Billy took us on a tour of the station. He was very impressed with Derrick’s good looks and wonderful attire–he wore a pastel blue checkered sports jacket, a blue botton-down summer shirt, white trousers, and, of course, like the great pianist himself, dark tortoiseshell dark glasses–Derrick was truly a beautiful six-year-old child who transcended race and who could barely talk because of an untreated medical problem. His grandparents had emigrated from Trinidad in the 1930s.
Duke EllingtonDuke Ellington was a generation older than Billy Taylor but I grew up listening to his recordings and listening to my father’s account of dancing to the great bandleader’s music when Duke brought his orchestra to play at a summer resort near Lake Ontario in Rochester, New York. I also watched Duke’s specials on television and enjoyed watching the televised tributes to him that were numerous during the last ten years of his life. At last, America was beginning to appreciate the fact that a musical genius was in their midst.
I will never forget David Frost’s question to Duke when Mr. Ellington was a guest on Frost’s TV show in 1969. “What is your philosophy of life?” to which the great bandleader replied, “Those surprises. I keep watching for those surprises because then I have to reassess my situation and make possible changes,” thus revealing Duke’s flexibility throughout his career and his desire to make changes in order to survive in the difficult world of popular and jazz music. Duke Ellington’s willingness to endure hardships, to accept new challenges, and to continue composing until almost his 75th birthday endear him to me and to millions of Ellington fans worldwide.
Duke was also very modest and appreciative. When I called his office in New York on his 71st birthday, on April 29, 1970, and offered Duke unlimited book proposals on behalf of Simon & Schuster, where I worked, he sent me a message through Billy Taylor and thanked me for the offer.