A Fireside Chat with Don Byron

AAJ Staff By

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When you take away something as integral to normal jazz groups at the time: bass, there is more pressure on the players to really create the feeling of each song.
Limited for being outspoken, Don Byron rejects media propaganda. Whether his critical disregard has impaired his capacity for audience awareness remains to be seen. What is apparent, however, is that Byron is an exceptional technician on his instruments and his music, as the man behind it, continues to evolve.

All About Jazz: Let's start from the beginning.

Don Byron: We all took music lessons.

It was required. Most of us took violin or piano. The clarinet was the only wind instrument that was left around my family. I needed to play a wind instrument for my breathing and that was the one that was around.

AAJ: Do the "young lion" amenities remain?

DB: Things have been fairly unstable at these big labels. In that period, they were just doing what they were doing and since then, they've cleaned house at Warner Bros., at Sony, and at Verve. That period was not a banner time for any of the labels.

AAJ: Does the industry require turmoil periodically?

DB: If it means, for a period, that it is difficult to make a record, you don't make a record or you make it yourself. I didn't choose to make a record myself. And if I had chosen to make a record myself, it might not have been Ivey-Divey. It has no affect on me as an artist. You do what you can in the periods that you can do it.

AAJ: You weren't artistically compelled to record Ivey-Divey ?

DB: I would have made Ivey-Divey eventually. If I had decided to self-produce a record, I would not have made that one. If I was self-producing and I had a lot of money, I might have made a big orchestra record. And if I had more dime, I probably would have spent it on doing something classical.

AAJ: Classical music, while impressive on a resume, is not substantial for fundamental improvisers.

DB: When I play classical music, I don't start playing something and then play it swing. If I play a classical record, it will be classical. The only problem people will have will be about why I'm doing it, not that it is classical or not. When I do things like classical music or recorder music, it's not like I am playing them so oddly. It is just that people aren't used to a Black person doing those things and they have their reactions to that. Classical music is pretty straight up. It is a different game than playing jazz. It is a different game than improvising. But I play that game.

AAJ: Who are they?

DB: I don't really care what the jazz world thinks about what I do in classical music, so it would have to be the classical world.

AAJ: Sounds like you have contempt for the jazz world.

DB: Well, I think jazz critics think that they're smarter than musicians. They like to think that they're writers and musicians - that they know a more wider field than an individual musician. I know more music than most people listen to. I can play more music authentically than most people listen to. That is uncomfortable for jazz critics, who have to deal with a young Black musician who plays more music than they know about. They didn't know about klezmer music before I played it. They didn't know anything about Jewish music before I played it. Many of them were Jewish, but they didn't know anything about the music. They didn't really like being scooped by me. I don't know about the music that I know about to offend anybody or try to be in an antagonistic relationship, but it is hard for me not to have reactions to some of the things that are said about me. I don't think about jazz critics when I'm in my house. I only have to deal with jazz critics when I'm talking to them. But it is not my fault that they didn't know klezmer music before I started playing it.

AAJ: But aren't critics a necessary evil?

DB: No, they're not necessary. If you really think about it, all they really do is make sure that the wrong person doesn't get over too much. That seems to be their function. Other than that, they have no function. Nothing replaces hearing. But unfortunately, there's no jazz radio so people go to them first. If people heard the music, they wouldn't be necessary. Even somebody that wants to read a book can go to a bookstore and read a few chapters of it. But lots of people that like jazz, their connection to the jazz world is Down Beat, Jazziz, and Amazon.com. Unfortunately, the jazz audience is reliant on what they say, which gives them more power. A rock critic can say what he wants about a record, but if it plays on the radio and people like it, it doesn't really matter.

AAJ: The classical world need not concern themselves with Ivey-Divey, an undisguised jazz record.

DB: I was trying to get to the feeling of the trio recording that Nat "King" Cole, Lester Young, and Buddy Rich made. I just tried to get players that had the instincts of avant-garde playing and integrate those things. There is nothing on this record that's really out in terms of harmony. It's more like rhythmic style. The rhythmic style is very contemporary and or instinctual. I don't feel like bragging about how great it is because some days I put it on and I don't feel at peace about it. But I do feel that certain goals that I had about bridging different kinds of playing were achieved by having Jack, who is the master of the instrument.

AAJ: And you will be touring with that Lester Young project. October 17 at the San Francisco Jazz Festival.

DB: Yeah, but it won't be all of the music off the record because live we're more focused on the trio kind of thing. We won't have bass and we won't have trumpet, but it will be a lot of the music and maybe some other Lester Young related material that we didn't play on the record.

AAJ: What is your fascination with the Lester Young Trio?

DB: There was a lot of great communication. When you take away something as integral to normal jazz groups at the time: bass, there is more pressure on the players to really create the feeling of each song. It just makes everybody more responsible harmonically and rhythmically to maintain the shape of the song. A lot of these standards are not that different from one to the other. It is just the placement of one chord that makes you recognize one song over another. It might be the same chord just two beats later. When you don't have bass to really define that, it puts more pressure on the rest of the players to make those things clear.

Visit Don Byron on the web at www.donbyron.com .

Related Article
My Conversation with Don Byron (1999)

Photo Credit
Ben Long .

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