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Interviews

Chris Byars: Studying Unsung Heroes

By Published: September 30, 2009
Chris Byars[Introduction by Teddy Charles
Teddy Charles
Teddy Charles
1928 - 2012
vibraphone
]

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

Lester Young
Lester Young
1909 - 1959
saxophone
family band from Kansas City. Our artistic pursuits were not wrapped in family dynamics—we 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 transcribed—an 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

Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
1920 - 1955
sax, alto
: 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.

Chris Byars / Teddy CharlesMy 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

Don Sebesky
b.1937
arranger
. 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 educators—that'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.

AAJ: How many performances did you do when you were a child opera artist?

CB: I'm not sure exactly how many performances I sang in my childhood. It's somewhere between 500 and 1,000. When I was five, I was an understudy for the boys part in Madame Butterfly, a non-singing role titled Trouble. I was glad I was never called upon to perform it. I was too young to have really paid attention in rehearsals, and would have wandered onstage at the wrong time.



As a youngster, I was obsessed with Arrigo Boito's Mefistofele, a telling of the story of Faust. I learned the Italian choral parts, a furious offstage outburst from a chorus of angels, who are commenting on an onstage battle between the lead characters. I found the whole thing fascinating! Samuel Ramey played the title role, a towering, frightful person to encounter on the elevator, dressed as the devil. But Carmen came up first in the schedule that year, so that was my first performance. It was spring 1977; I was six years old.

Chris Byars Quartet Chris Byars Quartet (l:r): Ari Roland, Chris Byars, Stefan Schatz, John Mosca



For the next two years, I continued performing chorus roles in Carmen, La Boheme, Tosca, Hansel and Gretel, and other operas that required lots of kids. Some were sung, others only acted. In February 1980, I played Marie's Child in Alban Berg's Wozzeck At The Met, a production that featured opera stars Anja Silja and Jose Van Dam. Berg's 12-tone orchestra was an interesting background to my life as a nine year old. With this experience, and four years of dance training at the School of American Ballet, I was the logical choice to play the title role of The Spellbound Child, a Ravel operetta turned into a public television special by George Balanchine for a series that was called Dance In America. After months of rehearsals, I was flown into Nashville for two weeks, working alongside New York City Ballet dancers and Sesame Street Workshop puppeteers. Years later, tenor saxophonist Grant Stewart met me shortly after watching the video, and exclaimed "You're Chris Byars?! You're the Spellbound Child!"



As I entered the second half of my singing career, I began to audition for solo roles, landing notable parts in The Magic Flute (Mozart), Tosca (Puccini), and my favorite part, The Frog in Cunning Little Vixen (Janacek) in 1983, with new costumes designed by the author/illustrator Maurice Sendak. I created the City Opera version of this role and enjoyed putting my original stamp on the process. Sadly, the costumes were destroyed in a warehouse fire in 1985. I still have dreams of the 30-minute makeup sessions that would precede the performances. Large dark blue circles were painted around my eyes, requiring me to hold still and look a certain direction without moving. I can still feel the cold, wet paintbrush on my face. There was a large amount of domestic touring that I did with both New York companies, visiting Los Angeles, Detroit, Washington, Cleveland, Toronto (Okay, that's in Canada), Minneapolis, and Chicago. I was called upon to be mature, but my sense of being a kid endured. I enjoyed playing lots of video games, Dungeons & Dragons, and various pranks.



The end of my run came in Toronto. As you can imagine, the warning signs of a boy soprano career's doom are seen on his chin and upper lip. I had one more stop on The Met's version of Tosca, which starred Placido Domingo and Renata Scotto. Shortly before I began the Shepherd Boy's offstage solo to the Third Act, I felt strange. Not helped by the sudden musical tension that occurs frequently in Puccini, I became nervous in a new way—nauseous, dizzy. When I started to sing, it was noticeably bad: off pitch by drastically large intervals, dropping out, cracking. Clearly, this was the end. I was completely frustrated by my newfound musical incompetence, but I'll never forget Mildred Hohner's response (as a veteran children's chorus-mistress, she had seen this before). Seeing me crestfallen, she remarked obliquely on the performance of the orchestra: "You know, they play those shepherd's bells so loudly, I can hardly hear the vocal." I was excused for the second show and all remaining shows on my schedule. That was the end of my opera days.



