1931 - 2016
Morris Taylor taught in five Adventist Colleges and Universities in a career that spanned 42 years. A pianist, he toured extensively as a soloist, duo-pianist with his wife Elaine, and as a chamber musician, giving countless recitals on over 100 campuses worldwide. In retirement he successfully pursued a career as an independent artist in the visual arts.
Born on January 17, 1931 Taylor was raised in impoverished circumstances, spending his childhood staying in a number of homes. In one of these homes he found a piano, an instrument that fascinated him. Even though he was interested in learning the instrument, he didn't have piano lessons until he was in eighth grade. He paid for those lessons by doing menial tasks for as little as 25 cents a day.
In spite of an erratic experience with different teachers, he made rapid progress and when he entered Atlantic Union College quickly established a reputation as a precocious student and gifted performer, graduating magna cum laude at the age of twenty with a music degree. He was hired by AUC when he graduated, and taught there until December 1953, when he was inducted into the army.
Taylor had earlier met Elaine Myers, a talented singer and pianist from the Northwest, during a trip to New York City. They dated a few times before she returned to Walla Walla College, now University, where she taught both voice and piano. Following his induction, they corresponded and during one of his leaves he proposed to her. Taylor was offered a position at WWC in 1955 and obtained an early discharge so he that could start in the fall term. He and Elaine married that September.
While teaching at AUC, Taylor had completed a master's degree in piano performance at Boston University. He had just started working on a D.M.A. at BU when he was drafted into the army. At the end of his second year at WWC, he made arrangements to continue graduate study. At this point he was invited by Southern Missionary College, now Southern Adventist University to serve as chairman of the Division of Fine Arts. He accepted, with the provision that he delay his arrival there for a year and work on his degree at BU. He completed a D.M.A. in piano with cognates in music and art history in 1960.
Taylor led the program at SMC and taught piano and music and art history until 1965. During those years, he and his wife played with increasing frequency as duo-pianists, something they had started at WWC. Following one performance, The Chattanooga Times observed: "Morris and Elaine Taylor combine superior technique and glowing musical understanding with an uncanny oneness that places them in the small and exclusive company of really fine duo-pianists." They would become inseparable musical partners as they played together for over twenty years and studied under such duo -piano masters as Vronsky and Babin and Gold and Fizdale.
Taylor had arrived at a time of transition and growth for SMC. During his tenure there he stabilized the program, began laying the groundwork for accreditation with the National Association of Schools of Music, and started planning and fund raising for a new music building. He presided over a music program that rapidly expanded as the number of music majors tripled and faculty were added.
During this time the Taylor family spent a year at Newbold College in England, where Morris was an exchange teacher in music and art. While there he presented a program in London’s famed Wigmore Hall that elicited praise for its "scale in balancing the declamatory and contemplative aspects of music . . . . " He was also praised for his "strong sense of style and graciousness of touch."
In 1965 Taylor was offered a position as professor of music at Pacific Union College. By this time his four children, who were now practicing for an hour on a string instrument and the piano each day, and then practicing together as a string quartet for a third hour, were all achieving at remarkable levels.
During the next six years, the precocious playing of the children and the excellence of their work as a string quartet stunned audiences and music critics alike. The Palo Alto Times observed, following a performance of the Taylor String Quartet for the annual conference of the Music Teachers' Association of California in 1971, "When 300 music teachers rise to give a performing group a standing ovation, the players can be sure they have received quite a tribute."
In his continuing quest for increased insight as a performer, following completion of his D.M.A, Taylor had studied with two of the outstanding piano performers and pedagogues of the 20th century, Dame Myra Hess and Madame Rosinna Lhevinne. He and his wife thoroughly enjoyed the professional and personal interaction this experience provided. In 1970, following study with Lhevinne who had been impressed with them, she autographed a picture with "To Morris and Elaine, who are very talented, extremely intelligent and the kindest people I ever met. With very best wishes, Rosinna Lhevinne"
The Taylor family moved to Andrews University in 1971. Both Morris and Elaine were offered positions, which made the invitation especially attractive since the children were now older, and she could return to full-time teaching. Also, AU was willing to allow release time for professional concert tours.
Taylor embarked on a prodigious performance schedule, giving hundreds of recitals, workshops, and master classes during numerous tours. These tours increasingly included the Taylor Quartet, which at one point was on full scholarship for three years with the Juilliard String Quartet. During this time Morris and the children took a quarter off and toured under professional management, playing 35 concerts in seven weeks.
Throughout his career, Taylor was active in a number of professional organizations, serving as chair of the collegiate division of MTA in California and president of numerous local chapters, as a member of numerous boards, and as chair of the keyboard division of the International Adventist Musicians Association when it was founded. He authored and presented a number of papers and gave numerous lecture/demonstrations on a variety of music and art topics. For three years he produced a short daily program broadcast by the AU FM station called "Art Talk."
In 1978 the family was devastated by the tragic death of Elaine, who had been central to their life as a family. She had been a loving and supportive spouse and mother whose life revolved around them. Elaine had returned from a tour to California with her children earlier that month and just a few days before the car accident that claimed her life, had given a moving performance with three of the children at a national convention in Chicago. Stunned by their loss, the family subsequently gave a number of concerts which funded an endowed scholarship in her name.
Following her death, Taylor married Rilla Ashton, a nurse educator and chair of the nursing department at AU. She would on occasion provide readings at music programs given by Morris and the children.
Taylor continued teaching at AU until his retirement in 1995. At that time, in an interview with Madeline Steele Johnston, who wrote an article on his career and life for the Fall 1995 issue of Focus, AU's alumni magazine, he observed the following about his teaching:
I wanted to give more than subject matter. I wanted to develop young people, to open the mind. . . I wanted each student to be a better person for having studied piano. Who else besides parents do they see regularly once a week in a one-to-one relationship?
In every class, every student must grow. I am strict, but every student who tries will pass. Never in my career have I given an F or a D to one who was present and tried. The challenge is to keep the standard and to say, "I'll help you clear it."
Following retirement, Taylor moved to San Francisco, California, where he pursued his interests as an artist in the visual arts. He was living there at the time of his death at age 85 on August 9, 2016.
Sources: Spring/Summer 1995 IAMA Notes, Personal Notes, 26; Madeline Steele Johnston, “Variations on a Theme: Retirement from the Music Department,” Fall 1995 AU alumni magazine Focus, 4-6; Biographical Information provided by Morris Taylor, 1990; Dan Shultz, A Great Tradition, Music at Walla Walla College, 1892-1992, 108, 109; personal knowledge.