The Genius of Jaki Byard

(Jaki Byard centennial post)

Don Asher and Jaki Byard were from the same town, Worcester, Massachusetts, and Asher’s memoir Notes From a Battered Grand has wonderful descriptions of the young Byard. When Asher first sees Byard — at the time, Byard was perhaps 20 and Asher 16 — the now-legendary pianist was playing for a dance:

…the sound…it was jubilant, cocky, it leaped and shouted…washed by echoes of all the music I had ever heard or read about — the Harlem house-rent parties, the strut of southland cakewalks and brass band parades, and endless, linked choruses of pile-driving boogie woogie that went lickety-split like a night train slamming across prairie tracks…

Asher took lessons from Byard at a local union hall. After teaching, Byard shut the door and stayed to work:

Neighbors said the practicing on the ancient upright went on all night — scales and exercises, parallel and contrary motion, hour after hour, random excursions and improvisations mingling with Chopin and Bach. If he knew there was somebody listening at the door, he’d slide into some whomping way-back whorehouse piano, a big, pumping, joyous sound, and in our imaginations it was like being at a spectacular parade, hearing a whole history of the music from the New Orleans and levees on up the river.

Asher gave up hopes of becoming a major jazz musician himself — partly because he couldn’t stop comparing himself to the far greater Byard — and settled for a lifetime of playing cocktail piano and the occasional burst of writing, eventually entering the history books when helping bebop giant Hampton Hawes pen the memoir Raise Up Off of Me.

There are no new ideas, just fresh ways of combining old ideas. As the latest combinations take hold, earlier ideas might become outmoded and fall by the wayside. During the great explosion of post-war modern jazz, most pianists quit playing stride and boogie woogie overnight. But Jaki Byard was the rare example of someone who visibly kept an unfashionable two-fisted attitude in the forefront of his conception.

Byard didn’t just know about the past, of course, he also assimilated all the newest ideas. Above, Asher describes Byard as playing the whole history, but nobody had heard Charlie Parker or Bud Powell yet. Within a few years, Byard eagerly learned bebop and Thelonious Monk, then went further into the modernists. In an interview with Len Lyons, Byard explained: “I remember being on a Bud Powell kick at about twenty five years old. That’s when I decided to get into music more and listen to everything. Bebop was an age of revelation. It made everyone want to study more.”

In the 50’s Byard was making waves in Boston, and one of his disciples was apparently Cecil Taylor. In Scott E. Brown’s valuable dissertation on Byard, Constructing a Tradition, there’s a fascinating paragraph:

Reed player Michael Marcus, who played with Byard late in life but established a warm relationship, recalls Byard’s recollections of Taylor as a youngster, noting, “Cecil’s father used to bring Cecil to hear Jaki when he was like 16 years old.” He paraphrased Byard, “Man Cecil Taylor, I invented that style of playing.” “I would play that style [James P. Johnson, Erroll Garner, Earl Hines] with my left hand and then I’d play Charles Ives and Stravinsky in my right. I was playing free like that 10 years before Cecil. I invented that style.” Marcus concluded Byard did not evince bitterness but rather frustration that he was not acknowledged as the originator…

If Cecil Taylor was truly influenced by Byard, it was strictly in an atonal direction, for Taylor never played much swing and absolutely no stride on record. At any rate, Byard’s sympathy to Ives and Stravinsky would help Byard immensely when he moved to New York to join the ranks of the early ’60s avant-garde. These were the glory years, when the young turks McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock were at the front of the pack, reframing the tradition with superstars John Coltrane and Miles Davis. Bill Evans was gigging alongside Oscar Peterson, Erroll Garner, Mary Lou Williams, Paul Bley, Wynton Kelly, Teddy Wilson, Barry Harris, Lennie Tristano, and Earl Hines. Bud Powell returned from Europe, Sun Ra moved to town, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett were starting to attend jam sessions. There were so many others.

But Byard staked out his turf. He didn’t sound like anyone else in the slightest. Part of it was the stride and other “old-timey” aspects of his style, part of it was a devotion to surrealism, part of it was sheer madcap joy.

My centennial listening list below is a bit haphazard. This is not any sort of complete overview or deep dive! It’s mostly just the stuff I know best. However, surely any Byard fan will agree these selections showcase Byard at the top of his game.

Byard’s discography as a leader includes many solo and trio sides. Hi-Fly, Byard’s second trio disc, was recorded in 1962 and remains a perfect bite-sized “Jaki Byard explainer.” The idea of a history lesson is almost too obvious, yet the sheer excellence of the musicianship wins the day. In addition to three originals in different styles, Byard programs pieces by James P. Johnson, Thelonious Monk, George Shearing, Oscar Pettiford, and Randy Weston. Ron Carter and Pete LaRoca play at the very highest level of personality and swing.

