Don Byron: Range and Vision
One of the broadest minded musicians in modern music is, of all things, a purveyor of the neglected clarinet. From Raymond Scott to Biz Markie—talk about leaping tall buildings in a single bound! But that’s Don Byron, perpetually eager to go there if it presents the proper challenge or provocation. Byron’s discography ranges from his Bug Music interpretations of Scott’s cartoon soundtracks, John Kirby, and
early Ellington to Biz Markie’s around-the-way onomatopoetic on Nu Blaxploitation within a seeming blink of an eye. In between he’s tackled Mickey Katz klezmer, visited Tuskegee and been righteously outraged at those infamous medical experiments, traveled south to Afro-Caribbeana, and swung his band to the No-Vibe Zone. And we’re only talking about seven years of discographical evidence here!
During a recent conversation on the wings of his latest Blue Note effort, Romance With the Unseen, inquiring minds broached the subject of that extraordinary range of music. “I think lots of people listen to that range of musicm,” he said. That’s debatable, and certainly few people deal with such a wide spectrum in such a relatively short period of time. “Ultimately, intellectually I’m very connected to that range of idioms. The clarinet puts you in a situation that’s kind of unique. There’s no way you can play the clarinet without playing classical music, so we all have that, even some of the cats like Greg Tardy. To play as much clarinet as he plays, you can’t without going to school and studying Mozart. People are just not used to seeing black folks do that. It just takes that involvement in that kind of music to get to a point where you can even finger some jazz.
“In terms of trying to put together a poetry project [Nu Blaxploitation], I grew up in the South Bronx (Eddie Daniels didn’t grow up in the South Bronx) so I saw Grandmaster Flash and DJ Kool Herc; these cats were all around the neighborhood, so I witnessed the beginnings of [hip hop]. My parents are of Afro-Caribbean descent so we were into the calypso, and Afro-Caribbean stuff and Cumbia....and my father was a jazz musician too, so we even knew some cats who were in and out of the Basie and Ellington bands. So I’m not really doing anything that I didn’t hear before I was 18. I didn’t grow up in a sheltered way, like ‘We’re from the Dominican Republic and we only listen to meringue’; that’s not the way I grew up.”
Translating such a broad scope of expressions on clarinet presents its own set of hazards, considering its inherent difficulties and relative scarcity of contemporary literature. Has the clarinet, particularly in jazz, been put in a box? “Well it’s mostly related to repertory music, which means people that don’t have any kind of connection to contemporary music. Learning the clarinet guides you away from what you need to be in contemporary jazz.” So the leap has its own set of perilous parameters. “The clarinet world is very provincial, it’s very formal, it’s also in some ways a new pedagogy because there is no clarinet before the Mannheim school, there’s no clarinet before the classical period, there’s no Baroque clarinet, there’s no early music clarinet, so it’s the youngest of the orchestral woodwinds other than the saxophone. And it’s the one that’s the most closed off to people that are trying to do something other than just be classical musicians. So to get through it you have to kinda either be willing to put some shit that’s important to you aside, or not show it, or just put up with a lotta stuff.”
One music blessed with intriguing clarinet literature is klezmer music. Byron’s over-chronicled immersion in that uniquely Jewish cultural expression, through the music of Mickey Katz, nearly stamped his career for life as the industry reacted to his involvement as some kind of dreadlocked freak-flag flying curiosity. “The Mickey Katz was the hardest thing to shake. Some people that only like that music are only into me playing that music. They wouldn’t be checking out any Steve Coleman music; they wouldn’t be checking out any kinda contemporary jazz played by young black musicians. That was probably the hardest thing to just kinda shake off, ’cause people resented the fact that it was kinda successful outside of the jazz world. I was playing Jewish music 15 years before all of this downtown [radical Jewish culture] activity. [Klezmer] is just a music that uses clarinet; it’s just one of the musics that I play that uses clarinet. I was interested in the chord changes and the scales. There’s lots of little musics around the world where the clarinet is kind of like the lead instrument.”
Certain elements are common to Byron’s music, such as the keen political wit that permeates many of his themes. Consider “Sex/Work,” written in response to the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill matter, the “Importance of Being [Rev. Al] Sharpton,” “Tuskegee Experiment,” nearly the entirety of Nu Blaxploitation, or the current date’s “Bernhard Goetz, James Ramseur and Me.” Each exemplifies an artist acutely aware of more than just the next gig in the world around him. “I just have a certain politic. I think lotsa people have a politic, but I think in the past, certainly since the Young Lions era, there hasn’t been a lot of politics in the music. But compared to what Mingus was talking about it’s not excessive, compared to what the hip hop cats are talking about, or the Last Poets, I don’t think it’s excessive. People that know me know that if we’re gonna talk for an hour, we’ll spend 20 minutes talking about stuff that I have in my pieces.
“When I think about putting that politic and that feeling in the music I think back to the Gary Bartz Ntu Troop. That for me was a model of how to do it, just feeling like when you put out a thing you want to put out some kind of gestalt picture of who you are.” Don Byron as agent provocateur?
