What a difference a year makes. On October 17, 2010, the Nashville music community and the entire blues-rock scene were dealt a tough blow with the death of saxophonist Dennis Taylor. Taylor made his mark on the music scene performing and recording with artists such as Delbert McClinton, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Buckwheat Zydeco and countless others. One year later – and now just before what would have been Taylor’s fifty-eighth birthday on November 13 – the community is still missing Taylor, not only for his playing, but also for his encouragement, his friendship, his sense of humor and his love.
From Baseball to Music
Dennis “Baseball” Taylor was born on November 13, 1953 in the town of Barton, Vermont. Taylor’s first love was baseball. His wife of twenty-two years, Karen Leipziger, recalls, “Dennis lived, breathed and ate baseball, specifically the Boston Red Sox.” While Taylor remained passionate about baseball his entire life, a new passion entered his life when he was around eight years old: the saxophone.
Taylor first became acquainted with the instrument by watching marching bands. He soon became fascinated by it and began to play the alto saxophone, but would later switch primarily to tenor. Taylor’s high school music teacher then turned him onto jazz and introduced him to Downbeat magazine, and, as Leipziger says, “Dennis found his place in the world.”
Taylor began learning lessons from all the saxophone greats, including John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Dexter Gordon. However, Taylor quickly found himself drawn to the older style of tenor playing, the blues and musicians such as Gene Ammons, Hank Crawford and Stanley Turrentine. Most of all, Taylor held a great admiration for the music of Count Basie and his Orchestra. According to Leipziger, “If he had been born in a different era, that’s who he would have played with.”
However, Taylor easily adapted to his own era, studying at Berklee College of Music in Boston, before finding his way to New Orleans, where he met up with blues great Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. While playing with Brown at what had been the Jonathan Swift’s Club in Harvard Square (Cambridge, MA), Taylor discovered yet another passion: Karen Leipziger, who would become his wife. Leipziger easily remembers the date: February 6, 1985. Three years later, the two would marry, and a move to Nashville took place soon after. Says Leipziger, “At some point, if one wants to advance in a career in music, one must go to one of three places: New York, LA or Nashville. I’m from New York and wasn’t ready to go back, and neither one of us wanted to go out to LA, so we went to Nashville.”
A Special Sound
Taylor soon carved his own niche in the Nashville music community as a freelance musician, recording and performing with artists such as Kenny Rogers, Shelby Lynne, Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater, Jay McShann and Duke Robillard before finding his last and favorite gig, spending his final two and a half years playing in Delbert McClinton’s band. Band-mate and friend Kevin McKendree calls Taylor the “ideal sideman” saying that, “He didn’t play too much, he always played the right thing, and he always added his voice to every project without shouting.” While many players admire Taylor’s old-school tone, something that McKendree says, “you just don’t hear with a lot of modern tenor players,” Rusty Russell, a trumpet player and colleague of Taylor’s says that it goes beyond his tone: “What amazed me about Dennis was his whole sound. His tone, his note choice, his volume in relation to the other instruments, all of those things are elements of a players sound. The whole of Dennis’s sound had a human, very vocal quality to it.”
Russell recalls another aspect of Taylor’s playing. He says that, if a player wants to do something great, he must go outside his comfort zone, he must “step out on a limb.” By doing so, there is the possibility for greatness, but also the possibility for failure. According to Russell, even the greatest players sometimes “walk too far out on the limb.” Yet Russell says, “Dennis had this unique ability to know how thick the limb was that he was walking out onto.” Taylor had the ability to find some stretch point that was just beyond his grasp – just beyond his grasp enough that there was a sense of newness and originality to what he played, but a point where he knew that it would never collapse. According to Russell, “he never fell off the limb.”
The Man Behind the Music
Taylor also had a passion for teaching, teaching privately and also volunteering at the W.O. Smith Music School in Nashville where he provided music lessons for underprivileged children. Taylor was the author of five instructional books on jazz and blues saxophone for the Hal Leonard Corporation, and co-wrote another with Steve Herrman for trumpet. In the books, Taylor focuses on finding one’s own personal voice through examining the work of other saxophone greats. Taylor soon gained a reputation for being not only a top-notch teacher and player, but also a great friend and colleague.
“He was encouraging to me to the point where I don’t know that I could have put the trumpet back to my mouth without him…there’s just a way that a horn player can stand to make things easier and to offer encouragement, and he did just that,” recalls Russell. Russell is quick to add that he is not the only one to have such an experience. “You go to hear a band play and you’ll undoubtedly find guys who have been touched by Dennis in the same way.”
