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Jaki Byard: 1922-1999
Jaki Byard
Piano, sax, multi-instrumentalist, bandleader, composer

Born: June 15, 1922 in Worcester, Massachussets
Died: February 11, 1999 in New York City, New York




A Unique Voice Silenced

Copyright © 1999 

The Scotsman, 1999

Byard, Jaki Jaki Byard was one of jazz's most idiosyncratic talents. A pianist capable of playing in almost any jazz style as well as a highly original creative voice, he contributed to epoch-making recordings with some of the most important names in Sixties jazz, and left a powerful legacy of his own work as a band leader and as an inspirational teacher.

Jaki Byard, whose given name was John Arthur, was born into a musical family. As a child, he mastered trumpet as well as piano, and was also adept on bass, trombone, vibes, drums, and saxophone. In the latter connection, American writer Doug Ramsay recalled standing with Paul Desmond, the famous alto saxophonist from the Dave Brubeck Quartet, at a festival when Byard sprang up from the piano, grabbed an alto sax, and fired off a remarkable solo. "I wish he'd mind his own business," Desmond muttered.

He began his professional career after leaving the army (where he learned trombone) in Boston in the late Forties, where he worked with saxophonists Earl Bostic and Sam Rivers and the Ellington violinist and trumpeter Ray Nance, among others. He joined the big band led by Herb Pomeroy in 1955, and subsequently occupied the piano chair in Maynard Ferguson's band from 1959-61. In the course of these years, he played in everything from society dance bands to bebop quintets, and laid down the broadly-based stylistic foundation which was his trademark.

His acknowledged early influences included Fats Waller, Earl Hines, Art Tatum, Erroll Garner and Bud Powell, but his stylistic grasp extended from stride and boogie-woogie to free jazz, and his playing associations were hardly less extensive in their range and variety, including performing the music of the 19th century American concert pianist and classical composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk.

Byard crafted a highly original approach from this melting pot in knowing fashion. He saw connections and correspondences where others saw only polarities, a vision expressed in his penchant for dropping apparently alien stylistic elements into his solos, a method he applied with equal effectiveness in both beautifully integrated fashion and as a more provocative dislocating device.

The pianist found a role at the heart of the more adventurous jazz experiments of the early Sixties, beginning with his association with saxophonist Eric Dolphy, whom he met in 1959. He played on Dolphy's important Outward Bound album, and recorded is own debut album, Here's Jaki, for Prestige at the saxophonist's instigation in 1961.
He was recruited by bassist and composer Charles Mingus for two of his most important projects of the early Sixties, the Impulse! albums Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus and The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady, and is also featured in Mingus's disastrously underprepared Town Hall Concert in 1962.

Byard fitted superbly into Mingus's equally eclectic musical world, although the bassist, a notoriously fickle employer, had harsh words to say about him in the sleeve note to The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady, where he pointedly -- if sarcastically -- accused him of lack of co-operation. The aural evidence tells a different story.

Byard also worked with Don Ellis, Charlie Mariano and Booker Little in that period, before hooking up with another of the music's great iconoclasts, multi-instrumentlaist Rahsaan Roland Kirk, in 1965. Once again, Byard's spiky unpredictability and huge range of reference was ideal for Kirk's music, and he was able to match his leader for volatile humour as well.
At the same time, he continued to lead bands and record in his own right throughout the Sixties, including a classic album from 1968, The Jaki Byard Experience, on which Kirk returned the favour and acted as a sideman in Byard's project.

In the late Sixties, Gunther Schuller invited Byard to head jazz teaching at the New England Conservatory, a position he held for many years, while also teaching at such institutions as the Manhattan School of Music, Bennington College, the Hartford School of Music, the Brooklyn Conservatory, and the University of Massachusetts, among others. His influence as a teacher played a significant part in encouraging the revival of interest in jazz in the late Seventies.

At the same time, he continued to perform and record regularly. He formed two big bands under the same name, the Apollo Stompers, one of which was based in New York and the other in Boston, and worked with a variety of small groups as well. He took over the piano chair in the Ellington Orchestra for a short time when Duke Ellington became ill at the end of his life.

