Jaki Byard: Foreward to a Biography

Dec 9, 2018

For Worcester-born acolytes like me and Chet Williamson, the devoted author of Falling Rains of Lifea new on-line biography of Jaki Byard, it was inevitable that as teenaged converts to jazz in the late 1960s, John A. Byard, Jr. would become an intriguing figure for us, and in time even heroic. Unlike Boston, in whose shadow it has stood for 300 years, Worcester’s basic reputation was as a conservative, industrial powerhouse, a city of non-union skilled machinists, the nation’s biggest that was not on a major waterway. There were several excellent colleges within its borders, and the poets Elizabeth Bishop, Stanley Kunitz, and Frank O’Hara were natives, but the substance of the hometown legend was blue collar. Worcester was a place where one was continually challenged to navigate close-minded thickets that reinforced what Kunitz called the city’s “parochial climate.” But here and there were trailblazers to the wider world, and Jaki Byard was undoubtedly our man in jazz.  (Here's Jaki in Pittsburgh in 1965 with bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Alan Dawson.)

Worcester was also the birthplace of jazz musicians Wendell Cully, Barbara Carroll, Frank Capp, Tom Price, and Don Fagerquist, but Jaki was the only one who had gained renown as an innovator and was still garnering write-ups. By the time I became aware of him, he’d released several acclaimed albums on Prestige Records and had spent six years working with Charles Mingus, and he’d recorded milestone sessions with his Mingus associates Eric Dolphy, Joe Farrell, Rahsann Roland Kirk, and Booker Ervin. As pianist Fred Hersch, who studied with Byard at New England Conservatory of Music, put it in his memoir Good Things Happen Slowly: A Life In and Out of Jazz, Jaki was doubly impressive as both a teacher and as “someone who had been a part of major moments in jazz.” (Hersch is the guest soloist here with the New England Conservatory Jazz Ensemble playing Byard's "Aluminim Baby.")

While the aforementioned Worcesterites had gone on to establish careers for themselves in either New York or Los Angeles, they were only rarely mentioned in local circles. But Jaki’s name was still prominent around town, not only due to his long affiliation with the Boston scene and his stature at NEC, but because he’d grown up in and maintained ties with his family and the city’s African American community. Local legends Barney Price and Howie Jefferson had encouraged the young Jaki back in the ‘30s, and together they were among the founders of the Saxtrum Club, a progressive musician-run collective and storefront rehearsal space located in the city’s predominantly black Laurel-Clayton neighborhood. In 1970, Price and Jefferson were still at the core of what was left of a local jazz scene, one that was just then finding a new base of operations at the Kitty Kat Lounge. The Kitty Kat was one of Worcester’s most visible black-owned establishments, and it served as a cultural and political center of black power in addition to being an outpost for live r&b and jazz jams. I don’t recall ever seeing Jaki at the second floor club on Worcester’s Main Street, but the frequency with which his name was mentioned by players on the bandstand made him something of a patron saint of the place and even more compelling as a musician whom I needed to check out.  

What I quickly discovered by listening to Jaki was a validation for my own instincts about jazz. My first hero in the music was Duke Ellington, and Mingus was a close second. I saw both of these larger-than-life figures in person several times, and found myself attracted to the broad stylistic range—the varied moods, structures, and qualities of expressiveness--  that their music encompassed. But this was the early ‘70s, a time when jazz, like society, was in a tumultuous state of flux, buffeted by the insurgency of free jazz and the gaudy excess of jazz-rock fusion. In an age given to iconoclasm, tradition seemed to mean little to either free or fusion, but my own alienation from church and state made me hunger not so much for smashing idols but for an engagement with something deeper from the world around me. The key I discovered was African American music, which drew me in to both its sacred and secular realms. I felt an immediate sense of tradition in Duke and Mingus, as well as the newly revived vogue for ragtime (one of whose major advocates, NEC president Gunther Schuller, hired Jaki for the conservatory’s Afro-American music program), and in the blues. Perhaps it was his own sense of personal liberation from Worcester’s “parochial climate" that inspired Jaki to become one of the most worldly of jazz musicians. Like a kid in the proverbial candy store, he embraced and utilized everything, including classical music, but the extraordinary ability he had to internalize it all and make it his own spoke not of self-indulgence but of the “ruminations of a genius,” as Bad Plus co-founder Ethan Iverson wrote of Byard in 2014. Or as Jaki told Len Lyons in the 1983 book, The Great Jazz Pianists, “I go from Bach, to outside, back to inside, and all over the place. I analyzed Chopin, Beethoven, Ravel, Stravinsky, and piano rolls,” and “studied records and music at the [Worcester Public] library.” I wasn't surprised when reports of Duke Ellington's failing health in 1973 included the news that Jaki was spelling him at the piano on tours with the Ellington orchestra. (Here's a solo performance by Jaki in 1960 of three movements from "European Episode.")

