WICN Artist of the Month, June 2022: Jaki Byard

Written by on June 1, 2022

As mentoring becomes a more recognized adjunct to an established career as a jazz musician (or any veteran artist), the impact is clear when insights are shared by mentored musicians. There are a handful of such teachers that carry as much respect for their philosophy of learning an instrument, as their accomplishments as composers. Multi-instrumentalist, composer and arranger Jaki Byard is a compelling example of this gift, recognized as an instructor who took many students–and notable musicians–into new perspectives, evaluations, and directions in their explorations of jazz.

Jason Moran, American jazz pianist, composer, and educator involved in multimedia art and theatrical installations, was profoundly impacted and influenced by his instruction and study under Byard. Moran has undertaken a renaissance within jazz and is a multi-award winner in DownBeat’s categories of Rising Star in jazz artist, piano and composer for three consecutive years (2003-05). He studied with Byard for 4 years at the Manhattan School of Music in New York. As a principal guide in Moran’s instruction, Byard helped him develop his technique and to become aware of the range of musical possibilities. “He was a central figure for me as a professional…He seemed to pinpoint a place in music where you understand the variety of technique you could have, but also the multiple ways it could be explored in any given concert,” he stated.

Focusing on his reputation also does not just fall to Byard’s highly respected capabilities as an innovative teacher and his profound knowledge of jazz composition and instrumentation. 

He is also recognized as a stylistic virtuoso, held in high esteem by both jazz critics and fellow musicians alike. As quoted in the 1999 New York Times obituary about his life, Byard once said in an interview with one of his students, the renowned avant-garde saxophonist Marty Ehrlich, ”I played Bud Powell solos, and that was a phase. Then there was Garner, and that was a phase, and then Tatum, and then finally I decided to put everything together and say the hell with it, this is it.”

Born here in Worcester in 1922 into a musical family, Byard began piano lessons at age six. With the onset of the Great Depression, the lessons stopped, though his musical ear found opportunities to seek out live bands and listening to Benny Goodman, Lucky Millinder, Fats Waller, and Chick Webb and other bands of the era on the radio. “Those were things that inspired me – I guess it stuck with me,” he commented decades later. (Stokes, W. Royal (May 27, 1979) “This Music Is Unmistakably American: Jaki Byard’s Big-Band Stand”. Washington Post. p. L1.)

Playing professionally by the age of 16, he was also learning by rote, memorizing techniques on piano and other instruments. He would expand his musical exposure to include studying classical composers such as Stravinsky and Chopin. Byard would become a multi-instrumentalist, first taking up the trombone and then focusing on the tenor and alto saxophone. Already becoming a mentor to future jazz players of significant reputation, during his military service with the US Army in 1946, he also taught the young saxophonist Cannonball Adderley and his brother, Nat.

In the 1950s, finding opportunities in Boston, Byard played with a variety of local and regional bands including Ray Perry, Earl Bostic, Joe Gordon, Sam Rivers and Herb Pomeroy. At this stage in his career, he was already performing both as a pianist and a tenor saxophonist but also being sought out for his instruction due to his personal concepts regarding jazz. In jazz historian Richard Vacca’s chronicle of the local jazz scene in Boston, The Boston Jazz Chronicles: Faces, Places, and Nightlife 1937-1962, Byard’s presence as a mentor during this period is remembered. Vacca’s chapter on Byard begins with historian and jazz critic Nat Hentoff’s assertion that “Jaki was a pervasive influence on nearly every young Boston jazz musician who was interested in discovering new jazz routes.”

His first significant break into a more popular and commercial band was playing with Maynard Ferguson in 1959, both as a band musician and arranger. But after touring with Ferguson’s big band, Byard wanted less musical structure and conformity as opposed to remaining tied to one style of jazz.

With an opportunity to focus on composition, at 38, Byard recorded his first album, Blues for Smoke (Candid, 1960), which critics recognize as significantly innovative, aside from showcasing a brilliant piano solo set. Scott Yanow, music critic for AllMusic explains, “Many of these selections (all nine tunes are his originals) look both backwards to pre-bop styles and ahead to the avant-garde.” In December of 1960, connecting with the enormously gifted and influential multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy, Byard would play on Dolphy’s album Far Cry (Prestige Records, 1960), which introduced Jaki’s most celebrated compositions, Mrs. Parker of K.C., and Ode to Charlie Parker. Throughout the ‘60s, Byard would also become the pianist of choice for jazz’s many vanguards.

