The death of the pianist John Taylor in July this year left a huge and hugely unexpected hole in jazz: in British jazz, in international jazz and in jazz education.
Birmingham Conservatoire’s jazz department is keen to mark his contribution to their work with a special concert in tribute to John (or JT as he was always known there) and as a celebration of the impact he made on the department, its students and its staff.
Jeremy Price, head of jazz, explains:
To mark John Taylor’s passing, we wanted to put on an informal tribute concert, first and foremost as a celebration of John’s contribution to our Jazz Department. Our “Celebrating JT” concert has been programmed by inviting staff and students to choose the music they would like to play for this occasion. The repertoire will be a snapshot of the JT significance on our collective musical lives. I think it is very important that we acknowledge here in Birmingham what an important landmark this is for us, and most importantly that even without JT himself , the musical memories and influence of his music are still thriving here. We warmly invite all past and present students, Conservatoire staff, all musicians from the local scene, family and friends and of course all jazz fans to come and join us for what I’m sure will be a very memorable evening.
- Jazz Club: John Taylor Tribute and Celebration will take place this coming Thursday 22 October at 7.45pm in the conservatoire’s Recital Hall. More here.
Jeremy was also keen to express in words the gratitude he personally felt towards John Taylor, and he has encouraged others to do the same. His tribute is below and I will add further contributions as comments to this piece as they come in.
In Gratitude to JT
By Jeremy Price, Head of Jazz, Birmingham Conservatoire:
Still reeling from the shock of John Taylor’s sudden passing, I’m hoping to mitigate the loss a little by writing a few words of gratitude to the great man. Please forgive this indulgence, which I admit is part therapy for me as well as a chance to give due honour and thanks to JT.
I first met JT as a student at the Guildhall in the early 1990s. He was to be one of my small band coaches. I remember Neil Yates and Tom Gordon were in the band. Tom had his usual “bring it on” attitude but Neil and myself were pretty daunted as we were well aware we would get roasted harmonically and we wouldn’t be getting away with trying to sound like Freddie Hubbard and Jay Jay. The jazz celebrity arrived, very gentle and unassuming, handed out a few charts and proceeded to lead the band from one of Guildhall’s little upright pianos in our basement rehearsal room. Yes the harmony was a roast, but so was everything else. I hadn’t heard anyone lead the time in a band from the piano like that before. Phenomenal. I have to say at the time I was a bit bamboozled by the teaching method. So little instruction, so much space and choice. Time to step up then, fill the void, make your own artistic decisions on your own terms. Crikey. Memorable and lasting lessons, tangentially delivered.
John’s connection with Birmingham Conservatoire’s Jazz Department started in earnest through Dave Holland in 2011. Myself and Tony Dudley-Evans were proposing to Dave that he do a concert as part of one of his Visiting Artist residencies and Dave naturally chose his long standing pal John Taylor. I didn’t realize til then that they had shared a flat in London as students. They recalled their former selves as Ray Brown and Oscar Peterson obsessives, gleaning every note from the records. The concert was a joy, especially for witnessing the open risk taking of such well established and experienced musicians. And John transformed the Recital Hall into a cosy front room for playing a couple of tunes to friends.
This was a great opportunity to ask John if he would visit the Conservatoire on a regular basis. We agreed three times a term, and for coaching senior students, either one to one piano or as a small band coach.
Having an elder statesman on board the team is incredibly important to me. I greatly miss Tony Levin and now I’m going to equally miss JT. Institutions such as our Universities have all sorts of formal mechanisms to gain feedback, but this will be trumped every time by the endorsement of a great artist. That John continued to want to return to the Conservatoire was a source of great strength to me and my colleagues. It’s also a great tribute to the students, whose collective attitude and love for the music is surely in a good place if someone of John’s ilk wants to be involved. John would talk at length about the students and take great interest in their progress. The students relished their access to him and really recognized what an amazing opportunity it was to be around him.
It became established that John hosted what became known as the “leavers” concert. Any final year students, BMusJazz or Post Grad would be offered a place in a band that JT would rehearse and play for in the June farewell gig. Unfortunately we only managed three consecutive years of these. After the first one, I recall taking John back to his hotel. He said to me that now he was 70 he wanted to dedicate more and more of his time to putting back into the scene through teaching, as one never new how long one had left. I couldn’t comprehend what he was saying and retorted that he’d have a goodly long while for that, surely, and we joked that yes he was being a bit morbid.
The last “leavers” concert we did was only a few weeks before his passing, on 17 July 2015. He started the gig with a stunning solo improvisation. He introduced each of the three bands in turn and sat at the side of the stage willing the performers on and following every note.
Inevitably, we all scuttled off to the pub after the gig. Celebratory pints all round and much discussion about our plans for the next term. October was to be JT month. His energy and generosity abounded. We had plans for a series of gigs at London’s Vortex, featuring himself with guests plus four different student bands; he was also going to be a pivotal part of Andrew Bain’s project at the CBSO Centre in the same month. We obviously were not alone in calling upon JT to raise the game and must have been only one of many performance schedules that suddenly had a gaping chasm in the diary now that this irreplaceable giant of our music had so unexpectedly left us.
So on behalf of Birmingham Conservatoire Jazz department, I’d like to say an enormous thank you and show our upmost gratitude for being fortunate enough to have had John Taylor in our midst. For his great teaching, incredible outpouring of artistry, absolutely inspiring contributions to the repertoire and for the generous attitude of his great improvising spirit. Thank you JT.