Chris Byars: Studying Unsung Heroes

Ludwig vanTrikt By

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Chris Byars[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 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: 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. 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.

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