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.
AAJ: Is that New York's hidden secret?
DB: : I think the hidden secret is that everybody knows that they don't want to be Black because it's a hassle, but when Black people start talking about it, everybody pretends that racism is over.
AAJ: Chris Rock touched on that when he said that no white man in America would trade places with him and he's rich.
DB: : I saw the special. I thought that was so great. Chris Rock can still be dragged out of his expensive car and beaten in a way that the white man would. It's just kind of like a double thing. That's what one of the stories that we were talking about, which was actually drawn from this sociologist, who every year speaks to his class and he says, "How much would it be worth to you if you were all of the sudden Black today?" People that he had been trying to convince that there was racism at all, all of the sudden had a price. Like they'd say, well, if I had to be Black from now on, it would worth two million dollars a year or four million dollars a year, the kind of money that athletics make. That's what that story was about.
AAJ: Did that status quo rear itself in their resistance to the Million Youth March?
DB: : Well, sure. I think that he just kind of has it like that. He's just a little bit, kind of, crazy and power hungry. There was a thing where this magazine (Talk) wanted to have a magazine launching party in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, but when he found out that Hillary Clinton was on the cover, he told them not to give them a permit. It's more like, he's someone that really seems to abuse power in an odd kind of way. A way that's really obvious and almost like a older style, almost like a Huey Long or Jimmy Walker, like these old kind of power monger mayors and governors of these states that just had absolute power and felt nothing to use it in a very personal way.
AAJ: Is it going to get better anytime soon?
DB: : No. To really eliminate biases in people is a really complicated intellectual process, which involves people taking responsibility for what they think. 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. Otherwise, we couldn't have a Giuliani being re-elected. That just is a reinforcement of kind of a duel system of thought and deed.
AAJ: You featured Biz Markie on Nu Blaxploitation.
DB: : For me, he's one of my heroes in hip-hop, if not the hero for me. He was really easy and nice to work with. He's a sweet guy. He's one of the few cats in hip-hop that is actually kind of self-effacingly funny. He's really a classic comedian and I think a lot of people in hip-hop are not vulnerable people. They want to tell you that they've got everything figured out and their lives are perfect. They always get the women they want. They always get the money they need. He's the person in hip-hop who actually shows some vulnerability.
AAJ: And your new album, Romance for the Unseen.
DB: : It has Bill Frisell, Drew Gress, and Jack DeJohnette on it. I guess we finished it in January or February or something like that. That's when it was finished. I don't know, when is an album finished?
AAJ: There's a tune on the album called "Basquiat."
DB: : I think he lived a tragic life, where he was almost seen in some ways, he was a person that made a certain kind of intellectual access for himself, the things that people in the art world didn't necessarily think that he should by visual right, have access to. He was terribly exploited in a way that only someone of color would be exploited. He means something to me obviously because of all that. Black artists are being painted into a corner, where we are provincial people that have provincial tastes. He's kind of the opposite of that, a person who has a very broad world. Of course, he was a drug addict and he was kind of crazy, but I think that doesn't diminish the kind of cultural world that he is suggesting.
AAJ: Do you think he was stigmatized for being Black or for being a drug addict?
DB: : I don't think that his drug use was a stigma on his reputation. If they did that to a lot of people in the art world, there would be nobody left. I think that a lot of what he did would not be seen in quite the same light if he wasn't of color. I think if I'm milling around doing the range of music that I do, the range of things that I do, I don't really think of myself as a crazy person. To be eclectic and Black-Latino, doesn't make a Black and Latino person a crazy person, but I think a lot of Black and Latino artists that have that eclecticism are kind of portrayed in that light. They're unusual. They're crazy. They're weird. Most people don't listen to one kind of music or read one kind of book or watch one kind of TV show.
AAJ: So what do you make of Wynton Marsalis, he has managed to be successful in both communities.
DB: : I think that the amount of power that he's garnered and attention is really irritating to the non-Black jazz community. Although I don't really like him for a whole bunch of other reasons, but a lot of the hostility against him by people that aren't Black comes from there. With Wynton, people end up kind of having a beef with him, but they're talking about totally different things. For example, I get talked to by people who want me to diss him. Sometimes they spend more time in an interview trying to goad me to diss Wynton then they do talking about what we're supposed to be talking about. It really comes down to whether they should like him on a basic level. When people start saying that he can't play the trumpet or he can't play jazz, that's always a tip off that it's about something other than music that they don't like about him.
AAJ: He is a heck of a player. You have got to give him that.
DB: : You got to give him that.
AAJ: You must be enjoying the creative freedom that you have on Blue Note.
DB: : Well, yeah, but I think once I left Nonesuch, I wasn't going to be heading towards a situation that was restrictive in any kind of stylistic way. I made a lot of real interesting records on Nonesuch, but I didn't get to make a lot of records that I wanted to make.
AAJ: Do you consider yourself a jazz musician?
DB: : I consider myself a jazz musician when I'm playing jazz.
AAJ: I'm curious as to why the media so closely associates you with klezmer music.
DB: : I haven't played much klezmer music for years now. It's just that people keep writing about it, but the band, the Mickey Katz Band, got maybe two gigs in four years. It's been a while.
AAJ: Whom do you admire amongst your peers?
DB: : I think around my age, I think Graham Haynes is. Graham Haynes is probably the most interesting. I think Graham Haynes and Ed Simon. That's who I would say are the two most interesting.
AAJ: Ed is working with Terence Blanchard right now.
DB: : Yeah. I think he's the most interesting young musician under fifty.
AAJ: How about influences?
DB: : I would say there's a lot of Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, Gary Bartz, and then people in different music, certainly a couple of Latin musicians. There's several Latin musicians who I feel were really important to me. I think those people are just as important to me as jazz musicians. Certainly Stravinsky and Eddie Palmieri.
AAJ: And the future?
DB: : I'm doing a quartet project with Steve Lacy and Billy Hart.
AAJ: Will we see a record?
DB: : It's not a record, or it isn't a record, yet. We're just putting together a gig or two. I'm doing the duo thing with Uri (Caine). I'm doing a Stravinsky record. And I'll probably do another six musicians record of some kind. I'm finishing a chamber music piece. I'm doing some gigs with the Chicago Symphony in a couple different cities, one or two in Europe. I'm doing a film score for a documentary about feet.
AAJ: About feet?
DB: : About feet. I don't think it has a title yet.
AAJ: Are feet interesting enough to make a whole film?
DB: : It's really interesting. It's like New York filmed at a feet-side view. There a section with a foot and leg fetish magazine called Leg Show.
AAJ: You were in a film, Robert Altman's "Kansas City," how did you like the band and subsequent tour?
DB: : I thought the Kansas City Band really kind of came together as a band on that tour. That was kind of an interesting process though. I wouldn't say when we made the movie it was a band. It was just interesting playing with some of those musicians every night, people that wouldn't necessarily be sharing a stage.
AAJ: What did you think of the movie?
DB: : I liked the movie, actually, better then critics seemed to like the movie. I just thought the weakest thing about it was that Jennifer Jason Leigh made a choice to do her speaking parts with buckteeth. That was about the weakest part of it, but I thought it was actually a pretty interesting movie.
Visit Don Byron on the web at www.donbyron.com .