“Hi-Fly” (Randy Weston) The solo piano intro is impressionistic, while the rendition of theme is rather tough, abstract and Monkish. It’s a relatively new piece by Weston, who debuted the melody in 1958, although many others had already recorded “Hi-Fly” by 1962. (Interesting trivia: the previous Byard trio album, Here’s Jaki from 1960, included the very first cover of John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.”) The blowing is just beautiful, lyrical bebop next to percussive Erroll Garner touches, all done with a slightly insane glint in the pianist’s eye. Whole trio is swinging hard.

“Tillie Butterball” (Byard) A shouting bluesy number, not far from Bobby Timmons. But there is a moment of crazy abstraction from the piano (the time gets turned around for a moment) and the comping behind Carter’s solo is pure Count Basie.

“Excerpts from ‘Yamecraw'” (James P. Johnson) Was Byard was the only famous modern jazz pianist to record a theme by James P. Johnson in this era? It is not a throwback, the melodic material is simply a groovy A-flat blues, and the wonderful trio simply swings out. In the liner notes, Byard tells Nat Hentoff, “James P. was a fine composer, and his longer works deserve more recognition than they’ve gotten so far.”

“There Are Many Worlds” (Byard) A composition in three parts. One world is Tadd Dameron’s II-Vs, another is Basie’s riffs, and finally there’s a modal wash. Byard explains: “The world, in short, is full of bags.” Each bag sounds like Byard, though, especially the madcap modal swirls.

“Here to Hear” (Byard) Now this is a great blindfold test! The work is a genuine long-form composition, like a suite, frequently referencing European classical music in conception, although Bud Powell’s “Glass Enclosure” is also next door. During a section of fast blowing, Byard does a kind of Cecil Taylor thing…except, perhaps, as noted above, Byard may have gotten there before Taylor.

“Lullaby of Birdland” (George Shearing) In the notes, Byard says, “I know it’s fashionable to put George Shearing down, but I feel he’s made a contribution.” This lovely interpretation is straight up, with a chorus of bebop followed by some serious block-chord action.

“‘Round Midnight” (Thelonious Monk) Byard takes a romantic view of the tune, almost conventional in outlook, until some spiky and dramatic touches near the end.

“Blues in the Closet” (Oscar Pettiford) Included as a hat tip to Bud Powell. Byard says in the liner notes, “Bud was the main influence for all of us in terms of showing what could be done with single-line playing.” Still, Byard’s single-lines on “Blues in the Closet” are not much like Bud’s. In some ways this surreally swinging piano improvisation is the most “purely Byard” blowing on the date.

My single favorite Byard album as a leader is The Jaki Byard Experience from 1968. A warm esoteric glow suffuses this rambunctious confab of peers.

Roland Kirk was a comer but he wasn’t yet the major star he became in the ’70s after taking the name Rahsaan. Byard and Kirk had previously met in studio for Kirk’s excellent Rip, Rig, and Panic. Like Byard, Kirk was interested in the past, and that album included the Kirk title, “From Bechet, Byas and Fats.” Byard said of Kirk, “He used to buy old piano rolls and play along with them. When he was living in Philadelphia, he’d call me up, ‘Hey, listen to this…’ It would be someone like Jelly Roll Morton, Pete Johnson, or James P. Johnson. He’d make a guessing game out of it. That was our socializing.”

The bass and drums are manned by Richard Davis and Alan Dawson. Again, this was a hell of an era. McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, Elvin Jones were in one corner, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Tony Williams were in another. Byard-Davis-Dawson apparently never played any gigs, but they are on many records and have enough of a distinctive personality to be added to the list of truly great ’60s rhythm sections.

“Parisian Thoroughfare” (Bud Powell) The track begins with avant-noise, the “sounds of Paris traffic,” before settling into bright jazz. Kirk solos on manzello (sounds like soprano sax a bit) and tenor. It’s bebop, some Sonny Rollins in there for sure, but also it is a bit goofy. The whole band is a bit goofy. There’s no judgement from these musicians, anything is allowed.

If you put a gun to my head and asked me what was the greatest Byard piano improvisation, I’d offer his feature on “Parisian Throughfare.” He starts with tough swinging bebop, gets cheerfully “lost” in a motive, shakes the piano with an atonal nosedive, and resolves into a stomping shout chorus. Come on!!!!! Richard Davis and Alan Dawson are right there with him, at one point Dawson plays a 6/4 polyrhythm against the time in just the perfect place. Some kind of intuition enables the ensemble to move as one through a shambling half-time re-cap of the theme.