I directed my focus to my new obsessions: the alto saxophone, two Charlie Parker records, and a stack of sheet music. I couldn't let the music end backstage in Toronto.

AAJ: You then went on to garner both more formal education and learning from the streets...

Chris ByarsCB: Both have pitfalls. You need formal education to help you become aware of what you can do, but you also need to live it and find out "why." I earned a Bachelor's and Master's of Music from the Manhattan School of Music. As a young, yet veteran musician, I was burdened by a cynical and uncooperative student's approach, but the information I learned there helps me to this day. I owe a great deal to the teachings of Dave Berger (arranging), David Noon (history), Ed Greene (aesthetics), Ludmilla Ulehla (composition), and Lewis Porter (Jazz styles and analysis).



For jazz, it seems perilous to remove the music from its naturally occurring environment. Perhaps it's in the lighting: when you substitute the soft, candlelit atmosphere of a jazz club for the fluorescent glare of the classroom, something happens to the space. Or perhaps it's because there is no recognized authority; even the bandleader must bow to the whim of the club owner, the freelance world, and the music itself. But when a teacher or administrator walks into the classroom, everyone starts thinking about their grade or salary, and thus descends the level of music in the institutional setting.



I'm glad to have pursued formal education, but feel relieved that it's over. Of course, I often find myself in the teaching role these days. Very much aware of my experiences as a student, I try my best not to recreate the unpleasant scenes by teaching too strictly. My most inspiring model as a teacher was the late, great author Frank McCourt, with whom I studied in high school. He would re-invent his curriculum every day, based on what he saw happening in front of him; his main mission was "to move his students away from fear."



In terms of learning music from the streets, the "real world," it's all the rage. I highly recommend it. Except that two demons keep popping up unchecked, and often are mistakenly rewarded: Commercialism and Narcissism. If a musician or composer is thinking about dollars instead of notes, the music gets compromised. Today, we are inheriting a lowest common denominator problem that is spiraling out of control. Popularity is confused with artistry. People can't tell what good music is anymore—they have to be told. The ears of the public are out of shape. They listen with their eyes instead, at least when you are dealing with most pop music.



And the narcissists, well, anyone that believes they came up with this music on their own needs to rethink their obligation to many individuals that spent their lives creating the music we know today. Even Charlie Parker was a small piece of the puzzle. He innovated on a collective dialogue that has been passed along for thousands of years, since the first song was sung, before history, before science.

AAJ: I was looking for an answer a little less abstract. For instance, you hung out a lot in the NYC club, Smalls, and also benefited from direct study with some of the last of the bebop generation.

Chris Byars Quartet Chris Byars Quartet (l:r): Ari Roland, John Mosca, Chris Byars, Stefan Schatz



CB: At Smalls, two important things happened. I was allowed great liberties of space and time for musical development (around 700 gigs), and I was able to interface with two great musicians from an earlier generation. Together with bassist Ari Roland, I led the band known as Across 7 Street. This band cycled through several incarnations over nine years, holding down a steady Sunday night spot. The majority of that time was spent with the late, great Jimmy Lovelace as our drummer. Jimmy played with Wes Montgomery

Wes Montgomery
Wes Montgomery
1925 - 1968
guitar
and George Benson
George Benson
George Benson
b.1943
guitar
in the 1960s. Jimmy Lovelace was a rather idiosyncratic fellow, who blended into the local New York scene, turning down international tours and big exposure limelight for the comforts of his adopted hometown. He was originally from Kansas City.



Jimmy played from a Max Roach

Max Roach
Max Roach
1925 - 2007
drums
and Kenny Clarke
Kenny Clarke
Kenny Clarke
1914 - 1985
drums
vocabulary. His accompaniment was remarkably intuitive. He would emphasize the accents that a soloist would create as they would happen. Many drummers engage in cat and mouse playback, but he would be playing side-by-side, or even one step ahead of the soloist. His powers of listening were incredible! He could learn arrangements after one play through, and would never forget them. When it would come time for his solo, he would hold a clinic on bebop phrasing and sequential organization. Jimmy Lovelace's solos were classic storytelling and were always showstoppers. I have never heard a drummer equal the total capability that he possessed. Off the bandstand, he was gentle, soft-spoken, and humble. Tragically, we lost him to pancreatic cancer in 2004.



