Byron, Don

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Don Byron

Clarinetist, composer

Klezmer Album Attracted Attention

Reinterpreted Lost Classics

Selected discography


Clarinetist and composer Don Byron can most often be heard playing jazz, but he is also capable of playing in classical settings and has recorded an album of Jewish klezmer standards. Byron plays the music he enjoys and as an African American musician, avoids the stereotypes that ensnare black musicians.

Don Byron was born on November 8, 1958, to parents who both appreciated and played music. His father, a bassist in a calypso band, and his mother, who played piano, exposed him to classical, salsa, and jazz music as a child. This eclectic background helped him forge an individualistic streak in his music, but was initially a social hurdle. In school bands, he recalled to the New York Times Magazine, Nobody wanted to believe I was capable of doing the classical stuff. Id show up and theyd say, You want to play jazz. In the classical pedagogy, I had teachers telling me my lips were too big.

By the time Byron graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music in 1984, he was the leader of The Klezmer Conservatory Band, which played high-energy Eastern European Jewish music. He left that band in 1987 to be a sideman for some of the most cutting-edge jazz musicians of the time, including bassist Reggie Workman, baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett, and guitarist Bill Frisell.

Don Byrons 1991 debut album, Tuskegee Experiments, takes its title from a series of ethically questionable medical and psychological experiments the U.S. Public Health Service performed on African-American men in 1932. Featuring both Frisell and Workman, the album features versions of Robert Schumanns Auf Einer Burg and Duke Ellingtons Mainstem among brooding originals and poetry. The Penguin Guide to Jazz praised the album, considering it masterful, one of the most exciting debuts in more than a decade.

Klezmer Album Attracted Attention

His next album, Plays the Music of Mickey Katz, was a surprise to those who were unaware of Byrons previous klezmer affiliations. He was making a statement about American popular culture by taking the music of a famous Yiddish performer of the 1950s from which the Jewish community distanced itself. He explains in the New York Times Magazine, People today think that Jewish musicians of the 20s, the generation that could have been klezmers, had the greatest attitude about their own music. But really, those cats didnt want to know klezmer. They wanted to play jazz or symphonyanything to avoid being stereotyped by klezmer. Plays the Music of Mickey Katz had the unfortunate effect of stereotyping Byron. I run into people all the time who dont know I made anything after the Mickey Katzrecord, he lamented to Down Beat, No matter how much Ive done before and after, it always seems to be that stuff they want to talk about and hear. Sometimes Im sorry I did it.

Prior to the release of his 1995 album Music for Six Musicians, Don Byron discussed with New York Times Magazine the stylistic divide in jazz music between the mainstream and more avant-garde elements: Me and most of the cats I hang with, were too left-wing to be around [mainstream jazz institution Jazz At] Lincoln Center. They should be presenting the freshest, baddest stuff. I dont even exist in jazz the way these people perceive it to be. lve gotten to the point where I cant care what other jazz cats think.

Music for Six Musicians celebrates the Afro-Cuban music of Byrons childhood neighborhood in the Bronx. The Latin jazz elements are another aspect of his musical personality, and he is able to infuse them into his music without sounding trite or dilettantish. Byron continued to infuse his music with his radical politics; the album opens with poet Sadiqs White History Month, which contains lines like You think it fair if there was a white history month? I picture a kind of underground

For the Record

Born Donald Byron, November 8, 1958, in New York, NY; son of Donald Byron (a postal worker) and Daisy (White) Byron (a phone company employee); Education: attended New York University, Manhattan School of Music c. 80s;, New England Conservatory of Music, 1984, graduated with Bachelor of Music Degree.

Began playing clarinet and composing professionally, c. 1985; released debut Tuskegee Experiments, 1992; on Elektra/Nonesuch, Plays the Music of Mickey Katz, 1993; Music for Six Musicians, 1995; No Vibe Zone, on Knitting Factory Works label, 1996; Bug Music, on Elektra/Nonesuch, 1997; appeared in film Kansas City, 1996; conducted Semaphore, modern classical music quintet, c. 1990s.

Awards: Down Beat Jazz Artist of the Year, 1992; Down Beat Critics Poll, Best Clarinetist, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997.

Address: Record company Elektra/Nonesuch Records, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019.

railroad, Delivering us in the dead of night from the inner city to the suburbs, Yea, like right into the hands of the Klan?

In 1996 Don Byron was part of the cast of Robert Altmans film Kansas City, along with many other leading artists on the cutting edge of jazz. The soundtrack to the film, set in the early-to-mid 1930s was not trying to recreate the classic jazz of the period, but capture and convey its essence in a contemporary manner. According to music director Hal Willner, If you listen to records like Lafayette [by Count Basie] or Prince of Wails, there was as much energy as any punk-rock Ive ever heard. Byrons featured solo is Eddie Durhams Paginthe Blues,

Reinterpreted Lost Classics

Don Byrons latest album Bug Music mixes compositions of Cotton Club-era Duke Ellington, an unquestionable classic period of an undisputed jazz master, with compositions by composers John Kirby and Raymond Scott, who were discredited by music critics in their time despite the fact that both mens music was technically complex and commercially popular. Byron explained in Music and The Arts, Even in Gunther Schullers The Swing Era, [he says] its not really good music. When you look at the era those cats came up in, that was the stuff that was turning everybody out.

The title Bug Music was inspired by an episode of The Flintstones which featured a parody of The Beatles before their music became acceptable by the standards of mainstream music critics. In the hands of Don Byrons ensemble, the music of Kirby, Scott, and Ellington commingle seamlessly, despite the subjective boundaries placed upon it at the time of its release.

By following his own inspiration and avoiding the subjective traps of music critics, Don Byron has become one of the most interesting voices in music of the nineties. In a New York Times Magazine profile, Byron illustrated the folly of stereotyping musicians, Nobody calls up Eric Clapton and says, Yo, Clapton, youre the white guy that plays all that black [expletive], right? Why dont you come play at a rally? What makes them think they can do that to me?

Selected discography

Tuskegee Experiments, Elektra/Nonesuch, 1992.

Plays the Music of Mickey Katz, Elektra/Nonesuch, 1993.

Music for Six Musicians, Elektra/Nonesuch, 1995.

No Vibe Zone, Knitting Factory Works, 1996.

Bug Music, Elektra/Nonesuch, 1997.



Cook, Richard and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz, Penguin, 1994.


Down Beat, April, 1994; January, 1995; June, 1995; November, 1996; January, 1997; December, 1997.

Entertainment Weekly, July 30, 1993.

New York Times Magazine, Januray 16, 1994.

Additional information was obtained from Nonesuch press material.

Jim Powers