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Jaki Byard

A New England Jazz Story, in association with the Weiss Jazz History Database at WPI

John Arthur Byard was born at 47 Clayton Street in Worcester on June 15, 2922. His father, John Byard Sr., played trombone and trumpet in the very first jazz group in Worcester, MA, “Mamie Moffett and her 5 Jazz Hounds”. Jaki’s mother was a pianist & church musician as was his grandmother (who also played for silent films in the theater houses in Worcester). When “talkies” came out, his Grandmother’s piano was moved to the Byard home and Jaki began playing at a young age.

By 1928, Mamie Moffett retired and the remaining members changed the name to the “Nite Hawks”.  There are no recording of either the 5 Jazz Hounds or the Nite Hawks. In the mid-1930’s, Jaki and a few friends (most notably saxophoist Howie Jefferson and  trumpeter Barney Price) started a co-op called the “Saxtrum Club” where they began jam sessions late into the night. They invited many of the national traveling bands performing in Worcester to stop over and play after their performances. Jaki began arranging for the Nite Hawks and even rehearsed the band which continued through the late 1930’s

By age 16 Jaki began his professional career, playing trumpet, trombone and saxophone as well as piano. After High School, he was drafted into the Army in 1941, where he remained through World War II. In 1946 he left the Army and began playing in Boston, later joining the band of the legendary rhythm and blues saxophonist Earl Bostic. He started a bebop trio with two creative voices, Sam Rivers on saxophone and trumpeter Joe Gordon, and later began a steady gig with Charlie Mariano. He also toured with trumpet virtuoso Maynard Ferguson for several years.

He moved to New York where he recorded and gigged extensively. His debut recording was a notable trio session in 1960 on Candid Records, Blues for Smoke.  He then began a long relationship with Prestige Records, which released twelve albums under Jaki’s leadership and many more as featured sideman with the likes of Eric Dolphy, Booker Ervin, and Don Ellis. Notably, his performance on Dolphy's Outward Bound put Byard at the forefront of modern jazz. Jaki joined Charles Mingus for 1962–64, including essential albums on Impulse! Records, Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus and The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, plus several epic live concert releases. He also played with Art Blakey and Elvin Jones for concert dates.

As a pianist, Jaki had few peers in the depth and breadth of his creativity and virtuosity. Always a memorable soloist, he was uniquely able to accompany the likes of Mingus, Dolphy, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, as he could match their stylistic references, their intensity, and their musical wit. As John S. Wilson of the New York Times writes in appreciation: “He was a stylistic virtuoso, his fecund imagination saw comparisons and contrasts everywhere, and his improvisations were encyclopedic and profound. He also had a sense of humor that rippled through everything he played.”

In 1969, Byard was one of the first hires to the jazz program at Boston’s New England Conservatory (NEC), where he taught piano and had his student version of the “Apollo Stompers” while he kept his professional “Apollo Stompers” big band in New York. Jaki was the subject of a wonderful documentary film in 1980 called “Anything for Jazz”. In addition to New England Conservatory he taught at Hartt School of Music, lectured at Harvard University, Manhattan School of Music and The New School in NYC.

Jason Moran (current senior faculty at NEC and musical adviser of the Kennedy Center), George Schuller, Jamie Baum and many others have gone on to explore Jaki’s music.  Of special note is the group co-led by Jamie Baum and George Schuller called “Yard Byard: The Jaki Byard Project” which performs his music with a modern and flexible twist: “inch by Inch” is their CD tribute to Jaki.

Jaki continued performing and teaching through the 1990s. His life came to an abrupt and tragic end February 11, 1999, when he was found dead of a gunshot wound at his home in Queens. The cause of his death remains a mystery to this day. In 2001, he became a charter inductee to the New England Jazz Hall of Fame.

Jaki Byard multi-media collection:

Symposium on the music of Jaki Byard:

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Underwriter of the Week

Rockport Music

Presenting live music of all genres to the greater Boston area since 1981.

Performances at
Shalin Liu Performance Center
37 Main Street
Rockport, MA 01966