My other opportunity to learn from a master came when I replaced Charles Davis in Frank Hewitt

Frank Hewitt
Frank Hewitt
1935 - 2002
piano
's Quintet in 1998. I played four years of steady Saturday nights with Frank Hewitt, who frequently employed Ari Roland and Jimmy Lovelace. Frank would never call a tune. Instead, he'd ramble through a rubato introduction that would not refer directly to the oncoming selection. After a brief pause, he would pounce onto the melody and the band would catch him as quickly as we could figure out what he was playing.



I can say that I have never heard any musicians on any instrument play as fast as he did. The notes would stream out, with a huge sound and an unpredictability that is the trademark of a great improviser. He could literally blow everybody else away. Frank was of the same generation as Jimmy Lovelace, in his early 60s. He grew up following Charlie Parker and Bud Powell

Bud Powell
Bud Powell
1924 - 1966
piano
around when he was a teenager. Eventually, he played piano as an outlet for his own creativity, but like Jimmy Lovelace, he kept to the shadows and out of the spotlight.



Frank, unlike Jimmy, was not known for his humility. He was outspoken, bombastic, fairly confrontational, and comedically gifted. After coming to the realization that I shouldn't drink alcohol anymore, I was happy to find out that Frank had also sobered up. The last two years of our late-night tenure featured hilarious train rides uptown. The #1 train would often take 20 minutes to arrive. I would listen to Frank and laugh. He was great company, and we had a friendship that spanned generational and ethnic lines. The jazz community was shocked to hear of his fast decline and passing in 2002.



I encountered other musicians at Smalls, but these were the two that had the greatest influence. Frank Hewitt and Jimmy Lovelace aren't big headline names. For some people, this lack of popularity may interfere with their grasp of the depth of Frank and Jimmy's contributions to the art form. They were well known and respected in the inquiring jazz world, and they never stopped and never gave up on the music. This was even during the lean years of the '70s and '80s. I'm sorry to have lost them both—when we were playing, it seemed like a great thing that would go on forever. I knew it couldn't, but I didn't see the end coming as quickly as it did. Both of them were in their final years and showed no signs of slowing down, either physically or musically.

AAJ: You have educational tributes to some of the lesser-known bop figures, including Lucky Thompson

Lucky Thompson
Lucky Thompson
1924 - 2005
saxophone
, Gigi Gryce
Gigi Gryce
Gigi Gryce
1927 - 1983
saxophone
, Jimmy Cleveland
Jimmy Cleveland
Jimmy Cleveland
1926 - 2008
trombone
, and Teddy Charles
Teddy Charles
Teddy Charles
1928 - 2012
vibraphone
.

CB: I believe that the sound of jazz was formed by many influential voices. Some are given more exposure than others, but they are not entirely unique. The musical messages from the usual suspects also contain trace elements of the players of the day—players we might know little about, or perhaps nothing at all. For example, the style of Chu Berry

Chu Berry
Chu Berry
1910 - 1941
sax, tenor
had a great impact on Coleman Hawkins
Coleman Hawkins
Coleman Hawkins
1904 - 1969
sax, tenor
and Lester Young
Lester Young
Lester Young
1909 - 1959
saxophone
. John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
saxophone
owes a lot of his melodic inclinations to Tina Brooks
Tina Brooks
Tina Brooks
1932 - 1974
sax, tenor
, or perhaps those who influenced both Tina Brooks and John Coltrane.



To date, I have made a thorough study of the four individuals who you just mentioned. Each of them could be characterized as unsung heroes would it not be for the fact that they sang plenty in their time. I like to define them as musicians that helped shape jazz as we know it. In March of 2006, I presented a mass unveiling of full original repertoire of Lucky Thompson

Lucky Thompson
Lucky Thompson
1924 - 2005
saxophone
. I performed four nights at Smalls, putting forth 70 of Lucky Thompson's originals, including recently discovered octet arrangements from a 1963 radio broadcast.