One of the most impressive and cosmopolitan of Byard's compositions is "European Episode," which he recorded excerpts from on his 1960 debut, Blues for Smoke, then with saxophonist Booker Ervin and trumpeter Richard Williams in 1964 on Out Front!  The work was composed as a dance suite in six parts inspired by a European sojourn that wound its way from Brussels to Paris to Milan. Jaki's boyhood friend Don Asher, who hailed Byard as Worcester’s “sole bright flame” and wrote of the transforming influence the pianist had on his young life in his superb memoir, Notes From a Battered Grand, describes "European Episode" as "kaleidoscopic...a hurly burly of urban streets in a lively excursion of shifting tempos, rhythms, and evocations." 

My first Jaki Byard album was his 1967 release, On The Spot! It included seven originals, a standard  by Jule Styne, a bebop classic by Billy Eckstine, and Irving Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” The latter struck me at first as an odd choice for an album of modern jazz, but Jaki’s use of bluesy harmonies and a tambourine-driven beat gave it a joyous gospel flavor. Byard’s take on Berlin underscored a point that the album’s annotator, Mark Gardner, made about his primary motive. “This was music that appealed to the head and heart and spelled out a universal message: L-O-V-E.  A communication which pours out of Byard every time he picks up a saxophone or sits down at the piano…Jaki loves his music, loves to play, and loves his fellow man.”   

                             

“More than any other pianist,” Len Lyons wrote, “Byard alludes explicitly to the jazz piano tradition in his playing,” coupled with the caveat that his embrace of the tradition cost him “a clear stylistic identity for himself.” But Jaki’s style impressed me as less a matter of fealty or flirtation with “tradition,” than a true reflection of where he happened to be musically and spiritually in the moment. The celebrated composer and theorist George Russell, who was Byard’s colleague at NEC, got it. “[Jaki] isn’t a household name, but most likely his low profile is the result of an irresistible need to constantly reinvent himself, the sure sign of the consummate artist. His history, from Boston’s Storyville [early ‘50s] to the countdown year of the millennium, leaves us with a rich history of his music, his life and times [emphasis added], allowing us to experience the intense struggle of a dedicated artist to keep his essence alive while still making us laugh with him along life’s corridor.”

There’s no doubt that Jaki’s unpredictability cost him listeners and critical notice during the formative years of his career. He was 40 by the time he began making records, and even at the height of his powers in the 1960s and ‘70s, his conception was occasionally dismissed as tongue-in-cheek and insincere. In Whitney Balliett’s voluminous writings on jazz, there are only two references to Byard, that he played “watery [Art] Tatum,” and “flawless 1928 [Earl] Hines piano.” More indicative of Byard’s influence on music today can be gleaned from a compendium of Gary Giddins’s dispatches for the Village Voice. Weather Bird: Jazz at the Dawn of Its Second Century includes an insightful profile of the pianist, and an additional 19 references to his uniquely influential work. Giddins wrote, “Listening to him was like turning on a tap in which all the strains of modern piano, from James P. Johnson to Cecil Taylor, flowed in one luscious rush.” And he credits a neglected 1968 recording of “Memories of You” by Byard and Roland Kirk as “not much noted at the time, [but Byard’s] ebullient take on stride piano…emboldened by…peerless, tumbling arpeggios…exercised an influence that would be evident 30 years later.”

Giddins’s notice evidently made an impression on Byard. In his interview with Len Lyons, he had this to say in answer to a question about the “disadvantage” he suffered for transcending categories. “I have to play the way I feel. Some people have told me I ought to stick to one thing…But now my way is coming into vogue. You’ve got to dig into the piano historically these days…Gary Giddins, I think it was, paid me a compliment. He said I was partly responsible for this trend, for getting people to think like that.”

