Don Byron: Song of a Preacher Fan

From professional struggles to televangelism: a musical-spiritual story

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Don Byron
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Don Byron
By Petra Cvelbar
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Brad Jones, Don Byron, DK Dyson at Winter Jazzfest 2011
By Petra Cvelbar

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It’s a Sunday afternoon in late February, and in the spacious Manhattan loft where his girlfriend lives, Don Byron is watching a sermon by televangelist T.D. Jakes on his laptop. Throughout our conversation, the 53-year-old clarinetist, saxophonist and composer makes humorous yet insightful comments about Jakes’ ministry. At one point, Jakes hits a fevered plateau and revs his seemingly endless congregation into ecstasy. “I just love the way he physically acts things out,” Byron says, as his eyes dance with delight at Jakes’ animated homily. “He’s a comedian; he’s an actor; he’s a mime.” Byron repeatedly compares some of Jakes’ messages to the ideas of Sigmund Freud.

This leads Byron to reflect on another Jakes sermon, “Let It Go.” For this one, the pastor supplied his sea of Dallas churchgoers with helium-filled balloons and Sharpie pens. He instructed them to write whatever hard feelings or painful memories they had onto the balloons and let them ascend into the air. “Letting go of hurts—very Freudian,” Byron says. “There were some hurts that I needed to let go. Even guys that are less Freudian than this, when they catch you on the right day they are talking directly to you.”

*****

The night before, at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre, Byron did some preaching of his own. He talked directly to the packed audience about the music and life of bluesman-turned-gospel architect Thomas A. Dorsey, whose influence on the genre is so monumental it’s difficult to imagine it existing without his contributions. Byron also delighted the crowd with music from his new disc, Love, Peace, and Soul (Savoy Jazz), an intriguing homage to the gospel tradition, in particular the legacies of Dorsey and Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

Accompanied onstage (and on disc) by his New Gospel Quintet, with Carla Cook filling in for DK Dyson, who sings on the album, Byron’s speech unfolded like liner notes in real time. He relayed the tragic backstory of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” Dorsey’s best-known composition. (Dorsey’s first wife died during childbirth; two days later, the child died too.) Another powerful anecdote centered on “Consideration,” which Dorsey wrote after consoling an ailing friend at his deathbed. Byron offered his own whimsical view of God, equating the deity with some spectral CEO who has to attend to countless spiritual crises. Byron argued that one of Dorsey’s most powerful gifts was his ability to respond to some of life’s most wretched situations through song. He explained that Dorsey was a visionary composer who meshed lyrics of spiritual concern with the nastiest blues sounds—so bluesy, in fact, that he received backlash from the church.

Byron also waxed poetic about Tharpe, who, he argued, invented rock and roll through her incisive guitar playing. “There was something violent about how she played guitar,” Byron said with a laugh, before bringing avant-garde ax-wielder Brandon Ross to the stage for a stirring rendition of Charles A. Tindley’s “Beams of Heaven.”

Despite the history lesson at the core of Byron’s performance, the music served as a reminder of his two-decade-long career on the jazz scene. With an intoxicating mixture of wanton spirit and erudite precision, he’s investigated Latin jazz, klezmer, European classical, funk, hip-hop and R&B with equal panache. And his willingness to explore the sociopolitical text of his music—regardless of how highbrow or street-level—has made him one of jazz’s most fearless conceptualists. Even his outstanding musicianship harbors a conceptual angle: Mainly because of Byron’s work in the 1990s, the clarinet has largely shed its trad-jazz exclusivity and is now acceptable across a variety of postmodern jazz applications.

Likewise, the performance, even with rousing singing from Cook and special guest Dean Bowman, felt more like a killing jazz gig than a conventional Southern Baptist black church experience. As Byron puts it, “We’re kind of folding in old gospel blues with bebop stuff, with some of the energy of the avant-garde. It’s just another way of expressing a divine feeling or thought.”

Alternating between clarinets and saxophones, Byron blew coruscating melodic figures filled with unexpected high-register screeches and jolting dissonant harmonies. Brad Jones’ basslines firmly anchored the ensemble while drummer Pheeroan akLaff propelled it with hyperkinetic rhythms. Xavier Davis brought an orchestral glimmer to the proceedings, and fused his encyclopedic knowledge of jazz piano history with gospel on a spectacular extended solo during “It’s My Desire.”