“Hazy Eve” (Jaki Byard) A duo with Richard Davis in Ellington/Strayhorn vein. The piano is really out of tune, but — just as with Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell — a beat-up piano suits Byard just fine.

“Shine on Me” (Traditional) Byard begins with a chorus of stride before the others come in with a contemporary gospel beat. Dawson is right in there. A concise bit of beauty that should have gotten radio play.

“Evidence” (Thelonious Monk) Kirk plays Monk’s melody while Byard blasts out Coleman Hawkins’s “Spotlite” theme in thirds. The tenor solo starts in an intense place before getting more and more insane, prefiguring someone like David Murray. The time gets turned around near the end of the tenor solo, Byard bebops a bit, allowing the skies to clear, before launching into his own fury, in this case cascades of black note octaves followed by a pure jumble, then a fanfare (outside of the form) to launch the head out. God, I love this band.

“Memories of You” (Eubie Blake, Andy Razaf) Kirk and Byard offer the old torch song duo. It’s really kind of a perfect situation, with Byard’s decorative stride backing Kirk’s Ellingtonian romance. Both also offer many futuristic touches. The Art Ensemble of Chicago’s slogan was “Great Black Music, Ancient to the Future,” and one can hear all of that in this “Memories of You.” Indeed, Kirk’s circular breathing after the piano solo connects easily to Roscoe Mitchell. Naturally, the final sounds are totally avant-garde.

“Teach Me Tonight” (Sammy Cahn, Gene DePaul) The ensemble starts with an impressionistic version of “School Days” (?!) before the bass plays the melody of “Teach Me Tonight.” Erroll Garner had a hit with this tune, and in terms of their basic piano sonority, Byard and Garner are absolutely in the same family. The piano solo is almost a straight-up Garner tribute. I wonder what Garner would have sounded like alongside the lurching, feral swing of Richard Davis and Alan Dawson?

Extraordinary video of Jaki Byard, Reggie Workman, and Alan Dawson from the 1965 Piano Summit in Berlin is a must for Byard fans. Other artists onstage that day included Earl Hines Teddy Wilson, John Lewis, Lennie Tristano, and Bill Evans. Everyone sounds great, of course, but the Byard trio moment is the most intense and the most unique. It is listed in the discographies as “Free Improvisation” but that’s not quite correct. They play free for a few minutes — going through varied styles — before settling into a rollicking Byard swing tune recorded as “Just Rollin’ Along” on Family Man. The total sympathy between Byard and Dawson is palpable. A magical moment.

The music Byard made with Charles Mingus in the mid-’60s is in its own category. The bassist and the pianist were perfect for each other partly because there was a shared emphasis on history, with many pieces dedicated to great musicians from the past. Mingus would often stop the band to let Byard play a stride piano solo, including Byard’s own “A.T.F.W.” (for Art Tatum and Fats Waller).

Quite a lot of the Mingus/Byard collaboration was recorded, including the famous studio albums The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady and Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus. (Perhaps the first time the larger general jazz audience took note of Byard was during the Ellingtonian flourishes on Track B from Black Saint.) There’s also terrific video of the 1964 European tour with the all-star line up of Johnny Coles, Eric Dolphy, Clifford Jordan, Byard, Mingus, and Dannie Richmond.

Byard wrote extensive notes for the Mingus two-fer Portrait, an anthology of the 1964 Town Hall concert and the 1965 gig at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. A few excerpts:

Flashbacks! To think back over my years with Charles Mingus is to relive a panorama of rhythmic excitement, tranquility, frustration, turbulence, love, hate, erratic social behavior, political rhetoric, and lots more.

I first met Mingus in 1956 in the Athens of America — Boston. He was appearing at a joint on Commonwealth Avenue called Storyville. I was at the joint across the street. Its formal name was The Stables, but we used to call it the Jazz Workshop. Tuesdays and Thursdays, I played tenor sax with Herb Pomeroy’s big band; the other nights, I played intermission piano. Mingus and his sidemen would drop by frequently — to check us out, I guess. Since his group was called the “Jazz Workshop,” of course there had to be a few words with regard to who had a better right to use that title. The matter was usually discussed by Mingus and Varty Haratunian, who was sort of the coordinator of financial affairs at The Stables. Even during an argument, their conversations were conducted very intelligently: For example, Varty might explain that our group was actually the “Jass Workshop,” to which Mingus would respond “Yeah, take the ‘J’ off and that’s what you have for a workshop!”

