Thursday, December 24, 2015


Jaki Byard (b. Worcester, MA, 1922, d. NYC, 1999) was a bona fide professor of the piano (New England Conservatory and Harvard, among others) who played in my favorite Mingus band (the extremely well documented outfit featuring Eric Dolphy that toured Europe in 1964), and made a bunch of records, including a freewheeling series of albums as leader that Don Schlitten produced for Prestige (my favorites are Freedom Together and Sunshine of My Soul), as well as notable recordings as sideman with Dolphy (Outward Bound), Booker Ervin (particularly The Freedom Book and The Space Book), and Roland Kirk (Rip, Rig, and Panic).

Byard's style combined a mastery of the total history of jazz piano with a humorous sensibility that allowed him to mix and match the styles and repertoire of James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, Earl Hines, Art Tatum, Erroll Garner, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, and Cecil Taylor, to name but a few, at will. He played several instruments and, between them, the members of the recording-only rhythm section he formed with bassist Richard Davis and drummer Alan Dawson (for some Ervin dates and a few of his own albums) could play a dozen or so, predicting Sam Rivers' millennial trio of multi-instrumentalists. In the '70s, when Duke Ellington wasn't feeling up to playing the piano with his own orchestra, Byard subbed for him: fathom that. (Toward the end of his life, Byard led his own big band: the Apollo Stompers.)

He died at home in the Hollis, Queens apartment he shared with his family, killed by a single gunshot to the head. His murder remains unsolved, and reinforces my sadness at living in a country where people value their killing machines more than their children, where an arts center (as Kurt Vonnegut might have said) named Jaki Byard could be so destroyed. His elegant musical intelligence is sorely missed.

Because I am always slow on the pickup, I'm just now hearing a lot of great Byard music that's surfaced since his death. In the car for the past few days, I've been listening to the recording of the '64 Mingus band at Cornell University (where a bad-acting buddy of mine and I used to hitchhike from his upstate home to buy wine and shoot pool at the student union, and where my uncle met Eleanor Roosevelt while washing dishes at his fraternity house), which Blue Note released in 2007 and I've had for a few years, although I only ever really listened to it when it came on the house music one night at the Kessler.

Besides the oft-recorded core repertoire for the tour -- solo pieces by Byard and Mingus, long takes of "Fables of Faubus" and "Meditations," an "Orange Was the Color of Her Dress" where everyone solos, a relatively short "So Long Eric" where Dolphy doesn't -- Cornell 1964 includes a few oddities: versions of "Take the 'A' Train," "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling," and "Jitterbug Waltz," only the first of which was performed once the band made it to Europe. The leader is relaxed -- unusual for Mingus on this tour -- and the music is well recorded; you can really feel the woody tone of Dolphy's bass clarinet.

Some of Byard's own best music was recorded in live settings, and a few choice live items have appeared posthumously, starting with The Last From Lennie's, a third volume in a series cut in 1965 at a Boston area venue with an out-of-tune piano and Joe Farrell on tenor, whose extroverted Coltrane-isms Byard encourages by feeding him the chords a la McCoy. Released in 2003, The Last From Lennie's includes an uproariously uptempo ballad medley that wouldn't fit on Prestige's now-deleted compilation from the first two volumes. You can hear Byard yelling encouragement to his band members in the manner of Mingus, except his former employer's onstage exhortations were usually heavier on the imprecations.

Starting in 2007, New York-based label High Note has released three volumes of Byard solo performances, taped in 1978 and 1979 by the management at the now-defunct San Francisco venue Keystone Korner. Like the Velvets at the Matrix, these three discs have become my preferred way to hear Byard. While I'll admit to a particular fondness for solo piano records, it's in this context that both Byard's accomplishment and his idiosyncratic humor are most clearly audible. I sought out Byard's 1971 Parisian Solos, which Gary Giddins cited as the pianist's favorite among his own recordings, but I prefer the Keystone sets for their brighter sound and Byard's scintillating presence in a live situation.

The first, Sunshine of My Soul: Live at the Keystone Korner, ecstatically reviewed by Giddins and not to be confused with the similarly-titled album Byard cut for Prestige in 1967 (with Elvin Jones and David Izenzon!), includes a Mingus medley (the second tune is "So Long Eric," not "Peggy's Blue Skylight" as listed), a cover of Blood, Sweat and Tears' jazz-rock hit "Spinning Wheel," and a new version of "Besame Mucho" (previously recorded on Parisian Solos) as well as several Byard originals.

On A Matter of Black and White, released in 2011, Byard tips his hat to Billie Holiday, Monk, and Ellington-Strayhorn, as well as essaying Tony Hatch's "I Know A Place" (Petula Clark's followup to "Downtown;" I once read an interview with Glenn Gould wherein the classical piano virtuoso explained why Petula was greater than the Beatles) and Rodgers and Hammerstein's King and I chestnut "Hello Young Lovers." Released in 2014, The Late Show: An Evening With Jaki Byard is probably the least essential of the three, containing more chatter than the others and a few alternate versions ("Hello Young Lovers," an abbreviated Ellington-Strayhorn medley, Byard's own "European Episode"), but it also includes Byard originals and standards that don't appear on the other volumes. Myself, I'll take 'em all. So there.


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