Chris Byars: Studying Unsung Heroes
[Introduction by Teddy Charles]
It's not easy to be Chris Byars. With an incredible array of talents brought to bear on his composition, arrangements, and cooking jazz performances, it's no wonder he's worked his way to the forefront of the myriad of jazz players overwhelming the scene.
For me, our felicitous association led to multiple gigs and recordings. Dances with Bulls (Smalls Records, 2009) updates some of my old concepts, resulting in some daring explorations; a great recording.
Inspired by Chris' urging and vital contributions, the Teddy Charles Tentet was reborn. With the addition of Chris' new writing, and his seeking out other composers to contribute, the Tentet lives on, for which I'm most grateful.
All About Jazz: You are a native New Yorker (born November 2, 1970) with an impressive musical pedigree. Please talk about your family background.
Chris Byars: My parents moved here from the Panhandle of Texas to study at the Juilliard School in the early 1960s. My mother is a clarinetist and my father is an oboist. Both of them are excellent classical musicians and have held top-level orchestral positions throughout their careers. As parents, they were very keen on having their children take advantage of a flourishing cultural scene that was not accessible to them in Texas. As a child, my brother (six years older) joined the ranks of the New York City Opera, Metropolitan Opera, and New York City Ballet, and I followed as soon as I was old enough. He had his best success as a dancer, eventually pursuing a professional career into his thirties; I gravitated towards the opera, and began performing regularly for New York companies at age seven.
The 1970s and 1980s were a very hectic time for our family; there was always a lesson, class, rehearsal, or performance for somebody on a given day. Periodically, two of us would play the same show, and there was even one performance at New York City Ballet that featured all four members of the Byars family in different roles. I like to reflect on how this setting differs from many "musical family" situations. We were not the Von Trapp family from The Sound of Music, nor the Lester Young family band from Kansas City. Our artistic pursuits were not wrapped in family dynamicswe were each individually plunged into the professional freelance world of New York City.
Children from musical families often have a challenging time coming to terms with their own love for music. Did their parents force them into it, or did they choose to do it? Is it all genetic, and they just can't help themselves? I have often meditated on those questions. But with the turbulent, demanding New York artistic scene as a background, I was less preoccupied with family politics and more concerned with my encounters with Beverley Sills, Placido [Domingo], James Levine, and George Balanchine.
My parents helped me transition into my second career as a saxophonist. The summer of my twelfth year, the end of my opera days loomed (the truth that any boy soprano must admit). My father lent me a Buescher alto saxophone and showed me the fingerings and embouchure. I became obsessed with it and spent most of the summer in the basement, working through a stack of sheet music. My favorite tunes were "Take the A Train," "Cantina Band" from Star Wars (1977), and "Arthur's Theme" (a rather sappy tune with a note-y saxophone solo that I transcribedan early example of helping myself to music I like, which continues to this day). My father gave me my first two Jazz records, both by Charlie Parker: Bird & Diz (Polygram, 1950_ and Bird with Strings (Columbia, 1950). He told me, "If you want to sound good on alto, try to play like this guy." He would also play along with me on piano or drums, having fun without expectations.
My mother was more pragmatic, showing me the Local 802 Musician's Union Directory. There were a tenth as many oboists, French horn players, and conductors as there were saxophonists. She provided the motivation to develop other skills, such as arranging, composing, and teaching. I have good skills with Finale (a music preparation program), so I often find myself making ends meet by copying an orchestral score by Don Sebesky. My mother saw that one coming.
In addition to performing, my family is a group of accomplished educators. They have each distinguished themselves in tenure and rank. My mother has traveled through the eastern United States, ascending the levels of educational administration. Most recently, she created a graduate school of music at a major state university. My father has maintained a position in a South Bronx middle school for over 30 years, first as a band teacher, and eventually evolving into an after school program director. In the latter half of his 14 years of dancing, my brother was one of ballet's most beloved teachers before choosing a second career in law, where he currently excels.
I also teach jazz. My family takes education very seriously. They are a tremendous resource for my own approach. There is nothing like the invigorating elation that comes from a successful teaching experience and my family has shown me how accessible this joy can be. Of course, they're not jazz educatorsthat's where I get to add my individual slant on things. Looking back on it, I was quite fortunate to be given such a head start in the music field. I was not exposed, but immersed; the activities were not scaled down for my age, but full on professional. It was a unique gift I was given. I don't think my parents were trying to create a musician. They were taking advantage of something rare, real, and available: the vibrant arts scene of New York City. They tossed me into the pool and I swam.