Pianist John Hicks

John Hicks
John Hicks
1941 - 2006
piano
who was a member of Lucky Thompson's 1961 quartet was there to join us for the first night. The trio sound that Lucky Thompson created with [bassist] Oscar Pettiford
Oscar Pettiford
Oscar Pettiford
1922 - 1960
bass
and guitarist Skeeter Best
Skeeter Best
b.1914
was showcased on the second night. The third night featured the two horn arrangements that Lucky played with trombonist Jimmy Cleveland. On the fourth night, we played his neglected octet music. On lead alto was Jerry Dodgion
Jerry Dodgion
Jerry Dodgion
b.1932
, a colleague of Lucky Thompson's. We played my transcriptions of his charts from his Paris years and a boot-legged live radio broadcast from Germany. I played tenor saxophone on all four nights and had far more fun than anyone else. Since then, every note I play and write has been influenced by the music of those four days. So who's really being educated here? I think it's me.



Jimmy Cleveland is another influence on my playing and someone whose work I presented in a special concert. He wasn't a prolific composer. Jimmy Cleveland's career embodies something else that is vital to the existence of great jazz. He doesn't get frequent credit as a composer or leader, but his numerous sideman appearances give evidence to a career that influenced many players. He enabled great composers and arrangers like Tadd Dameron

Tadd Dameron
Tadd Dameron
1917 - 1965
arranger
, Quincy Jones
Quincy Jones
Quincy Jones
b.1933
producer
, Gil Evans
Gil Evans
Gil Evans
1912 - 1988
composer/conductor
, Gigi Gryce
Gigi Gryce
Gigi Gryce
1927 - 1983
saxophone
, and Don Sebesky to be prolific and well-recognized.



I did a tribute performance with a nonet, featuring repertoire that Jimmy Cleveland originally performed. Saxophonist Mark Lopeman helped out by transcribing half of the arrangements. The music was primarily arranged and composed by Gigi Gryce and Quincy Jones. Two wonderful bonuses to this event at Smalls were: one, the opportunity to feature my colleague, John Mosca, in a starring role on trombone (he played fabulously); and two, chance to build a relationship with Jimmy Cleveland himself, via telephone calls to his home in Los Angeles. We played the tribute show at Smalls, with Jimmy Cleveland listening to the first set, via a cell phone propped up on the front table.

Chris ByarsI have greatly enjoyed exploring the work of Gigi Gryce. His amazing life story was revealed in 2002 with the publication of the biography Rat Race Blues. After disappearing from the jazz scene in 1963, he worked as an elementary school music teacher in the Bronx for 20 years. Living under the alias Basheer Qusim, his service to the community was legendary. He was a role model to the children, inspiring them with all the passion and creativity that he had previously devoted to the jazz world. Upon his sudden passing in 1983, the community school board voted to rename the school in his honor, now known as P.S. 53, The Basheer Qusim/Gigi Gryce School.



In June 2007, we presented an outreach program that posthumously connected the mysterious teacher with his former life as a prolific jazz artist. We performed three times at the school, bringing Gryce's biographer, Noal Cohen, to help tell the story of Gryce, explaining his accomplishments prior to his arrival at the school. In our last visit, two members of the Gryce family came to the school and were received as celebrities. This was very meaningful to all parties involved—like the jazz scene, the Gryce family was also unfortunately left behind when Gigi Gryce became Basheer Qusim. His son, Basheer Gryce told me "I had no idea how important my father was to all of you." The students, faculty, and school parents are now more fully informed about the story of a local hero.



In addition to the thrill of solving a historical mystery, I got the chance to put it all down on a recording, entitled Blue Lights: the Music of Gigi Gryce (SteepleChase Records, 2009). This featured the Gryce originals that I felt needed more attention, including a recently discovered three-part suite. A lead sheet to "Al-Ghashiyah" was found in Teddy Charles' house, in skeletal form only. Spare melodic fragments were laid out, with tempo markings and roman numerals, indicating separate movements. No harmony was specified. My presentation of this piece involved a process of reconstruction that reminded me of the recent work in the Sistine Chapel. I feel that the result is something he could have imagined, and I consider it his tune, not mine. I also included a Byars original on this disc.