Indeed, Kevin McKendree, who played B3 on Taylor’s first and only solo release, Steppin’ Up (Kizybosh Records – 2010) said that he was not sure he was the right man for the job. “I had played B3, but I had never been the B3 player in an organ trio, where you are responsible for the bass part as well as the chords,” McKendree says, “but Dennis insisted on me, he had confidence in me, which gave me confidence in myself.”
Likewise, Nashville area band director and trombonist Scott Kinney recalls a similar story, “I was completely discouraged as a musician and he helped me shape the philosophy that I use today teaching and playing, which is to never turn down an opportunity because of fear.” Kinney then proceeds to tell a story about his first gig with Dennis, “The band-leader called a tune – it was Junior Walker’s ‘Shotgun’ – and I’m flipping through the book trying to find it when Dennis tells me that it’s a head chart (a song where everybody has the melody, or head, memorized and then one plays solos, and finishes with the head again). I didn’t even know what that was.” Then came the solo section. Kinney says that he wanted to stay in the band so he decided to play a solo even though, “I had never played an improvised solo in my life; I didn’t know how to do it, I didn’t even know how to play in a key center. Everything I had done was 100% charted out before that.” Kinney admits that his solo was terrible, saying that he was humiliated and the other horn players were “staring at their feet embarrassed for me.”
Then, a few tunes later, while the band was playing a cover of Blood Sweat and Tears’ “And When I Die” Kinney had a written out feature. After he played it, Taylor looked at him and uttered a few simple words: “Nice tone, man.” According to Kinney, Taylor “let his true colors shine through right there because he’s the kind of guy that is going to find whatever he can to be encouraging. He had to find something positive on which to comment…that meant so much to me that I decided to keep playing.”
A few years later, tragedy struck Kinney’s school. One of Kinney’s students had a brain vessel explode and was rushed from Murfreesboro, TN to a hospital in Nashville. When Kinney heard of this, he immediately went to see her. Upon hearing that the prognosis was grim, he asked what he could do. The doctors responded that there wasn’t much to do – except some sort of stimulation to try to get her heart moving. Kinney thought quickly and called Taylor, who came immediately to the hospital with his saxophone.
Kinney sat by his students side and began talking to her; he began acting as though they were in band class. He asked Taylor to play some scales, and they went through what a band class would be like, with Taylor playing his saxophone for her. All of a sudden, “all these bells and whistles started going off and the doctors are rushing us out.” It turned out that the music was enough stimulation to bring her out of her coma. The doctors were shocked at how music affected her recovery, although she still had severe brain damage, could not read and could not move the right side of her body.
The girl had lost both parents at a young age and was raised by her college-age brother, thus money was extremely tight. So, impressed by how music affected her recovery, the doctors teamed up and bought her a saxophone that she could use in her therapy. This year, she is marching in Riverdale High School’s marching band. Recalling the incident, Kinney says, “Dennis was instrumental in that. He not only played for her at the hospital, but also did a benefit concert for her and continued to ask about her and how she was doing long after that.” Indeed, it seems as though everybody that knew Taylor, including this author, has their own story of how he helped them.
I was a student of Taylor’s for several years until his death last October during my senior year of high school. My sophomore year, I began to think that I might try to turn to music as a career, but I was scared, scared that I wasn’t good enough. I had thought about it, and talked to some of my closest friends about it, but really not mentioned it to a lot of people. Then, one day, as if he could sense it, Taylor was making a point about improvisation and he added the following: “I assume that you’re going to be doing some playing in some bands after college, so this will help you there,” and he continued with the lesson. The fact that he had the confidence in me is what drove me to have confidence in myself, and pursue my own musical dreams. Taylor helped me get my first professional gig with a big band in Columbia, Tennessee, and recommended me as an intern at his friend Kevin McKendree’s Rock House Recording Studio. It was only because of Taylor’s teaching that I would be accepted and choose to attend the very same Berklee College of Music that he attended. It seems as though, no matter what the circumstances were, Taylor always had time to care for others. As fellow Nashville musician and trumpet player Steve Herrman recalls, “I could always ask Dennis the hard questions and get a straight answer.”
Yet while Taylor was a serious musician, he had a sense of humor as well. “If Dennis had a hero in humor, it was Yogi Berra. He loved a good play on words or a good pun,” recalls Russell, “He was very intellectual in his sense of humor, but could be child-like as well.”