[on Eric Dolphy] What can I say about this gentleman? His mind, as you can hear, was very active, musically intelligent, innovative, and emphatically involved with precision and decision. Eric was not only multi-faceted in his musical approach, but was also a most introspective individual. His thoughts, harmonically and melodically, were always on top of the chord of the seventh, especially on alto. We had many conversations about this intriguing approach to improvisation. (I could go into the technical aspects of this subject, but this would probably involve writing a whole book!) Without doubt, we were always ready to go into space together — from my very first musical association with Eric, when I played piano on his first album, Outward Bound. Actually Eric was largely responsible for me becoming involved in the recording industry and joining the Mingus Dynasty.

[on the epic signature Mingus piece of this era, “Meditations”] The patterns on this composition really give us a chance to scan a whole decade from the 1890s to the 1970s, sometimes very impressionistic and sometimes in a very contemporary vein, and always full of Ellingtonisms, Birdisms, Gillespieisms.

[on the intentionally corny “Cocktails for Two” with Charles McPherson using a full vibrato] Then that satirical bit on the music of the Twenties and Thirties….It was a different twist, and was accepted enthusiastically by his fans. After the tragedy, comedy show biz!

Before the concert, red carpet treatment was in full bloom: limousine service from the airport, cocktails and hors d’oeuves, seminar, then dinner. I noticed this charming older women, all agog over Mingus, just a-chatting away. Finally, she came over to me and right away I asked her: “What the hell is it that you find so intriguing about Mr. Mingus?” She said, “I adore his impudence, he has such enthralling surliness, like an English lord, ya know!” I said, “Uh-huh” (and half understood what she meant). But her statement really helped to turn me on to the behavior of the late Charles Mingus, and I think after that I was more tolerant than ever before of his weird ways.

My entire association with Charles Mingus was an honor and a treat — including all the moods, temperaments, personality clashes, cooperation, and feelings of accomplishment and self-gratification. I can’t find any superlatives strong enough to define what those years meant to me. I left Mingus in 1968 primarily because of domestic obligations, and also because I felt an urge to pursue in my own ways some obligatory missionary work in the growing jazz community. But I continued to appear with him, off and on, until 1976.

Jazz, in my language, is a four letter word spelled L-O-V-E. Charles Mingus was one of the people who taught me to spell.

— Jaki Byard

So far on this page, Byard the historian is very much in evidence. He meets Rahsaan or Mingus squarely on turf where James P. Johnson is an expected guest. However, there’s also a wonderful body of sideman work from the ’60s that features Byard as a pure modernist, especially with Eric Dolphy, Don Ellis, Sam Rivers, and Booker Ervin.

One gets a sense from his comments above that Dolphy was one of Byard’s favorite musicians. Certainly they fell in musical love with each other: Dolphy’s early albums Outward Bound and Far Cry, both recorded in 1960, are firmly shaped by Byard’s aesthetic. I speculate that Byard found a new way to play his bebop lines after hearing Dolphy: Bird and Bud spread out into wider and more dissonant intervals. On these classic albums the cascades of somewhat disjunct piano lines deliver an effect similar to Dolphy’s chaotic phrasing.

Outward Bound will always hold a place in my heart, I had it young, and each time I return it is a gift that keeps on giving. While Dolphy is pushing the envelope, the general style is straight-down the middle, with lyrical magic from Freddie Hubbard and a rock-solid vibe from George Tucker and Roy Haynes. “On Green Dolphin St.” was a familiar jazz standard by 1960, part of the Miles Davis, Wynton Kelly, and Bill Evans repertoire. Most pianists try to play their hippest voicings on a tune like this, but Byard forgoes all that and dryly offers clomps of parallel triads that go in and out of the harmony. It’s not random, but it’s hardly precision science, either. Gorgeous. On the slow blues “245,” Byard delivers one of his finest solos, effortlessly virtuosic yet truly deep in the shed.

The music on Far Cry is a shade more abstract. Looking at the timeline confirms how astoundingly advanced music this was for late 1960, when Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come was barely on the shelves and John Coltrane’s My Favorite Things was yet to be released. Byard’s own “Mrs. Parker of K.C. (Bird’s Mother)” kicks things off with an oblique theme over a D phrygian pedal point; eventually it’s a B-flat blues. The opening Booker Little trumpet improvisation is simultaneously far-flung and internal, surely one of his greatest solos. Little, Dolphy, and Byard all play so beautifully over the magic carpet of Ron Carter and Roy Haynes. Like Outward Bound, the whole album Far Cry is a knockout.

Booker Little would die the next year, 1961; Dolphy in 1964, and bassist George Tucker in 1965. According to Mark Gardner’s liner notes to Byard’s 1967 On The Spot!, Byard’s piano piece “GEB Piano Roll” is, “a tribute to three young men, colleagues and personal friends of Jaki’s, who all died far too young—George Tucker, Eric Dolphy, and Booker Little.”

