Don Byron Makes it New

The composer and multi-instrumentalist improvises a career

It sometimes seems that jazz is not terribly different from other professions, creative or otherwise. Those players with whom we are most familiar have worked hard to become very good at something, in many cases one very specific thing, similar to the way some mechanics do transmissions only and others specialize in AC.

If that seems comforting to you, or orderly even, composer and clarinetist/saxophonist Don Byron may soon be bringing some welcome and perhaps necessary disorder to your life. He's released a dozen records, beginning with 1992's Tuskegee Experiments. What those records have in common is less a sound than a strong current of curiosity and boldness, an intrepid sensitivity for musical meaning in unlikely places. Byron seems to have never done the same thing twice, nor does he appear to wish to.

"For me, as a clarinet player, there's almost no modern jazz map," Byron says. "When all my friends that played the saxophone left school, they all tried to get into Art Blakey's band. There's nothing like that for the clarinet, for any kind of modern tip. So I've just always been doing the things that I thought were important."

Byron's fascinations over the years have been wide-ranging to say the least, from examining the use of classical structures in early jazz (Bug Music, 1996) to approaching pop and Tin Pan Alley tunes as arias and lieder (A Fine Line, 2000). His second album, in 1993, was Don Byron Plays the Music of Mickey Katz. The record had much to do with a resurgence of interest in klezmer. In 2006, Byron released Do the Boomerang, an album of music by Junior Walker and James Brown.

"It was one of my goals, before I was through in the recording business, to record some Stravinsky and some Motown," Byron says. "I thought those were the important things that happened in that century, for me. In terms of methodology and technique and composition, and all kinds of things.

"Other people think that they want to go a different route and say, ‘Ellington is the only great composer.' I think that most people don't think that way. I think that Motown is incredibly important, incredibly beautiful, and sets a nice compositional precedent for all kinds of things. I don't even think that can be argued."

It's difficult to say exactly why Byron's music works. You have to hear it. But it works, wonderfully, and why is probably not important. On Boomerang, Byron and his band somehow clarify things you already knew about "Shotgun" and "There It Is." The songs are worked precisely but not academically. It makes clear the ridiculousness of marketing categories. It makes the music seem current and vital and anything but archive retrieval. It makes you long for the intellectual stamina to be able approach every part of your day in that way—what have I been missing here, and why?

According to Byron, what he's doing shouldn't be viewed any differently than the work of his peers who stick to the jazz songbook.

"It's just the subject matter that people think is more acceptable," he says. "If people say they're jazz musicians and they play nothing but quote-unquote jazz standards—which aren't really jazz standards but Broadway tunes—that's supposed to be good, too. But how is looking at those composers different from deciding that you want to look at Junior Walker or Holland/Dozier/Holland? I don't see how it's any different."

Another aspect of the man's restlessness is illustrated by the fact that Byron, a clarinetist of great renown, has made two recent recordings focusing on the music of saxophonists (preceding Boomerang was Ivey-Divey, a tribute to the sounds and sound of Lester Young). This guy who essentially owned the clarinet as an instrument of modern music has just recently started performing and recording on tenor sax.

"When I was studying clarinet, you weren't really allowed to play saxophone and be taken at all seriously," Byron says. "I started playing saxophone recently because I was into Lester Young and Junior Walker and Eddie Harris and I wanted to learn about those things on the instrument that those people played. I'd always had a tenor saxophone, because a lot of the lines that I was interested in were played by people who had played that instrument. It kind of helped me to understand the way that they played, to see how those lines played out technically on the instrument that they were played on. I got to a certain point and I said, ‘You know, like, I can play this instrument.'

"I kind of enjoy it. My approach isn't the same as a whole lot of people. For me, it's not an instrument that I felt like I had to sound any way on, or I had to be playing out of a certain school. So I just play however I play and it's good for me."

Byron says he intentionally pursues work that prevents him from thinking exclusively about "just jazz, jazz, jazz, and Thelonius Monk." He's much in demand as a film composer, and as a composer for classical musicians. He also teaches at SUNY Albany.

"It's a privilege to teach anybody anything, really," Byron says. "I don't just teach jazz. I teach composition. I teach theory. I have a music history course that I have almost 40 students in; I have to grade papers. It's not a nuts-and-bolts music course, it's more like general education. Yesterday, my students saw Vertigo for the first time. They saw The Third Man. They saw Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. All kinds of things that are, culturally, beyond important. I kind of like that. I kind of like being the guy that turned a gangster rap guy from the Dominican Republic on to The Third Man."

Headlining the Knoxville Jazz Festival, leading his quartet, will mark Byron's second Knoxville gig. His first, in 1996, was with the Kansas City All-Stars, the big band supergroup that toured playing music from the Robert Altman film Kansas City. Byron says that in many ways, playing out and away from the jazz hot spots is preferable.

"Those of us who played in Europe for years, we played with some of the most famous people you could imagine in some of the smallest places you could imagine," he says. "Places where the cows outnumber the people. We played our hearts out. A lot of us treasured that opportunity to play for people who, maybe because they live in a small place, they have a different kind of relationship to the culture that they receive. You know, in New York everybody's jaded and they know what they like. Sometimes people in the big cities aren't as open as when you go to a smaller place and people are appreciative. I look forward to playing in the places that are not New York, Chicago, L.A., San Francisco."

He has only one request: "I hope it's warm. We had a really nasty winter up here."