The music of Gigi Gryce played a crucial role in my recent trips overseas. In the last three years, the U.S. State Department has sent the Chris Byars Quartet on several tours to Muslim countries that are flashpoints for anti-American sentiment. By playing jazz for their audiences, we show a side of our world that is friendlier and more inviting to them than, for example, today's brazen American pop stars, the hyped-up athletic world, or heaven forbid, the news headlines.



In Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Syria, Jordan and Pakistan, we called attention to the cultural bridge provided by Gigi Gryce's compositions. He explored his Muslim faith through his art, using titles such as "Baba's Blues," "Evening in Casablanca" and "Basheer's Dream." Musically, he incorporated the sounds of the Arabic culture, the twisting melodies, open harmonies and driving rhythms that are so accessible to Muslim audiences. His life story highlights some values that are important in the Muslim world: learning a tradition from the great masters, converting to Islam, and leaving the public spotlight to become a teacher to young children. We backed this up by handing out copies of our Blue Lights CD.

AAJ: Another interesting musical figure who you have had some direct involvement with is Teddy Charles.

Chris ByarsCB: I am very fortunate to have developed an interactive relationship with this key figure in jazz history. I first met Teddy in 2007. Teddy had employed Gigi as his alto saxophonist in a very hip ensemble, the Teddy Charles Tentet, in 1956. Noal Cohen got word to me that Teddy was interested in making a comeback to the jazz spotlight after decades of obscurity. I drove out to Riverhead, Long Island with Noal and my quartet; we played for an afternoon and started his return journey to the jazz bandstand. Two years later, I am happy to say that most of my plans have successfully been achieved. His first studio recording in over 40 years, Dances with Bulls (Smalls Records) was released in 2009, and another, under my name, will be available in April 2010 entitled Bop-ography (SteepleChase). We have enjoyed extended runs at the Village Vanguard, Iridium and Smalls. Among much positive press, a full-page feature article on Teddy ran in the Down Beat September, 2009 issue, written excellently by Eric Fine.



I also included him in two Chamber Music America grants. Bronx Jazz Series (through CMA's Residency Partnership Program) had some great moments. We performed at the school where Gigi Gryce taught (now named the Gigi Gryce/Basheer Qusim School) and Teddy was able to give a firsthand account of Gryce's professionalism, personal affability and good habits to the host of attentive elementary schoolers, who were at least 300 strong.



Another great moment was the concert return of the Teddy Charles Tentet, which brought to life great arrangements by Gil Evans, Bob Brookmeyer, Jimmy Giuffre and Teddy himself, hitting the audience's eardrums for the first time in over 50 years. The second CMA project was New Works: Creation and Presentation, for which Bop-ography was composed. I based this original work on the three key sections of Teddy's life: first, his arrival on the New York jazz scene in the late 1940s (a jubilant, up-tempo section); second, his move to obscurity and isolation (a slow, meditative blues); and third, his triumphant re-emergence late in life (a medium-up closer). The piece was a success; at over twenty minutes long, it featured three extended solos by Teddy, as well as the addition of my father on oboe/English horn, forming the rather unusual three horn frontline of double reed/saxophone/trombone. We had great fun putting it together.

AAJ: What, if anything, did you learn about the social dynamics from which this music was created?

CB: That's an important lesson that is still so current, in fact, even more important now than ever. My good friend Ari Roland sums it up eloquently when he speaks about jazz in our educational workshops. As he points out to audiences overseas: Jazz is a valuable tool for today's world because it has always brought people together. In the U.S., jazz was a meeting place for people from all backgrounds. Performers and audiences crossed social barriers to get closer to the music. This was not just a case of black and white, but all kinds of black and all kinds of white. Old or young, rich or poor, man or woman, it didn't matter what your outside definition was. And because the music was so strong, it added a freer, more tolerant social dynamic to many people's lives, and they became more culturally aware as a result. Jazz was first in this regard, before the sports world, before the workplace, before the military.



To give you an example of why this is still important today, let me mention the "Jazz Futures Bi-Communal Workshop." On the beautiful island of Cyprus, which is situated in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, a conflict continues in a 35-year stalemate. It is too complex to adequately describe in this small space, but a thumbnail sketch is something like this: there are two communities of Cypriots, one in the North, known as Turkish Cypriots, and one in the South, known as Greek Cypriots. They have been politically separated since 1974, due to inter-communal violence. The U.S. State Department officially desires unification of these two communities, and the abolition of the dividing "Green Line," which slashes the island in half and runs through the capital, Nicosia.