With an established recording relationship with Dolphy’s bebop-based debut recording Outward Bound (New Jazz, 1960), Byard won a spot in the legendary Charles Mingus band of 1962-1964. Stepping into a weighty role as pianist for an incredibly dynamic, cutting-edge band of innovators, and a very demanding band leader, Byard became a core contributor. Touring in ‘64 with Mingus and his legendary quintet/sextet, which included Eric Dolphy (flute, alto sax, bass clarinet), Johnny Cole (trumpet), Clifford Jordan (tenor sax) and Mingus’ rhythmic soul-mate Dannie Richmond (drums), he was a part of one of the most acclaimed ensembles in jazz history. Byard would also record on two seminal jazz albums, Mingus’ The Black Saint and the Lady Singer (Impulse, 1963) and Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus (Impulse, 1964), which reviewed collectively by music critic Steve Huey of AllMusic, as “one of the most fertile, inventive hot streaks of any composer (Mingus) in jazz history.”

As a bandleader, Byard would record many releases with the Prestige label during the ‘60s and ‘70s with small and more intimate band arrangements, including trios and sextets, which included Jaki Byard with Strings (Prestige, 1968), and Out Front! (Prestige, 1965). American jazz critic Gary Giddins, who wrote for The Village Voice, stated of this period, “the most commanding rhythm section of the 60s, excepting the Hancock-Carter-Williams trio in Miles Davis’ band.” Unfortunately, popularity with jazz critics did not translate into record sales or wider audience recognition, as remarked by a Washington Post review in 1970 of his last release with Prestige, Solo Piano, “this was a recording by a man who has been largely ignored outside of the inner circle.”

(West, Hollie I. (June 21, 1970) “Jazz: Signs of a Renaissance?”. Washington Post. p. H3.)

Throughout the 60s, Byard also had a remarkable string of associations with top-drawer jazz musicians and legends including Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, and even substituting, occasionally, on piano for the Duke Ellington orchestra.

His was also following a hybrid career as teacher, mentor, instructor and musical guide – all rolled into one. Byard was a charter faculty member at the New England Conservatory of Music, helping establish its jazz studies program, initially named ‘Afro-American Music’; he stayed for more than 15 years. (Jaki Byard Archives 2013-09-27 at Wayback Machine. New England Conservatory of Music. Retrieved Sept. 10, 2013). Testimonials abound at the NEC website. Marty Ehrlich, NEC graduate and critically acclaimed multi-instrumentalist, considered one of the leading figures in avant-garde jazz, described Byard thusly: “Jaki was the greatest teacher of jazz in its many facets and an under-recognized figure in the history of the music…With Jaki, you learned what the music was about in a very profound way.”

Additionally, Byard was either on faculty or teaching at several of America’s most prestigious institutions: The Hartt School of Music, Manhattan School of Music, New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, plus three years as a lecturer at Harvard University.

Tragically, his life was cut short, when in 1999, he was murdered in his home in New York City.

With no evidence of forced entry or robbery, the case remains unsolved.

As a mentor to many successful jazz artists, his spirit and concepts regarding the jazz genre are widely applied. Several NEC fellow faculty members, among them Ran Blake (the founder and chair of NEC’s Contemporary Improvisation department from 1974-2005) and Carl Atkins (’75 M.M. original chair of NEC’s jazz department, from 1969-1976, also directed the Thelonious Monk Institute for Jazz Performance at NEC in the late 90s) have special personal reflections of Byard’s contributions as a mentor and instructor. Blake states, “He (Byard) was warm, kind, giving person and a marvelous and versatile musician…his genius will be missed by all who knew him and his music.”  The results of Byard’s gift as a teacher, beyond his mastery as a multi-instrumentalist, clearly live on in the evolution of ideas and exploration of the jazz genre.


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