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My Conversation with Don Byron

By Published: November 5, 2004
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.

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