My Conversation with Don Byron
“ I think the average person has a very complicated system of hiding behind what they mean and what they're willing to say in public. ”
Boy, this interview sure was fun. I find most writers tend to take themselves too seriously too often and Don Byron can sense that and jumps all over it. I have no problem admitting that Byron worked me over pretty damn good. Midway through our half hour conversation, I could feel the air being sucked out of the room. But I re-buckled my belt and double knotted my laces and went back in and got one heck of classic conversation in return. Here it is in it's entirety, the best clarinetist of our time bringing it to the hole, with me like a deer caught in headlights, for your viewing pleasure, unedited and in his own words.
All About Jazz: Let's start from the beginning.
Don Byron: : I got started in music just taking music lessons. I studied the recorder, music theory, and then the clarinet later. I played the clarinet all through, or most of the way through elementary school and through junior high school. I started actively participating in Latin music. After just doing little writing things for neighborhood bands, I actually started playing in a band, having to handle improvisation, at that point, that I started trying to improvise. Jazz was probably the third music that I tried to play or maybe even the fourth. My attempts to improvise were all based upon jazz music that I had heard as a kid.
AAJ: What were some of the things that you recall listening to?
DB: : My father had stuff that somebody who is pretty well educated would have. He had a lot of Oscar Peterson, Cannonball Adderley. He liked Arnett Cobb. He had a lot of records with Sam Jones on it.
AAJ: Why the clarinet, saxophonists get all the ladies.
DB: : I started playing the clarinet because my uncle, who studied the clarinet when he was younger, left a clarinet around with my grandparents that I ended up playing. I had to play a wind instrument when I was a kid because I had some asthma stuff that playing the instrument would be therapeutic for and I've continued to play it. For me, it's been a path of learning how to play it. In terms of playing the saxophone, I don't consider them the same instrument or even similar in lots of ways.
AAJ: Let's touch on your collaborations with Bill Frisell.
DB: : Bill and I, we have a lot of cultural similarities, from our attachment to the clarinet to different things that we like and respect. We read some of the same children's books as we were growing up. It's just been great for me to actually try to give to him what he gives to other people, which usually people depend on him getting in the middle of their projects and changing it or changing the intent or making them more interesting or trying to get him to use his empathy on them. I think what I tried to do when I was around him was try to do that for him. Try to change the spin on his and try to learn how to comp or anticipate him. Just be kind of open to him in a way that he usually is open to other people.
AAJ: Let's talk about your last Blue Note album, Nu Blaxploitation. Good title.
DB: : In general, I didn't necessarily think that I was making a jazz album. I just made a kind of alternative album that used spoken word and if those people aren't interested or educated about where that discipline is and where it was and where we took it and how, what we did related just to that, then, you know, basically, they're just mad that I didn't make a jazz album. I think a lot of what went on press-wise about that album was about people's resistance to what we were talking about, which is basically racism in a contemporary kind of way. When people don't want to talk about something, especially when the way that we were talking about it was about things that lots of white people could do. When people don't want to talk, they can always find some other excuse as to why they shouldn't pay any attention to something, but I think that whether a lot of those people want to admit it or not, it is still resistance to the subject matter.
AAJ: What subject matter are you referring to?
DB: : Well, I think that what we talked about a lot was both intellectual and occupational racism in the kind of way that people look the other way from police harassment of colored communities, all kinds of things. The kinds of things that lots of people don't even want to know. I guess they know that it happens, but when you ask them about it, they make like it doesn't really exist. We had a piece about the Abner Louima incident ("Blinky"). We made it within a few months of the Abner Louima incident. We talk about it.
AAJ: And the aftermath?
DB: : I think that right now we have a fascist mayor in New York City. I think that some people, people have re-elected him and ultimately the fact that he's been re-elected kind of speaks to this double standard that on the one hand, the man is always violating the civil rights of people, whether it's extra focus on Black people and on Latinos and just people that aren't white and yet, with everybody knowing that, they feel safer with these things being done on their behalf without them having to admit that it's on their behalf. But if you are of color and you have to drive in New York City or walk in New York City or just not be a perfect angel and stay in your house in New York City, for you, that's like a frontline thing. Every Black man I know has been harassed by the police in his car. Every Black man I know has some story about the police harassing him.