Billy was truly a legend to anyone who cared about jazz. He was an exemplary pianist and composer, but he was also far more.
Billy was the most important jazz educator of all time. He knew that far too few people understood the beauty and the complexity of jazz. And he was determined to fix that so many more people could appreciate the art form he loved so much. His appearances on CBS Sunday Morning informed a generation of us about jazz and, especially, its exemplars. Artists who rarely were featured in primetime received serious and in-depth attention on these classic segments.
Billy was also a remarkable ambassador for jazz and for the United States around the world; his interest in teaching made him a beloved visitor, less interested in performing than in making sure his audience learned about and appreciated his music.
His modesty made him the perfect cultural ambassador; no ugly American was he.
I had the distinct pleasure of working with this great and sweet man for the past 10 years.
As the artistic director for the Kennedy Center’s Jazz program, Billy was the leading voice in building one of the most potent jazz programs in this nation.
Billy was not simply interested in showing off his own prodigious skills, or even of showcasing the work of his peers.
No, Billy also cared to highlight the work of jazz artists who he considered excellent but who did not get the level of acclaim he believed they deserved.
The Betty Carter Jazz Ahead series, which Billy championed, allowed young jazz artists to learn and perform. Billy didn’t just want to teach new audiences, he also wanted to help young performers to master their craft.
The Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Program, another one of Billy’s ideas, has allowed a generation of female jazz artists to gain much-needed visibility.
Billy and I worked together to create the Kennedy Center Jazz Club, a less formal, more intimate setting to hear jazz than our typical concert format. The idea came after a concert Billy gave for a small group of donors. It was clear to both of us that we needed to repeat this kind of performance, returning jazz to the kind of informal venue for which so much music was created.
In each of these endeavors, Billy was forceful, passionate and yet modest. He knew more about jazz than anyone else, and he had distinct ideas about how, who and what should be presented. But he never asked for credit, publicly or privately. He was always happy for someone else to take a bow.
Exactly because of this generosity of spirit, Billy became a beloved member of the Kennedy Center family.
We will miss his knowledge, talent, grace and good spirit.
We have lost a dear, dear mentor, guiding spirit, teacher and friend.