More recently, Byard had been working with the multi-instrumentalist Michael Marcus, an association which recalled some of the atmosphere of his work with Roland Kirk. The duo's second album had been completed before the pianist's death, and was scheduled for release next month.

A mystery surrounds the circumstances of Byard's death. The pianist was found dead from a gunshot wound in the home he shared with his two daughters in the Queen's district of New York, but with no obvious motive or suspect. The death is the subject of a police investigation

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Jaki at Blues Alley

by Michael Wilderman
Copyright © 1999 Michael Wilderman

Michael Wilderman
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Jackie at Bradley's

by Michael Wilderman
Copyright © 1999 Michael Wilderman

Michael Wilderman
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Jaki playing saxophone

by Michael Wilderman
Copyright © 1999 Michael Wilderman

Michael Wilderman
More of Wilderman's work can be seen at


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Jaki Byard, An Appreciation

by W. Royal Stokes
Copyright © 1999 W. Royal Stokes

I had seen Jaki Byard in performance several times over the years and had talked briefly with him on those occasions when I went up to New York in the spring of 1979 to interview him for a profile in The Washington Post. The article would serve as a preview piece heralding his appearance the following week at Blues Alley with his big band the Apollo Stompers.

Pianist John Kordelewski happened to be heading up to the Big Apple for the weekend and offered me a ride. This was providential, for not only were we both crashing at the tiny pad of Jaki's drummer J. R. Mitchell, we stopped somewhere in Lower Manhattan soon after we entered the city late that evening for my very first experience of a "loft jazz" session. No doubt John and J. R., who was at the drums, recall who the other musicians were, but I do not. I do remember ascending to the venue in a huge freight elevator. And I shall never forget that later, as John had just finished backing into a parking space outside of J. R.'s apartment building somewhere around 85th Street in the early hours of the morning, his car's engine sputtered and died. The vehicle had run out of gas in the final foot or so of our trip from Washington, D.C.!

After a very few hours of sleep I was roused and driven to a nearby subway station and, having been provided with very specific instructions as to how to change trains in downtown, I was soon on the final leg of my journey to Jaki's home in Queens. The pianist met me at the station on his end and we were in a few minutes seated in the very same house on Hollis Avenue in which the creative genius Jaki Byard was found dead of a gunshot wound to the head on February 11, 1999. While as of this writing few details have emerged, it has been reported that no weapon was found at the scene.

"My mother used to give me seventy-five cents to go see the bands that were playing at Quinsigamond Lake -- ten cents for the streetcar each way, fifty cents to get into the dance, five cents for a coke," Jaki told me as we sat over coffee at his dining room table. He held a Camel in one hand and in the other a pencil, with which he doodled on a yellow pad. A baby grand filled one end of the room. Photographs and memorabilia were here and there: Byard and Duke Ellington together in the early 1970s; Byard with Charles Mingus and Eric Dolphy in Oslo in 1960 or so; with Stan Kenton later in that decade; a certificate of appreciation from the Rotary Club of Japan; his 1973 Duke Ellington Fellowship from Harvard University; a plaque citing honorary citizenship of the the city of New Orleans.

Continuing on the theme of growing up during the 1930s in Boston, Jaki explained, "I would walk to the dance so that I could drink five cokes. I'd stand in front of the band all night and listen. Fats Waller, Lucky Millinder, Chick Webb with Ella Fitzgerald, the Benny Goodman Quartet with Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton, and Gene Krupa. That would be about 1936. And I was tuning in on the radio broadcasts of the big bands from hotels, 11:30 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. Ellington, Basie, Fatha Hines, JImmie Lunceford, Benny Carter. Those were the things that inspired me. I guess it stuck with me."

Although Jaki Byard came up during the Swing Era, his pianistic vocabulary displayed a fluency with the entire history of the jazz idiom from ragtime, blues, boogie woogie, and stride through swing , bebop, and hard bop to cool and free form. He viewed the music's development as an evolutionary process, a continuum from its earliest years.