Chris ByarsThe State Department has created an "Office of Bi-Communal Support" which provides service to both communities, in hope of drawing them closer together and making peace more of a possibility. After an initial visit by the Chris Byars Quartet in March 2008, the State Department substantially committed to a series of ongoing workshop visits by myself and Ari Roland. We bring from two to four additional New York musicians for five days of workshops in the Buffer Zone (which is patrolled by the United Nations Peacekeeping Force). Cypriots from both North and South pass through their checkpoints with ID cards in hand, and meet at our workshop to play jazz. Through the process of self-expression and a driving thirst for knowledge, they have made lasting cross-communal friendships. Now there are weekly jam sessions, on alternating sides of the island, and musicians travel to "the other side" to make progress with the music they have been studying.



We are headed back to Cyprus in September, with great anticipation, for an extended series that features two large concerts (one on each side, of course) that kick off the year. Joining Ari and I are Sacha Perry (piano), Marion Cowings (vocal), Zaid Nasser (alto saxophone) and George Fludas (drums). The workshop is called "Jazz Futures" because it is created with an eye towards the future, but also because the first tune we worked on with the Cypriots was Gigi Gryce's "Futurity." I am excited to tell you, while they are developing inter-communal friendships; their jazz playing is also making great strides. Soon you will be hearing about great players coming out of Cyprus, borne of the unifying social dynamics inherent in this music.

AAJ: Speaking of treasures: have you put your own touring on hold in order to perform with Teddy Charles?

CB: I did, in fact, turn down a State Department tour to India in favor of an Iridium 2008 summer engagement with Teddy Charles. But I have firmly adopted one more lesson from my heroes Lucky Thompson and Gigi Gryce. They were, above all, chiefly dedicated to their personal relationship to the music. They didn't rely too heavily on others for inspiration or musical direction. Can you imagine them giving a tribute to Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong
1901 - 1971
trumpet
or Jelly Roll Morton
Jelly Roll Morton
Jelly Roll Morton
1890 - 1941
piano
? Indeed, they were firmly grounded in their traditions, and learned from the masters of the time, but they followed their own voice to create something new, and now we have their individual gifts to add to our vast cultural treasure.

Of my recordings, the one that brings me the most satisfaction is Jazz Pictures at an Exhibition of Himalayan Art (Smalls Records, 2008), a suite of original music inspired by visual art. That's where my future lies. I'll continue my association with Teddy Charles, and my study of Lucky Thompson and Gigi Gryce, but not at the expense of my following own direction. My plan is to take the bright moments of my historical projects, and use them as a compass for my ongoing musical journey. There are a lot of great sounds in jazz that have yet to be heard.


Selected Discography

Chris Byars, Bop-ography (SteepleChase, 2010)
Chris Byars, Blue Lights: The Music of Gigi Gryce (SteepleChase, 2009)
Teddy Charles, Dances With Bulls (Smalls Records, 2009)
Chris Byars, Jazz Pictures At An Exhibition Of Himalayan Art (Smalls Records, 2008)
Ruslan Khain, For Medicinal Purposes Only (Smalls Records, 2008)
Chris Byars, Photos In Black, White, And Grey (Smalls Records, 2007)
Ari Roland/Chris Byars Turkmen-American Jazz Quintet, Jazz Patterns (US Embassy Ashgabat, 2007)
Ari Roland, And So I Lived In Old New York (Smalls Records, 2007)
Chris Byars Octet, Night Owls (Smalls Records, 2006)
Chris Byars Octet/Sasha Dobson, The Darkling Thrush (Smalls Records, 2005)
Frank Hewitt, Four Hundred Saturdays (Smalls Records, 2005)
Across 7 Street, Made In New York (Smalls Records, 2004)

Photo Credits

Page 1, jazzwax.com

Page 2, John Rhatigan, courtesy of Chris Byars

Page 3, University of Maryland

Page 4, Sacha Lecca, courtesy of Chris Byars



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