Bypassing Byas No More

On January 27, Sonny Rollins accepted the Living Legend of Jazz prize at the first annual Nightlife Awards, an event honoring performers in jazz, cabaret (living legend Julie Wilson) and comedy (Robert Klein, who said that seeing Rollins backstage was like meeting Babe Ruth). Cecil Taylor, Jason Moran, Bill Charlap and Dee Dee Bridgewater shared Town Hall’s stage with Sondheim acolytes, transvestites and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. In his understated remarks, Rollins paid homage to only one of the saxophonists who had influenced him. He wanted to remind everyone of a neglected titan: Don Byas.

Charlie Parker once said that Byas played everything there was to play; yet he disappeared from view in his later years. Byas had gone to Europe in 1946 with Don Redman’s orchestra, and, except for one visit, never came back. Few of his European records crossed the Atlantic, so he became a prematurely historical figure: out of sight, out of mind. As Rollins noted, he merits rediscovery. His music, forged in Coleman Hawkins’ furnace, evolved into a highly personal style, long on finesse, romance and dazzling virtuoso flourishes.

Born in Muskogee, Okla. in 1912, Byas worked territory bands in the Midwest and California before hooking up with Lionel Hampton in the mid-’30s. But he didn’t achieve national recognition until 1941, when he replaced Lester Young in Count Basie’s band and etched his name in boldface caps with two subtly expressive choruses on “Harvard Blues.” Privileged New Yorkers were able to hear him more extensively at after-hours sessions, jamming with Helen Humes and the Thelonious Monk-Kenny Clarke house band; some of those performances came to light more than 30 years later on Midnight at Minton’s.

During the next five years Byas was jazz’s hot new tenor, though his career briefly hit a wall in 1943, when Basie fired him and Lester Young reclaimed his old chair. Don had succumbed to jealous pique one night after Ben Webster sat in and wowed the band. The specifics are not widely known, but in a 1980 interview conducted for the Smithsonian Institution’s Jazz Oral History Project, Buddy Tate described them in detail, amid much laughter.

The band was working the Hotel Lincoln when Webster came by and Basie asked Byas to defer to him for a number. While everyone raved about how brilliantly Webster played, Byas retreated to a nearby bar that sold three drinks for the price of one. He promptly got “ossified,” according to Tate: “I mean, he couldn’t hit the ground with his head.” Byas staggered back to find the band taking intermission in a small room off the ballroom. Basie said, “You’re drunk,” at which point Byas pulled out a pistol, ordered the band against the wall and complained, “Basie, goddamit, you don’t give a damn about nobody in the world but Lester Young,” to which Basie replied, “I’ve always liked your playing, Don.” This chat continued until the house dick sneaked up and disarmed Byas, who collapsed into a deep sleep and was taken to his room. Basie sent him his two-weeks’ notice the next day. Byas, who recalled nothing, saw the pay envelope and told the straw boss, “Goddamn, it’s about time that sonofabitch gave me a raise.”

As it happened, the next two years were the best of Byas’ career. He awed the younger modernists at the Onyx Club, working with Dizzy Gillespie’s band, and had the same effect on the traditionalists at Town Hall, playing two magnificent duets with Slam Stewart. He recorded regularly for small labels like Savoy, Commodore, American (a minor hit with “Laura”), Prestige and Gotham. I am partial to the three sessions he made for Jamboree: one jumping original and 11 standards that display the controlled intensity of his swing, the warm burr of his timbre, the simple elegance of his ballads and the authority of his novel variations, shrewd turnbacks and deft cadenzas. His “Pennies From Heaven” chorus is masterly. Trumpeter Joe Thomas states the melody, supported by the tenor’s obbligato. Then Byas takes over with a pick-up measure, develops a fresh variation, builds to a stunning double-time episode and rests languidly 10 bars later with a poignant sigh.

Byas left the U.S. just as Dexter Gordon, Wardell Gray and Stan Getz were emerging from the new pack of tenors, and he triumphed as the first great tenor to decamp since Hawkins in the ’30s, cutting dozens of sides in Spain, France, Germany, Denmark and elsewhere. His playing occasionally indulged in a boozy sentimentality and rote 16th-note runs, but at his best he commanded a resourceful intricacy that trumped his earlier work-for example, a superior 1952 remake of “Laura” that opens with a huge trombone-slur of a note, mounts an ingenious paraphrase and crests with a characteristic cry. Like Rollins, Byas was an honest player whose feelings-joy, sweetness, regret, humor, indifference-were worn on his sleeve and manifested with discerning confidence.

There were happy reunions with Dizzy, Roy Eldridge and Bud Powell (a 1961 album produced by Cannonball Adderley was issued 18 years later at Nat Adderley’s request as A Tribute to Cannonball), and a wary 1968 match with Ben Webster, among others. In 1970, Byas came back to play at the Newport Jazz Festival, where he was permitted only two numbers, and the Village Vanguard. The attendance of old friends softened the disappointment of a less than triumphant homecoming.

Byas returned to Europe and died of cancer at 59 in Amsterdam, August 24, 1972.