THE TALKING VIOLIN hosted by Dr. Billy Taylor 1989

JAZZ PROFILES: JAZZ VIOLIN hosted by Nancy Wilson 1995

The Talking Violin

From 1979 until they aired in 1989, I worked on the first comprehensive radio programs to cover American improvising violinists in the world. The series consisted of five one-hour programs hosted by Dr. Billy Taylor. It aired in 1989 with 80% music, 20% narrative and interview. You can hear the incredibly rich interviews in full on the NPR Interview page.

Aired in 1989: five one-hour shows
hosted by Dr. Billy Taylor (b.1921 – d.2010)
written by Julie Lyonn Lieberman and produced by Julie Lyonn Lieberman and Steve Rathe, Murray Street Enterprise

During the late 1970s, few Americans knew about the rich history of the violin in American music — from the development of the blues fiddle style by slave fiddlers, to the hot, smokin’ solos of the early jazz violinists, on through to contemporary, innovative players.

I wanted to share the rich contributions fellow string-players had made to American music, and set out to create a radio series that would excite and inspire the listening public. Jazz pianist and radio/TV host Dr. Billy Taylor was my first and only candidate for a host. His history performing with jazz violinists like Stuff Smith and Joe Kennedy, Jr., coupled with his elegant dedication to jazz education, made him the perfect choice.

After ten years of research, writing, interviews, and fund-raising, I invited veteran jazz radio producer Steve Rathe on board — also my first and only choice for the project. With the support of the New York State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts, Meet the Composer, The Wolfensohn Foundation, as well as contributions from dozens of individuals and small string-oriented companies, we began production in 1988, creating a five-part series. It was a first for radio: over fifty violinists were represented, spanning close to a century of music.

Working with Dr. Billy Taylor was an honor. His smooth, steady-paced work style coupled with his interest in the subject matter brought far more to the project than I’d anticipated. I loved our chats during breaks in the recording studio; I learned so much from him about the history of jazz and his role in publicizing and promoting jazz as America’s classic music. I later invited him onto my show on WBAI to meet and share the hour with Lincoln Center’s then new director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, Rob Gibson. Over the years, we kept in touch. I always touted him as my professional role model: he was consistently generous and thoughtful, even when his health was ebbing.

Billy called me right after jazz violinists Joe Kennedy Jr. and Claude “Fiddler” Williams died — they’d passed away within a week of one another to the day. That was the last time I spoke with Billy. They were obviously on their way to that same huge jam session in the sky where Billy is no doubt now a premiere guest.

JAZZ PROFILES: JAZZ VIOLIN hosted by Nancy Wilson

In 1996, radio producer Steve Rathe of Murray Street Enterprise (Jazz at Lincoln Center, Ellis Island, and credits too numerous to list here) and I worked on two one-hour shows for a National Public radio series on the history of jazz in America titled Jazz Profiles. As we developed the script, I was able to obtain rare archival audio, courtesy of Anthony Barnett in Great Britain, of the first female jazz violinist in America, Ginger Smock. After the series aired, NPR lost the master and Steve Rathe’s production studio, just blocks from ground zero, was compromised by thick ash that permeated the entire region. It’s taken 20 years, but I finally able located my copy of the two programs, purchase an old DAT machine on Ebay, and figured out how to transfer DAT to digital via an audio interface and Cubase. 

Credits
Writer and producer: Julie Lyonn Lieberman

Executive Producer: Steve Rathe, Murray Street Enterprise

Special thanks to Howard Armstrong, John Blake, Jr., Anthony Barnett, Gary Giddins, Dan Morgenstern, Russ Dantzler, Louis Porter, Randy Sabien, Yale Strom, John Reeves, Arlene Smith, Joe Kennedy, Jr., Claude Williams, Lesa Terry, Dave Soldier and Brenda Vincent.