But the most gripping moments of the set occurred during the quieter selections, like the magnificent reading of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”; “Himmm,” a gorgeous Byron original dedicated to contemporary gospel star Kirk Franklin; and a marvelous reading of “When I’ve Done My Best.”

*****

Back at the penthouse, Byron elaborates on the making of and reasoning behind Love, Peace, and Soul. “My concern as a black intellectual has always been about soul music as a self-conscious, real movement with compositions moving back and forth in between different people,” he says. “That’s the sign of a healthy movement, and that’s why I played Junior Walker’s music and James Brown’s music. In lieu of those concerns, everything led back to gospel music.

“In terms of gospel music, everything leads back to Dorsey,” he continues. “With Dorsey, you have a concrete beginning of a certain kind of school of thought. When you read his sheet music, all of the harmonic moves that you know about gospel music that give it that sound—you’re just looking at them and they’re right there. He studied piano formally for a brief time at Morehouse College, so he knew how to notate what he was doing.”

The New Gospel Quintet has seen several lineup changes; the piano chair has been especially transient, being filled by Frank Wilkins, Geri Allen and George Colligan, among others. Byron notes that the pianist plays a crucial role in the ensemble in terms of arrangements, as it does in all gospel ensembles. As Xavier Davis puts it, “[The piano] has such a strong rhythmic and harmonic influence on the music that it’s almost part of the language.”

The disc features Byron with all of the musicians from the Miller Theatre performance (save for Cook), plus some special guests: guitarist Vernon Reid, trumpeter Ralph Alessi and baritone saxophonist J.D. Parran. Byron recruited his musicians mostly from his Symphony Space Orchestra, beginning in 2009. And even though his take on gospel is filled with jazz intellectualism, the traditional part of the project required some adjustment from his expert jazz personnel. AkLaff, who has participated in nearly every version of the New Gospel Quintet, says that, for him, one of the main challenges was playing the drums as if it was 1939. “After you’ve added many 21st-century and late-20th-century elements in your battery of musical phrases, you have to take yourself back to a time when the drums had a very specific role in ensemble music,” akLaff says. Luckily, however, akLaff is able to draw upon his many years playing in churches while growing up in Detroit. “The whole energy and attitude to support vocals with drums is something that I worked on very hard,” he says.

Jones notes a similar challenge, in that he had to relearn how to play simple basslines after so many years playing jazz. Still, he says, you have to bring your A-game to the table when playing gospel. “You can’t underestimate it,” he explains. “Like any other genre of music, you have to give gospel respect [and] learn its history.”

Even though Cook came up in the church, she grew up Methodist, not Baptist, the denomination commonly associated with gospel tradition. She says that one of her hurdles was singing in such a comparatively more spirited manner for long stretches in one night. The Miller Theatre was only her second performance with the New Gospel Quintet. “Most of the music I was not familiar with,” she reveals. “I knew ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’ and a little bit of ‘Didn’t It Rain,’ but that’s all.”

Reid didn’t grow up in a Baptist household either; he grew up Catholic. But he remembers hearing some of the repertoire just from being a member of the black American community. “[These compositions] are spiritual documents as well as historical and sociological documents,” Reid says. “They have an importance that transcends any particular denomination; these songs tell powerful stories. Even for people who are deeply secular, they are still very moved by this music. I guess it’s the sound of someone who is so convinced about what they are feeling.”

As for Byron’s personal religious heritage, it is best illustrated in the sepia-toned image in the CD package’s tray. It shows an infant Byron preparing to be baptized by his grandfather, Bishop Joseph Byron, inside a Harlem church on Lexington Avenue. “He was a real character!” Byron remembers. “He ran a shipping business in the basement of his church, and there were always visitors. His vibe was somewhere between a religious guy and Don Corleone.”

When Byron’s parents moved to the Bronx, his mother, Daisy, wanted to find a nearby worship service, which led the family to attend a Lutheran church. “The theology of that church was pretty bland, and, as I remember, the church took no stand on the civil rights issues of the moment,” Byron recalls. “The lessons I learned as a Lutheran were not applicable to any of my situations. It simply was not practical enough.” A budding intellectual at the time, Byron found himself more interested in the teachings of Reverend Ike and, later, Buddhism and thinkers such as Freud and Wilhelm Reich.

