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Jaki Byard: An Appreciation

Remembering the groundbreaking pianist on his 90th birthday

Jaki Byard
Jaki Byard (photo: George Wein)

I wrote several weeks ago about the jazz-deprived time I spent in 1977 in Eugene, Ore., where the only saving grace was the Prez Records shop. When I flew into Boston for the Christmas holidays that year, I made sure to arrive on a Wednesday so that I could see Jaki Byard leading his big band, the Apollo Stompers, at Michael’s Pub on Gainsborough Street. The band was stocked with students from the New England Conservatory, where Byard had begun teaching in 1969, and even though they were young and unseasoned, under Jaki’s direction they congealed into a dynamic outfit with a fascinating repertoire.

Before leaving for the West Coast that summer, Michael’s had been a regular stop for me on Wednesday nights. The place was a shot-and-a-beer dive with leaky ceilings and overhead steam pipes under which spaghetti pots were strategically placed to collect dripping water. Students from nearby NEC and Northeastern wandered in at night and spruced it up a bit, and the Stompers gave it a lift on Wednesdays.

As tired as I was upon my arrival at Logan that December night, I was determined to hear the music at Michael’s, but no sooner had I arrived and grabbed a chair near one of the sputtering radiators in the rear than I fell asleep. How long I was out I don’t recall, but what awakened me was Jaki himself, who though best known as a pianist, was playing his old standby, “When Sunny Gets Blue,” on alto saxophone right in my face. Whether this was the same method he used to get the attention of students dozing in class I wouldn’t know, but it sure snapped me out of my slumber and into a dream come true, a personal wake-up call from Prof Byard.

June 15 was Jaki Byard’s 90th birthday anniversary. Like me, he was born in Worcester, and he blazed his own trail, so I’ve felt a desire to celebrate Jaki all my life. I love his eclecticism, his unpredictability, his restless engagement with tradition, his humor, even his sarcasm, which he displays in a 12-second intro to a Thelonious Monk medley he played at the Maybeck Recital Hall in 1991. Jaki tells the audience, “There was a composer in Paris [sic] was commissioned to write a composition for some big shot for the left hand, so I’m going to do this thing just with my left hand only,” then proceeds into “‘Round Midnight.” Jaki’s “big shot” taunt rings with a Worcester-like clarity that’s as resonant as the many I recall hearing on the streets of my old hometown.

Chet Williamson, the Worcester-based jazz harmonica player, has been a keeper of Jaki’s legacy since Byard’s unsolved death by gunshot at his home in Queens in 1999. Chet’s research and writings on Jaki’s Worcester background, including his co-founding in 1938 of the Saxtrum Club, a cooperative established by the city’s black musicians, as well as a video-taped symposium he hosted on Byard at WPI in 2001, are a cornerstone of the Jazz History Database.

Byard also figures prominently in a lively and resourceful new book by Richard Vacca, The Boston Jazz Chronicles: Faces, Places, and Nightlife 1937-1962. Vacca’s chapter on Byard begins with 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.” Following his Army service in World War II, Byard toured with Earl Bostic, then was on the Boston scene throughout the late ’40s and ’50s, where he played with Ray Perry, Herb Pomeroy, Charlie Mariano and Sam Rivers, and lesser known outfits like Jimmy “Bottoms Up” Tyler and Jimmie Martin’s 17 Exponents of Bebop, a band that also included Gigi Gryce and Joe Gordon. He led his own trio at Wally’s and a big band at the Buckminster Hotel, was at the center of activity at the Melody Lounge in Lynn, a venue favored by the modernists, and was the “intermission pianist” at the Stable in Copley Square. Marc Myers devoted a JazzWax column to Pomeroy’s legendary recording Life Is a Many-Splendored Gig, a state-of-the-art late ’50s big band session that showcased Boston players and introduced Byard’s delightful original, “Aluminum Baby.” By the way, Jaki plays alto on this session while Ray Santisi, who still plays at the Marriott Copley, is at the piano.

Jaki went on the road in 1959 with Maynard Ferguson’s big band as pianist and arranger, and made his first date the following year at age 38, the solo piano Blues for Smoke, which Hentoff produced for Candid. In 1962, he joined Charles Mingus, with whom he toured extensively through the mid-’60s; Jaki arranged most of the music, including “Meditations on Integration,” for the landmark concert Mingus at Monterey. On Eric Dolphy’s Far Cry, he recorded his celebrated compositions, “Ode to Charlie Parker” and “Bird’s Mother.” Here’s Jaki with Mingus and Dolphy playing “Take the ‘A’ Train.”

Speaking of routes, one of the most impressive of Byard’s compositions is “European Episode,” which he recorded with tenor saxophonist Booker Ervin and trumpeter Richard Williams in 1964 on Out Front! The work was composed as a dance suite in six parts inspired by a European sojourn that wound its way from Brussels to Paris to Milan. Jaki’s boyhood friend Don Asher, who wrote of the transforming influence Byard had on his young life in his superb memoir Notes From a Battered Grand, describes “European Episode” as “kaleidescopic…a hurly burly of urban streets in a lively excursion of shifting tempos, rhythms, and evocations.” It reminds me of the amazing version of Bud Powell’s “Parisian Thoroughfare” that Jaki and Roland Kirk recorded in 1968 on The Jaki Byard Experience.

Byard returned to Boston in 1969 at Gunther Schuller’s request to establish the Afro-American Music department (now Jazz Studies) at NEC, and he also taught at the Hartt School, the New School and the Manhattan School of Music. Among the well-known musicians who credit Byard as a teacher and mentor are Ricky Ford, Marty Ehrlich and Jason Moran. Thirteen years after his death, Byard’s legacy remains significant and cherished at NEC. In a note to Jaki’s daughter Diane on a YouTube clip of Byard’s performance at the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival, the pianist Alan Pasqua writes, “Your father changed my life by encouraging me to move to Boston to study with him. When I got there, he was there for me, in every way. It was not lip service. He was my friend and mentor.” Pianist Moran, who recently became the advisor for jazz at the Kennedy Center, selected a list of a dozen favorite Byard recordings for

The late George Russell, another legend among NEC faculty, offered this knowing appreciation of his colleague: “Jaki Byard always personified the past, present and future of jazz, wherever or whenever one might have been fortunate enough to experience his challenging ideas. An icon in the history of jazz, Jaki was Art Tatum, Earl Hines, Bud Powell, Ran Blake, Cecil Taylor and Bill Evans, all in one. Yet, like these fellow icons, he was his own uncompromising, unique, living entity. He isn’t a household name, but most likely his low profile is the result of an irresistible need to constantly reinvent himself, the sure sign of the consummate artist. His history, from Boston’s Storyville to the countdown year of the millennium, leaves us with a rich history of his music, his life and times, allowing us to experience the intense struggle of a dedicated artist to keep his essence alive while still making us laugh with him along life’s corridor. There will never be anyone who can take his place.”

Originally Published