“I think we’re at a point in history where people don’t want to think about those things because it profits them to think, or at least to let you think, that all of this stuff is over and we don’t need to be talking about biases of race and gender. And it’s never over, either you want to talk about it or you don’t, so if the fact that you want to talk about it means that you’re controvers-ial. If you read where I was coming from doing the Mickey Katz and doing Bug Music, there’s even a politic to those particular projects.”
Byron’s politics do indeed run deep, extending to who shares his bandstand. “When I’m off the bandstand I’m talking about that shit, and certain cats cannot hang with that. I remember when I went over to Europe with this band, an all-white band, I went through some racial shit in the airport. This white cat in the band was like, ‘Aw man, why are you dwelling on that shit?’ and it just happened to me five minutes ago, so that cat ain’t in my bands, ’cause for me that’s right there. I think that some of the brothers in my bands have learned more about certain kinds of things. Like a lot of the cats in the Six Musicians band didn’t know what an evil cat Shelby Steele [author of The Content of Our Character and one of the leaders of the new conservative black commentators bent on rolling back affirmative action] was—and they know now. I read Stanley [Crouch]’s book, and Shelby Steele, and Dinesh D’Souza. I read that kinda stuff because I wanna know how these cats are fucking up exactly.”
Other than the politics-motivated Goetz screed, his latest disc is imbued with an edgy sense of Byronesque romance befitting its title, with a streamlined quartet addressing the ten tracks, personnel of which includes Don’s first recorded encounter with Jack DeJohnette. “I like those loud, interactive drummers, all of which are coming out of Jack, even Joey Baron and Ralph Peterson—they’d all say in a heartbeat that they’re coming out of [Jack]. So it was just interesting to experience Jack firsthand. In terms of a kinda group thing, I don’t hear that many records that are more interactive than that record: you can hear one thing that’s played off another thing that’s played off another thing. It’s not like a jazz record in terms of people just playing stuff that they’ve practiced. I think it’s a very kinda interactive record in the way that I worked my shit with Bill, with Jack. It’s a lot like the core group that’s on Tuskegee. We chose Drew [Gress] because to me a bass player is somebody that you don’t have to sense where they are or where they’re going even if they’re playing some tricky shit, you know that they’re there.”
Renewing bandstand acquaintances with Frisell was akin to welcoming an old friend at the unexpected knock on your door. “I think that Frisell and I both play what I call indefinite instruments. You can get up inside a piano and start throwing objects in it, essentially if you hit one note a little baby could play it; you can’t put a wah-wah pedal on it or change the pitch. Frisell and I kinda play this pair of instruments that kinda both have that indefinite thing on them. We have a sense of line that’s similar and a sense of harmony and how to attack it. I think that we’ve used all of the indefinite qualities of our instruments together in a really kind of unusual way.”
What new projects lay in wait of provocateur Byron’s potent expression? “I’m doing this duo thing, gathering songs together that have the kind of control over harmony and the drama of lyrics that an aria from an opera has. I had to try to find some stuff that did that. There’s the obvious stuff, like the Schuman that I love, Puccini, but then I pulled in some Stevie Wonder or some L.A. and Babyface, and we’re gonna have different singers come in and guest. It’s a duo between me and [pianist] Uri [Caine] with a few guest singers, some Broadway, some pop, some jazz.”
Byron’s application of diverse correlations to his music doesn’t end with his politics or unlikely musical sources. To fulfill a commission from the new music Bang on a Can All-Stars, “I’ve been listening to how a lot of comedy teams interact, listening to a lot of Mike Nichols and Elaine May for my through-composed writing. When you get into the 20th century stuff where one part plays off another part, the only thing that you can compare it to is like some of these great comedy teams. When you really check out the phrasing of a great comedy team, and why you laugh in a spot, that’s what’s interesting.” Inquiring minds always find a way.
My computer is a Sony PCG-F180 notebook with Sibelius Notation Software. My clarinets (A, B-flat, and B-flat bass [with low C extension]) are Buffets (I am a Buffet endorsee). The mouthpieces are all Borbecks with close to medium tip openings as I play double lip. My ligatures are either old French ligatures I find in the junk bins at music stores, or gold Harrison ligatures. For reeds on clarinet I play either old Vandoren #5’s or old Grand Concert 4 1/4’s. On bass clarinet I’m less choosy but have had good success with Marca reeds and Glotin reeds.
“Some records I listen to for pleasure: John Corigliano Symphony No.1 (Barenboim/Chicago). An excellent performance, great music that actually encourages classical players to make improvisational choices without their knowing it.
Edward Simon la Bikina. Like my 6 Musicians record, a subversive Afro-Carribean jazz record La Sonora Poncena. Musical Conquest, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, in retrospect. Great Interplay, Dietrich Fischer Dieskau and Afred Brendel Schumann Dichterlieb Liederkranz. Sonny Rollins Sonny Meets Hawk.”
Originally published in December 1999