But it was ministries such as Jakes’, Jasper Williams’ and G.E. Patterson’s that helped inspire Byron’s interests in gospel. He points out the inherent musicality in many black preachers’ sermons. “I never really thought about what a gospel singer actually did until I checked out these ministers,” Byron says. “It’s bringing that energy into a more purely musical thing. But also it’s about the kind of information that’s being disseminated. I just started putting the whole thing together about how to look at that music.” His interest in classic gospel material was also awakened by a college course he taught called “The Poetics of Everyday Music.” Eventually he started paying attention to what current gospel sensations like Kirk Franklin, Fred Hammond and Mark Taylor were doing. “I just never felt music quite [so] deeply,” says Byron, “where I would just hear something and start crying.”

*****

So if televangelical superstars brought Byron to gospel music, what brought Byron to those ministers? That attraction occurred about six years ago, after he lost a significant amount of money pursuing a half-dozen film-related projects. “There aren’t that many black people working in film. So they didn’t trust me as a black person and as a jazz musician,” he says. “But instead of just saying that, they said, ‘Well, you’re on the road all the time.’”

Byron had taken a considerable amount of time off from jazz performance, in order to fully delve into his ideas for films and film scores. He came up with several documentary projects, a few features and even a Japanese video game. “And every one of them fell through. It was devastating. … I felt almost biblically forsaken,” he recalls. “It was at that moment in which I sort of stumbled into seeing some of these preachers talking. Even during that period where things didn’t work out, I ended up turning that into something. Everything that I built up to then, including my academic activities and certain things about my improvising and writing, I decided to turn inward and develop. … I just opened up to them. I owe a lot to T.D. Jakes in terms of my personal development.”

Much of Byron’s disappoint could be attributed to the fact that, as a composer, he believes his ideal setting would be film scoring. “That’s what I really think my calling is,” he says. “It’s why I’m versed in so many idioms. I know how to write for idiomatic players. That’s what a film composer of a certain era had to be able to do.”

Of course, his evocative music has always told stories. The conversation veers from Tuskegee Experiments, Byron’s 1992 debut, named for the immoral clinical study perpetuated on rural black men by the U.S. government, toward George Lucas’ recently released action-adventure film, Red Tails, about the historic Tuskegee Airmen, who fought in the racially segregated U.S. military of WWII. Lucas caused a ruckus by claiming that if the self-financed film bombed at the box office, Hollywood would never finance another film focused mostly on blacks. Byron agreed with Lucas’ assertion regarding Hollywood, but also called the film “a piece of shit. The dialogue is really weak; it’s very much like a high school play. That movie was so terrible. But it’s not more terrible than a whole lot of other shit that people watch. If you watch Titanic, it’s the same level of bad scriptwriting.”

If Red Tails succeeds—initial box office figures were strong—Byron hopes Hollywood will green light another historical movie based on an under-documented black American experience that will allow for multifaceted characters, rich dialogue and complex narratives. Byron definitely wants in on the next big thing. On Facebook, he even suggested a movie be made on the 1944 Port Chicago Mutiny, a workers’ revolt that followed a deadly munitions explosion. “Let’s do something just increasingly more artistic,” Byron says. “There is no reason why, just because we’re doing black subject matter and it’s about stuff that we want to wave the [American] flag around, that it can’t be complicated and more intellectual.”

Tales of the military and racial prejudice hit close to home for Byron, whose father, Donald Sr., a Navy man, educated him on what American life was like for blacks before civil rights. “He would talk about black people having law degrees but working at lunch counters or shining shoes,” Byron remembers. “Just because you had these advanced degrees, it didn’t necessarily mean that you could do anything with them. It’s hard to convey that now, because on paper now, we’re free. You can be a lawyer if you want to. But what about a period when it didn’t matter how smart you were?”

*****

When Byron talks about his trials and tribulations and how he had to rely on Christian faith, his discussion seems more intellectual than spiritual. Dressed in jeans and a salmon-colored sweater, there is no conspicuous crucifix dangling in front of his chest. Nor do you see any overtly religious artifacts in his environment. Today, Byron views himself as a “consumer” of Christian ministry. “I have distance,” he says. He also has zero patience for some churches’ pervasive homophobia. “I really don’t understand the homophobia in the church, especially the black church. Because there are too many gay people involved with the church, especially with the music,” he says.

