Obituary: Jaki Byard

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The Independent Culture
ALTHOUGH HE was often at the forefront of creative playing, Jaki Byard played a wider range of jazz than anyone.

At the front his ground-breaking playing had an urgency and inventiveness that should have made him better known. But he was also able to play in the manner of James P. Johnson and the early stride pianists with such conviction that it seemed he became one of them. If he chose to be Erroll Garner or Dave Brubeck, then it was not possible to tell which was the original and which was Byard. He didn't just copy, he was able to invent in the way that they did, and this made him the music's most skilful forger, apart from one of its outstanding improvisers.

The series of small group and solo recordings Byard made for Prestige in the early Sixties was stunning. Perhaps it was because Prestige was not then a major label that his work didn't cause the sensation it merited. But he certainly rattled audiences world-wide with his power and dexterity when he joined the band led by the bassist Charlie Mingus in 1962.

It was strange that Byard had to make his name on Mingus's coat-tails. Mingus had a musical presence and power that pushed him into the ranks of the greatest composers with Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk, but he also showed a physical violence to his musicians that made working for him a daunting and hazardous experience. Byard put his finger on it. "To think over my years with Charles Mingus is to relive a panorama of rhythmic excitement, tranquillity, frustration, turbulence, love, hate, erratic social behaviour, political rhetoric and lots more."

Mingus usually made up his bands from his young proteges. But the group that Byard joined was made up of established veterans. They included the trumpeter Johnny Coles, and the reed and woodwind player Eric Dolphy. Dolphy was a true original of the avant-garde. The band's music was powerful and unpredictable. Despite the fact that some of the compositions in its concerts ran for half an hour or more, there was a consistency of inspiration in the programmes that has seldom been equalled.

Fortunately many of the concerts were recorded and 25 years on there are still comparatively few jazz experiences that provide such exciting listening. These longer showcases pushed back the previous limits of bebop and gave the audiences a better chance to appreciate the individual styles of the musicians. Mingus's turbulent rhythms prevented any complacency and all the musicians continually played above themselves.

It was in these early years of the Sixties that Byard took a firm grip on the European jazz audience. The Mingus sextet toured Europe but didn't visit Britain. When the tour was over Dolphy decided to stay in Europe, but died two months later. Byard left Mingus in 1965 to lead a unique quartet, but returned to work for the man he described as "a prominent bassist" for a period in 1970.

Byard was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1922. His father lost his job in the Depression, and the piano lessons the boy had begun in his home town at the age of eight came to an end when he was 10. He later recalled:

From the age of 10 to 16, I was goofing off, hanging on the corner after school. I used to go in the house and play once in a while, and every other week or so my mother would give me 50 cents so I could go and see the different bands that came to town. Fats Waller, Fletcher Henderson with Coleman Hawkins, Basie Lunceford, Chick Webb . . . I used to sit in front of the stage, half asleep sometimes, digging all the cats. But the one band that really intrigued me was Father Hines.

Hines was the first jazz piano virtuoso, making fundamental and style- setting records with Louis Armstrong in the Twenties. Later, in 1972, Byard recorded an album of duets with Hines.

When he was 16 Byard joined an otherwise all-white band led by Doc Kentross. The first night was made more difficult because Byard had fallen that day and had to play the piano with six stitches in his left hand.

Byard's father played in a marching band, and he taught his son to play the brass instruments. His next job was on trumpet, and he could also play guitar and tenor saxophone. In 1941 he resumed his piano studies with the Boston teacher Leonard Sachs, but soon afterwards he was called into the army. There he learned trombone and when he was discharged in 1944 continued his studies. "I picked up on all the other instruments for composition," he said. These were violin, cello, bass and the saxophones. Byard had always wanted to be a saxophonist, but his family had not been able to afford to buy him an instrument.

After two years in a band led by Ray Perry, with whom he recorded, Byard joined the band of the alto saxophonist Earl Bostic, who was then three years away from his smash hit "Flamingo". "My guys on piano were Bud Powell and Erroll Garner, who played behind the beat, while Bostic liked to go forward. We didn't get along too well," Byard said.

