Jaki Byard Calls BS – A jazz reminiscence by Dick Stein

Jazz host Dick Stein, one of my colleagues at KPLU, was kind enough to submit this posting. Dick is an excellent storyteller, so I am sure you will enjoy the following post. You can hear his program, Midday Jazz, weekdays from 9 AM to noon PST on 88.5 KPLU if you are in the Seattle/Tacoma broadcast area, or online at www.kplu.org.

Jaki Byard Calls BS

A jazz reminiscence by Dick Stein

One night in New York City a long time ago I was in search of a last gasp of civilization before a taking up a year’s exile at an Air Force radar site in the Bering Sea. I found it – and more — at The Dom, an East Village Jazz joint where pianist Jaki Byard’s quartet was playing.

I’d known of and admired Jaki Byard from his time with the Maynard Ferguson orchestra in the early ‘60s.  That night at The Dom his group was playing hard-driving, straight ahead jazz and I was soaking it up right by the bandstand.  Good as it was, the evening’s real entertainment didn’t begin until Byard called the break.

Jaki Byard

While Jaki leaned against the bar his sax player Clarence “C” Sharp took the spare chair at my table.  As we chatted a drum and clarinet duo stepped up to play.  Then as now there were many bad clarinet players, myself among them, working their mischief in this world.  Even so, this abuser was a contender for Most Squeakalacious. The sounds he was producing bore no relationship to music as understood by Earthlings.

I could only speculate at what the audience thought about the sonic assault but judging from their carefully held rapt expressions and knowing nods, cynical old me thought it must have been “This is so sophisticated that it sounds like noise to me.  I’ll pretend I understand it so I won’t look like a square.”

Sharp, a first rate alto player was of course not taken in. He and I were having a fine time rolling our eyes and grimacing in mock agony when Byard’s bellow blasted from the bar.

“WHAT THE HELL IS THIS?” He’d been drinking a little.

“Uh-oh” grinned Sharp, all but rubbing his hands together.  “Here we go.”  The duo’s drummer, not one for confrontations, slipped out from behind his Silvertone snare and quietly made his way to the back of the room. Clarinet Guy looked surprised.  He’d probably been getting away with this stuff just fine elsewhere.  What the hell was this, indeed?

“Hey man, I’m just tryin’ to play my music…”

“Music!” sneered Byard. “That’s not music.  That’s crap!”

A collective gasp went up from the audience. Clarence gleefully elbowed my ribs. Clarinet Guy toughed it out. “Just ’cause you can’t understand these kinds of advanced musical concepts, man…”

He really shouldn’t have said that.

I’d heard that Jaki Byard had studied with the legendary Madame Chaloff in Boston.  He would go on to become Professor Byard at the New England Conservatory and Manhattan School of Music among others.  He could play all styles of jazz and to say the least knew advanced musical concepts very well indeed.  He also knew advanced musical baloney when he heard it.

“‘Advanced’ my ass!” he sneered.  “You can’t play that thing at all.  Hell, I bet you couldn’t blow a simple 12-bar blues.  Here — I’ll even comp you.”  He charged to the bandstand, sat down at the piano and began chording a blues.

Seconds into this Trial by Byard it became apparent to even the most determined would-be hipsters that Clarinet Guy had no musical ability at all.  He was, in fact, a kind of melodic black hole from which no music could escape.  Next to him even I, the world’s 2nd worst clarinet player would have sounded like Artie Shaw.

Clarinet Guy’s agony was brief. The previously deferential crowd now turned mean, adding their laughter and boos to Byard’s hilariously profane running critique.  CG bolted from the bandstand and fled into the East Village night, his humiliated exit both cringe-worthy and deeply satisfying all at the same time.  Clarence and the rhythm returned to the bandstand.  Byard took a little noblesse oblige bow, counted off “Jordu” and wham — the evening rocked on.

I never heard of or saw Clarinet Guy again after that night but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that he’d given up music for a career in politics.

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Postscript: Pianist, saxophonist, trumpeter, composer, arranger, bandleader and teacher John “Jaki” Byard was found dead of a gunshot wound in his New York apartment in 1999.   The circumstances surrounding his death have never been determined.

15 Replies to “Jaki Byard Calls BS – A jazz reminiscence by Dick Stein”

  1. It does seem like a long time for CG to have held a grudge, but stranger things have been known to happen. This might merit a Jazzoid investigation…

  2. Hi, Love it. Could I tell you stories. Sad to say I know of quite a few instances where successful careers have been created by various horn and stringed instrument owners – don’t lets even get into considering those who assume a mastery of drums kits and bongos.

  3. He gave them a chance to play.. and I am sure they were grateful. C Sharp was a super cool cat. Jaki and him were close. Know what you are putting out there. He was always giving musicians a chance to blow. If they blew it, shame on them, not him!!!!!. and I am sure they were grateful just to play with such a GIANT!!!! THANK YOU.

  4. Jaki Byard was one of the greatest musicians I ever saw, and I saw Artur Rubinstein, David Oistrakh, Jimi Hendrix, Miles, Basie, and a whole lot more. And Mingus — you want to check out pianists, just go down the list of Mingus pianists: Mal Waldron, Don Pullen, Richard Wyands, Horace Parlan, Bill Evans, Roland Hanna, Paul Bley, I saw as many of them as I could. Jaki Byard was always great in every setting. How that man could move from straight-ahead to playing really “out” stuff and land in a two-fisted stride romp that would have done Willie the Lion proud, then elide into several other beautiful things that you’d never expect, it was truly awe-inspiring. So glad I caught him live!

  5. Jaki was my mentor, my teacher, and all the things a master teacher could be to an ignorant but devoted acolyte! He helped me get a scholarship and Master’s fellowship at the New England Conservatory and was my guide throughout my musical career while he was alive (I played at his memorial). He was generous, loving, strict(no patronizing, no BS!),demanding, and one of the greatest human beings I had the privilege to know. He could take a piece, be it Classical,Jazz,or folk and interpolate it in any musical style(I only heard Mel Torme do something similar on piano)and/or as a stylist, i.e. a Beethoven sonata in stride, or as Debussy might play it, or as Bud Powell…the man defied musical boundaries or effete musical limits. He was underrated,unheralded, envied,and sadly unrecognized while alive. I pray that his legacy and genius will some day be recognized, appreciated, and come to light…no Grammies,no recognition, no Mac Arther Fellowships, not even a decent recording contract while alive. he told me he was lucky to get the teaching jobs he had, not because of the employers, but for the students that demanded him as a teacher…Hey Gunther!!!

  6. Glad to hear that Mr. Jenkins has collaborated with Randy Weston on a athpbiograouy. Mr. Weston has been a favorite of mine since I first heard Blue Moses following my freshman year at college. I have many of his albums & cds & have had the pleasure of having a conversation with him on a couple of occasions. A great musician & composer & a really kind, warm man. I will be looking for this book. Thanks Willard & Bret.

  7. I have only ever seen the kirkbam liestd in 2 spots: this album and the double LP Pre-Rahsaan , which is a 70 s compilation of this album and Kirk’s own Kirk’s Work from 1961. I also have not been able to find any info on exactly what it is, although Kirk played quite a bit of percussion on his albums starting around this time, so perhaps it is an instrument of his own making

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