He’s also well aware that his interpretations of black gospel music aren’t as conventional as some genre diehards may like. When asked if his New Gospel Quintet has performed inside a bona fide black church, Byron mentions a few such dates, including one at Harlem’s Mother A.M.E. Zion Church, on a bill including Pastor John P. Kee. “We played our stuff and people felt it,” Byron says, before explaining that he’s performed the music mostly at regular jazz venues, where he sees a demographic shift in his audience. “There are exponentially more black people in the [jazz club] audience just playing this music than I would normally see at the Jazz Standard at any given point,” he says. “Even when I was doing Junior Walker’s music, it was like that. Certain jazz critics just hated that I was doing that stuff.”

Byron is certainly no stranger to creating music with potentially polarizing effects. On 1993’s Don Byron Plays the Music of Mickey Katz, he delved into Jewish klezmer music; on 1998’s Nu Blaxploitation, he took on incendiary ’70s funk and ’90s hip-hop. And while both of those projects yielded considerable praise, they reflect styles whose audiences rarely, if ever, overlap. Right now, though, Byron seems less concerned with what the jazz cognoscenti will think of his new album. Instead, he takes cues from pastors like Jakes and puts faith in his own message. “They have a faith in their ministry that allows them to fail with 40 percent of the people in the room and hit the 60, or fail with 90 percent of the people in the room and succeed with 10. They know that and say that,” he explains. “That’s what you really have to do to reach a lot of people, not really care if you’re going to reach everybody. You just have to know that what you’re saying is true, and that it may just be a small minority of people who really feel what you’re doing.”

Extra: Five Sacred-Jazz Albums to Rejoice Over
By Jeff Tamarkin

RAMSEY LEWIS
With One Voice (Narada, 2005)
He built his reputation in the ’60s by reconfiguring pop and R&B hits of the day as soulful jazz instrumentals, but long before that, pianist Ramsey Lewis accompanied his local church choir. On this return to his roots, Lewis utilizes a jazz combo and traditional gospel choir to celebrate the spirit. Most of the tunes, recorded live, are Lewis originals, but it’s the opener, the stirring gospel staple “Oh Happy Day,” that radiates brightest.

MARY LOU WILLIAMS
Mary Lou’s Mass (Smithsonian Folkways, 2005)
One of the first highly touted female jazz musicians, and one of the genre’s most admirable figures overall, pianist Mary Lou Williams was a devout Catholic who once declared, “[I’m] praying through my fingers when I play.” Williams focused the later part of her career on spiritually informed jazz, and this suite, commissioned by the Vatican and recorded in the ’60s (the reissue also includes some ’70s tracks), showcases Williams’ mastery of a potpourri of styles ranging from funk to solemn chants to Broadway-style rousers.

PETE MALINVERNI
Joyful! (ArtistShare, 2007)
Although most of his recorded output has been secular, keyboardist-composer Pete Malinverni has long served as the Minister of Music at his Brooklyn church and has fused jazz and gospel there on a regular basis. This CD/DVD set is all about the commonalties shared by the two forms: Utilizing both the Devoe Street Baptist Church Choir and a jazz ensemble, Malinverni is alternately contemplative and rollicking on this ambitious work based on the psalms of David.

KIM BURRELL
No Ways Tired (Shanachie, 2009)
Singer and pianist Kim Burrell hasn’t recorded nearly enough under her own name, spending most of her studio and stage time making other artists—in the secular and gospel arenas—sound better. Both her original compositions and the traditional numbers on this set shine, but the real prize is “Someone to Watch Over Me.” Turning her gaze above, Burrell’s volcanic delivery gives the Gershwins’ standard an entirely new, entirely believable message and aesthetic.

KIRK WHALUM
The Gospel According to Jazz Chapter III (Rendezvous, 2010)
Although he’s one of the undisputed superstars of secular smooth jazz, saxophonist Kirk Whalum has also recorded three volumes to date in this series of gospel-jazz crossovers. On the most recent, cut live, the saxophonist alternates between seriously funky grooves and softer-edged, well-constructed ballads, peaking with back-to-back knockouts featuring Lalah Hathaway on vocals: the Grammy-winning “It’s What I Do” and a soulful, straightforward reading of B.B. King’s signature “The Thrill Is Gone.”

Originally published in May 2012

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