Russell recalls a story when he and Taylor were playing at a festival with a certain artist who was having trouble talking with the crowd. “Whatever the artist would say between songs, it was just kind of sitting there with the crowd, they weren’t reacting to it.” It was then that Taylor pulled out one his signature jokes: he began to talk into his saxophone, achieving a muffled sound, not unlike the teacher in the comic strip Peanuts. The artist didn’t know what was happening. As the incident continued, people started to realize what Taylor was doing, including the band and the crowd, yet the artist appeared to be clueless. To Taylor, this was even funnier, so he kept doing it. As Russell says, “everybody is cracking up laughing and the artist is just dumbfounded, so Dennis kept it up…it finally ended with everybody going crazy and the artist staring at the monitors.”
Yet, Taylor also had a more reserved sense of humor. More in line with puns and word play, Taylor would, according to Russell, “sit there and listen to everybody else talk and not say a word. Then, he would just deliver a great one-liner and that was that, nobody could top it.” Band-mate Kevin McKendree agrees, and even insists that in that way, Dennis’s humor transcended his personality and his playing. “He didn’t say a lot of words, but when he said something, he said a lot,” Says McKendree, “and that was the way he played too; he didn’t have to play a lot of notes to say something profound.” Those that knew Taylor knew him for his smile, his laugh, his sense of humor and his encouragement. Russell summarizes it best when he says, “He [Dennis Taylor] was a wonderful man who loved to laugh.”
For Taylor’s over thirty year career, he would express his personality, his sense of humor and his sound in the form of solos or features for other artists, the life of a sideman. According to Leipziger, “[Being a sideman] is all Dennis ever wanted to do, he never wanted to be a front-man.” However, Taylor did have one aspiration as a leader, a personal artistic statement in the form of a jazz organ trio recording. Eventually, he met up with the right people, and his album Steppin’ Up became a reality, featuring Kevin McKendree on B3 and three different drummers (Kenneth Blevins, Chester Thompson and Lynn Williams). According to Leipziger, “It was Dennis’s life-long dream…his life’s work.” So, in 2010 – just months before Taylor’s unexpected death – the album started to become a reality. The music was recorded over three days at McKendree’s Rock House studio in Franklin, TN. Then, Taylor and Leipziger, a singer-songwriter and music publicist discussed the cover photo and the sequencing before Taylor boarded Delbert McClinton’s tour bus for what would be the final time. After playing a show with McClinton on October 16 in Greenville, TX, Taylor awoke the next morning with some indigestion and a strange feeling in one arm. A few hours later, Taylor suffered a heart attack while at the hospital and died at 1:04 PM on October 17, leaving friends and family stunned.
Following her husband’s death, Leipziger took it upon herself to “kiss” the album, turning the recorded music into a final product. How it would fare in the eyes of the public, however, remained to be seen. Leipziger admitted that she had no idea whether the public would embrace it or not. She said that there was “no consideration” given to the commercial viability of the record, and that it was simply a personal statement, and a life-long dream. She adds, “If you want to know Dennis, listen to the album.” Yet, the public’s response has been extremely positive, towards an album that can’t be classified into just one genre. Part jazz, part blues, part New Orleans and part R&B, Steppin’ Up features six of Taylor’s original tunes, and covers of songs by Dr. John, Isaac Hayes, Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Percy Mayfield and even a Beatles tune.
Yet, despite the album’s unique sound and style – or perhaps because of it – it has earned the praise of many critics. The album has received overwhelmingly positive reviews, perhaps the most prestigious being from the well-known jazz publication Downbeat, which gave the album 4 stars out of five. In addition, Steppin’ Up was named one of the top 10 blues albums of the year in the 76th Annual Downbeat Reader’s Poll, and is also on the nominating ballot for the “Best Jazz Instrumental Album” Grammy Award.
One year later, Taylor’s music is being praised, but he is not here to receive it. One year later and Kevin McKendree “still [doesn’t] know who to call to play tenor anymore.” One year later, and all we can do is remember him and “see him smiling, see him laughing, and see him saying a good one-liner.” But such is the life of a sideman, always providing for and supporting others, and then slipping quietly off stage when the show is over. Such was the life of Dennis Taylor, a quiet man who always had a smile on his face, always offered an encouraging word, who, as Steve Herrman says, “cracked everybody up and kept everybody loose,” who turned down countless gigs and recording sessions to volunteer at the W.O. Smith Music School or to hear his students perform. Such was the life of the “funny guy” who worked constantly to improve his playing and left a true musical gem behind, but slipped off stage before the audience could deliver their applause, leaving only memories, and a recording that captures, as McKendree says, “the true blue soul of Dennis Taylor.”