Leaving Bostic, Byard lost all his savings when he tried unsuccessfully to form a band in Canada. He organised another big band in Boston, but the music was too progressive for the audience and this was another failure. He settled in Boston to work for three years at the Melody Lounge in a band that included the saxophonist Charlie Mariano and trumpeter Herb Pomeroy. However, his studies of the formidable piano work of Art Tatum and an encounter in Canada with the young Oscar Peterson disheartened him, and he concentrated for a time on tenor saxophone instead of piano.

He played this instrument when Pomeroy formed the Jazz Workshop Orchestra. It was a legendary band that included the baritone saxophonist Serge Chaloff. Regrettably it was never recorded. Byard wrote "Aluminium Baby", a classic arrangement for this band, and it remained his most famous composition, to be re-recorded often in later years.

Eventually Byard had a disagreement with Pomeroy and left to play as a solo pianist at the Stables in Boston. He then formed a trio and found plenty of work in the local clubs. Blue Note Records wanted to record him, but also wanted to substitute New York musicians for his bassist and drummer, so Byard turned them down.

By now he was also an accomplished orchestrator. The band led by the trumpeter Maynard Ferguson that he joined in 1959 was well endowed with arrangers since Don Sebesky, Willie Maiden and Slide Hampton were in its ranks. "Maynard thought very highly of Jaki's arrangements," said Ernie Garside, an English trumpeter who later joined the band as sideman and manager. "They were very sophisticated, beautifully written out by Jaki, but we didn't play them often."

"It was a good experience working with the famous high-note trumpet player," said Byard, "but he wouldn't use any of my arrangements." Four of them were recorded, however.

Next came the years with Mingus. Byard's opinions of the bassist diverged. On one occasion he said, "Once you get to know him, he's really a gentle man. A cool person. He's a very soft man. It's unbelievable once you get to know him as a friend, he has a smile for you and all that." On another occasion: "I haven't got much to say about working with him. One of the reasons was exposure. But I can do without the dictator approach in music."

When he left Mingus, his prodigious talents now recognised, Byard continued to associate with other ex-Mingus players, including the saxophone players Booker Ervin and Roland Kirk and trumpeter Don Ellis. His recordings proliferated in number and variety and in 1968 he made an album, Jaki Byard With Strings. His priority now became teaching, and he ran departments at several schools, including the New England Conservatory. From the late Seventies he led a 20-piece band, the Apollo Stompers, in Boston. At the same time he led a similar band of the same name in New York that recorded a somewhat uneven collection in 1984.

Byard visited Britain in 1981 and recorded here with the avant-garde pianist Howard Riley. In 1982 he made yet another collection of piano duets, this time with Ran Blake, another avant-garde musician. A later version of the Apollo Stompers recorded another album in 1988. The same year a return visit to London resulted in the CD Jaki Byard and Howard Riley Live at the Royal Festival Hall, and Byard came back to Europe with the Charlie Mingus Big Band, led now by another Mingus veteran, the trombonist Jimmy Knepper.

In 1991 Byard was invited to give one of a series of solo piano recitals that was recorded in the Maybeck Recital Hall in San Francisco. He covered the gamut of his work. He played his own lengthy Family Suite and three compositions by Thelonious Monk, and reverted to the early stride pianists in his "Tribute to the Ticklers". He made few recordings during the Nineties and concentrated instead on his teaching at the Manhattan School of Music.

Appropriately his last recording, with the reed player Michael Marcus, This Happening '96, was greeted by a leading jazz magazine as "a beautiful recording of stunning depth and feeling". The album is due for release in March.

"Don't mess with my music," he said with pride. "If you want to listen to it, listen; if you don't, don't. But don't tell me how to play."

He was found dead in the New York apartment where he lived with his daughters. He had been shot.

John A. Byard, pianist, instrumentalist, composer, teacher: born Worcester, Massachusetts 15 June 1922; married (one son, two daughters); died New York 11 February 1999.