A partial list of the major players who were influenced by Jaki’s thinking as students includes Jason Moran, Marty Ehrlich, Ricky Ford, Larry Goldings, D.D. Jackson, Myra Melford, Alan Pasqua, Ted Rosenthal, Sue Terry, Joel Weiskopf, and Steve Wilson. Moran, a MacArthur Fellow who succeeded Billy Taylor as artistic director of Jazz at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., attended the Manhattan School of Music specifically to study with Byard. In 2012 he told Jazz Times, “Jaki Byard seemed to represent everything-- all tradition, all modernism, all conceptual ideas-- and also have the facility to apply all of it without it ever feeling odd. He kind of taught me in that way: He taught me tradition and history without wagging his finger in my face.” It’s hard to imagine Moran’s glorious, critically-acclaimed 2014 album All Rise: A Joyful Elegy, a contemporary vision of Fats Waller songs, without the formative experience he’d had with Jaki twenty years earlier. Indeed, All Rise feels as much like an homage to Byard as it is a tribute to Waller. (Here's Moran playing Jaki's "Out Front," a tune he's recorded for Blue Note and performs here with his celebrated Bandwagon colleagues Tarus Mateen and Nasheet Waits.)

Among the most memorable experiences I had seeing Jaki in person occurred a few days before Christmas in 1977. Following a jazz-deprived semester as an exchange student at the University of Oregon, I flew home to Boston and made sure to book my flight on a Wednesday so that I could see Jaki leading his big band, The Apollo Stompers, at Michael’s Pub on Gainsborough Street. The band was stocked with students from New England Conservatory, and even though they were young and unseasoned, under Jaki’s direction they congealed into a dynamic outfit with a fascinating repertoire. Before leaving for the West Coast that summer, Michael’s had been a regular stop for me on Wednesday nights. The place was a shot-and-a-beer dive with leaky ceilings and overhead steam pipes under which spaghetti pots were strategically placed to collect dripping water. Students from nearby NEC and Northeastern wandered in at night and spruced it up a bit, and the Stompers gave it a real lift on Wednesdays. 

As tired as I was upon my arrival at Logan that December night, I was determined to get to Michael's, but no sooner had I arrived and grabbed a chair near one of the sputtering radiators in the rear than I fell asleep. How long I was out I don’t recall, but what awakened me was Jaki himself, who was playing his favorite alto saxophone standby, “When Sunny Gets Blue,” directly in my face. Whether this was the same method he used to get the attention of students dozing in class I wouldn’t know, but it sure snapped me out of my slumber and into a dream come true, a personal wake-up call from Prof Byard.

I related this story when I wrote about Byard for Jazz Times in 2012. In response, Marty Ehrlich dropped me a note that read, “I can see Jaki waking you up with his alto. He surely got a laugh from the audience for it, and I imagine he had smile for you as well. The man was touched by genius. Musicians all knew it. He was not cut out to conquer the world. We are all the beneficiaries of his generosity and brilliance.”

A far more chilling call about Jaki came in February 1999 with the news of his death by gunshot in his home in Queens. The case is still unsolved, but regardless of what may come of an ongoing investigation by NYPD, it will forever stand as a horrific end for a man who’d been so devoted to his family, and to two generations of students he’d taught at NEC, the University of Hartford, the Manhattan School of Music, and Harvard. I saw much less of Jaki after moving to Western Mass in the early ‘80s, but he played a beautiful concert in Northampton in 1995 at which I reflected on his role in making me feel that a life devoted to playing jazz on the radio was of good purpose.

Jaki was, and remains, a perennial in my programming. The reissue on CD of his Prestige albums made them feel evergreen fresh all over again, and his 1991 performance at Maybeck Recital Hall is one of the highlights of that 41-volume series produced by Concord Jazz. He was 69 at the time, and his concert offered a perfect display of virtuoso command, bedrock swing, and restless engagement with tradition, along with Jaki’s trademark humor, and even a whiff of sarcasm. In a 12-second intro to a Thelonious Monk medley, he refrains from naming Franz Liszt but tells the audience, “There was a composer in Paris [who] was commissioned to write a composition for some big shot for the left hand, so I’m going to do this thing just with my left hand only.” He then proceeds into “’Round Midnight.”  Jaki’s “big shot” taunt echoes for me with an absolute Worcester-like gruffness and clarity. 

I’ll close with a word about Chet Williamson, who’s brought his own Worcester roots as a musician and amateur historian to the task of chronicling Byard’s life and legacy. Jaki’s old colleagues Barney Price and Howie Jefferson have also passed on, but Chet knew their friendship and shared the bandstand with them many times. I’ll venture to say it’s his love for them and a devotion to a largely neglected aspect of Worcester’s history that’s driven his passion and perseverance in seeing to it that the most famous and accomplished of their number is duly honored in Falling Rains of a Life: The Jaki Byard Story.