Jaki's first instrument was piano, which he began lessons on at the age of six, and it remained his principal one. Of the other instruments he mastered along the way, he continued to perform on the alto and tenor saxophones into the 1980s, but long before that gave up playing the trumpet, trombone, guitar, bass, and drums professionally, although he still taught all of them and for compositional purposes was thoroughly familiar with all the instruments in the orchestra.

"My grandmother used to play piano in a silent movie house," Jaki reminisced. "In fact, the piano I first studied on had been given to her by them when the talkies come in. My mother played, my father played, my uncles played -- that was the thing then. Instead of the hi-fi set, people played music. If you didn't play, you had a player piano or a crystal set."

Not long before I interviewed Jaki in 1979 he had formed his big band the Apollo Stompers. In fact, he put together two versions of the Stompers, one made up of New York musicians and one of his students at the New England Conservatory of Music, where he had been teaching for a decade. The student band first came into being as an adjunct of his professorial role and soon was working a weekly gig. But one band wasn't enough for Jaki.

"I was running up and down the road between Boston and New York and I said, 'Why not get a band together in New York, too?'" And that's what he did, forming a big band of New York-based professional musicians. Over the course of the next decade and a half, the New York band recorded several albums.

It wasn't long before Jaki had the experience of combining two bands made up of his students in concert at the New England Conservatory, one on each side of the stage.

"I called it the Stereophonic Ensemble," he joked, "and the effect was very interesting because I could bring that band down and this band up and you could hear the difference -- just like listening to a stereophonic performance. That was one of my dreams.'

Orchestral design for Jaki Byard meant "all the possibilities of music -- organized sounds, improvisation, freedom." Some of his musicians had been with free players such as pianist/leaders Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor, and "all of a sudden," he told me, "they have to play free, just go crazy, and there's nothing I can do about it, until finally, after about five or six minutes, I put my foot down and become the director. 'Either stop this chaos or --!'" He laughed at the thought of it.

I asked him if this sort of "chaos" erupted often. "Oh, inevitably," he responded. "It's a situation that's there. I say, they're gettin' off, let 'em go. Afterward, everybody seems happy about it." He paused at this point, then went on with conviction in his voice. "But someone has to control this type of freedom, there has to be a common denominator, even in a smaller group of, say, five or six musicians. To me, any organization is controlled by a certain person, so in a sense it's a contradiction to say they have complete freedom in music, although some groups today do have that philosophy that they just get on the stand and start playing and that's it."

In addition to performing its leader's contemporary compositions, Jaki Byard's Apollo Stompers also rendered tunes of Eubie Blake, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, and Charles Mingus and included in its programs dedication pieces to trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie, Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan, and Woody Shaw and to reed players Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, and Eric Dolphy. Band vocalists sang ballads, spirituals, gospel, blues, and scat, and "Take the A Train" featured a tap dancer. At a club gig Jaki would occasionally rise to his feet from the piano bench and take a few choruses on the saxophone, continuing to play as he strolled among the delighted audience at their tables. At Blues Alley that next week I was seated at the bar when he did this, nodding hello to me over his horn as he passed by, reaching out to take the drink the bartender was extending to him, and never missing a note.

Requiescat in pace.

W. Royal Stokes
W. Royal Stokes was editor of Jazz Notes, the quarterly journal of the Jazz Journalists Association, from 1992 to 2001 and has been editor of JazzTimes and the Washington Post's jazz critic. He is the author of The Jazz Scene: An Informal History from New Orleans to 1990 (Oxford University Press, 1991), Swing Era New York: The Jazz Photographs of Charles Peterson (Temple University Press, 1994), Living the Jazz Life: Conversations with Forty Musicians about Their Careers in Jazz (Oxford University Press, 2000), and Growing Up With Jazz: Twenty-Four Musicians Talk About Their Lives and Careers (Oxford University Press, 2005). He is currently at work on a memoir and his fourth collection of profiles of jazz and blues musicians.


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With 3 reader comments, latest March 22, 1999