The two discs with Don Ellis, How Time Passes and New Ideas, sound exciting and fresh whenever they come around on rotation. This is probably the most notated and resolutely experimental music Byard ever recorded. (The cover of How Time Passes unashamedly includes the explainer, “….Third Stream Jazz…”) “How Time Passes” sports Byard wailing the abstract melody on saxophone, while his own piece “Waste” is an intriguing listen.

Sam Rivers and Byard knew each other on the ’50s Boston scene, and their one meeting in the studio is a famous one, Fuchsia Swing Song, Rivers’s debut on Blue Note with Ron Carter and Tony Williams. As great as it is, there’s also something a little disorganized in the ensemble. Byard always has to do a certain amount of romping and stomping, and that may not fit with every move of Rivers’s complex tunes and the ultra-hip bass and drums. Dolphy’s themes like “G.W.,” “Miss Ann” and so forth are not easy, but their harmonic base is pretty obvious: Byard plays root position chords for Dolphy and it all works out. On pieces like Sam Rivers’s “Cyclic Episode,” another kind of transparency in the piano voicings might elevate their expression. For me, Rivers’s stellar follow-up with Herbie Hancock the following year, Contours, is more of a unified statement. (Contours still has compositions with chord changes. To hear the Boston incursion of Rivers and Williams at their most transparent and abstract, try Williams’s masterpiece Spring.)

It’s interesting to speculate what Fuchsia Swing Song would have sounded like with Hancock at the piano. On the other hand, I recently audited Sonny Rollins and Herbie Hancock playing “Now’s the Time” with Ron Carter and Roy McCurdy. In this case Rollins and Carter are digging into the surreal blues much deeper than Hancock, who sounds merely professional on that take. Again, it’s interesting to speculate: What would that Rollins “Now’s the Time” sounded like with Byard on board?

Jazz can be a strikingly democratic music. Each musician changes the context. On certain occasions, a group transcends their limitations and become larger than life.

Sure, Booker Ervin always sounded good, but he was also a somewhat basic Texas tenor who relied on his magnificent tone to win over the congregation. However, on two quartet sessions with Byard, Richard Davis, and Alan Dawson, a certain chemical reaction was created.

First there was The Freedom Book in 1963 and then there was The Space Book in 1965, later repacked together as the two-fer The Freedom and Space Sessions with memorable notes by Stanley Crouch, who writes of Byard:

“He amalgamated the past with the most adventurous new harmonies and rhythms, evolving a style that always offered the possibilities of numerous improvisational perspectives. His playing rumbles and waddles, often summoning the dark tremolos of the church, the spunk and kick of stride piano, and the nearly seamless blisters of sound in Tatum and Powell. And all of this periodically careens into new musical worlds where some of Europe’s harsher harmonic responses to modern life are given a lilt even as they curse the age.”

Byard’s commitment to “Europe’s harsher harmonic responses to modern life” are all over these wild and woolly sessions. Ervin’s tunes are nice, but they are fairly simple, nothing like Eric Dolphy, let alone Sam Rivers. The comfortable melodies seem to provoke Byard and Richard Davis into being as disruptive as possible. Alan Dawson adjusts smoothly to the moving bar line and never stops swinging. Above the madness, Ervin plays long, elegant, and formally impeccable improvisations. The fast tunes burn like an icy wind and the ballads are the height of lonely despair.

Records change over time. When I listened to the The Freedom and Space Sessions in high school, it quickly became a favorite. Later, in my twenties and thirties, I started to wonder if it all wasn’t just a bit much. Now it seems obvious: this music is just right. It’s not perfect, but it’s just right.

All of Byard is worth hearing, including later trio sessions, the big band the Apollo Stompers, and assorted projects with students. Some of the best post-1970 records are varied live solo performances; try the sweetly engaging “Tribute to the Ticklers” from the Maybeck concert or an exploratory “In Your Own Sweet Way” from the Keystone Korner.

Byard’s legacy is clearly visible in the work of his two most famous pupils: Jason Moran’s ancient-to-the-future The Armory Concert would surely delight his mentor down to the ground, while Fred Hersch’s impish pandemic take on “When I’m Sixty Four” is strongly reminiscent of Byard.

The amateur documentary Anything for Jazz gives a brief look into Byard’s personality. At one point, he flatly declares, “I don’t like to compete.” That’s all well and good for you to say, Mr. Byard, but the fact remains: In terms of an unforced assimilation of the whole history of piano, Jaki Byard has now ruled the roost for a century.