Don Byron: Music Wikipedia
“ It's not a jazz concert, I'm just a black guy. It's really classical, and I'm a black guy. It's really Klezmer music, and I'm a black guy! That's basically it. Deal with it! ”
I got my Bachelor's in Music Ed and Trumpet from Peabody Conservatory. I got my Master's in Jazz from Queens College. But I did my real graduate work playing with clarinetist Don Byron. My first gigs with Byron were playing Stravinsky and Raymond Scott. We also played Duke Ellington, Earth Wind and Fire, Herb Alpert, Klezmer music, the music of Junior Walker & the All Stars, and we even did some performances of music from the Sugar Hill Gang! Byron is a walking music Wikipedia. He's into such a wide range of music; he's also a really unique composer and arranger. I was able to get a quick interview with him recently for jazztruth.
George Colligan: In terms of your musical scope, all the things that you are into and that you have explored as an artist, is that something you are conscious of or just how you've always been, into different musical avenues?
Don Byron: Well, I always had a few different things that I was into. When I was an undergrad, I kind of thought what I wanted to know was how to play classical music of a certain ilk, how to play jazz of a certain ilk, I was playing a lot of Latin music, and I was starting to play with the Klezmer Conservatory band. When I first started being interested in being a jazz musician, the job of being a jazz clarinetist was really very limited. Most musicians my age, black musicians especially, were not really interested in the instrument. So I guess my idea of jazz clarinet really kind of evolved out of trying to keep a theoretical thing going and a technical thing going on the instrument but that I would have one foot in the classical thing and one foot in the jazz thing. And certain ethnic traditions that I came upon that I might be playing authentically. Like I played even as an undergrad Latin music authentically, Klezmer music authentically, that there were traditions other than jazz and classical music where the clarinet was a well-used instrument. And at that point a lot of people that played good clarinet were not willing to play music like Klezmer music. They weren't willing; they didn't want it to drag them down. Maybe some of them came from Jewish backgrounds; they weren't going to go backwards.
Nowadays, any underemployed clarinetist plays some Klezmer music, it's just normal. But my thinking was more to have an awareness of these ethnic avenues where the clarinet was going, where it was vitalin Colombia, in Trinidad, in Brazilthese are places just in the Western Hemisphere that at this point, not even in the past but currently, have moving clarinet traditions that were moving ahead. Whereas I didn't see the jazz clarinet tradition moving ahead. I saw more "traditional jazz," pseudo-New Orleans whatever, that kind of thing, and then the swing era stuff. Then all of a sudden, there's very little clarinet. There's Jimmy Hamilton, there's Tony Scott, there's Buddy DeFranco, but in general there's not a lot. Basically whatever it is, I kind of fashioned it out of feeling like there wasn't a real clarinet job, I was going to have to make this job, and the job that I made was kind of a collection of skills.
GC: So it was really motivated by your relationship with the instrument rather than an all-encompassing desire to embrace many styles?
DB: Well in my undergrad days, I knew guys like [saxophonists] Greg Osby and Donald Harrison and those guys, and being a jazz saxophonist was much more of a job. There was just a job. And it wasn't a job that you never saw black people doing. So they went to New York and they pursued that job, whereas I kind of prepared myself for many jobs. On the classical tip, I never thought I was going to be chosen to deliver the Mozart and Brahms stuff that's the center of clarinet literature, but I did think that I had grown up seeing a lot of people on a lot of instruments who only played really contemporary new music. And they were good players, but they seemed kind of stylistically dedicated to that sound. And so I decided that, if I was going to keep preparing myself as a classical player, that's the way I would prepare myself. I would make sure I played some Schoenberg, some Stravinsky, some Messiaen, Bartok...those things that I considered modern; I would prepare myself in that way.