Clarinetist Don Byron: You Can't Pin Him Down

Clarinetist Don Byron: You Can't Pin Him Down

Written by Anne E. Johnson

Some things in this world are impossible to pin down. Clarinetist Don Byron’s favorite genre seems to be one of them. Jazz? Yes, but jazz is a whole universe of genres. And what about his early fascination with klezmer? And don’t forget classical and funk. All in all, we’re better off just letting Byron be Byron rather than trying to hang a label on him.

Byron’s interested in klezmer started in the 1960s, when he was growing up in a Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx. That’s also when his parents used to play Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis records, which influenced him just as much. Even his clarinet heroes played in diverse styles, from the toe-tapping swing of Artie Shaw to the cool jazz of Tony Scott.

After Byron graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music, he headed to New York, where he got involved in the avant-garde jazz scene. His distinctively dissonant, rhythmically detached sound – a feature developed during those years – is recognizable in all his recordings, no matter the genre.

Over the decades, Byron has also been active in new classical music, working on commissions with the Kronos Quartet and others. Besides being a sought-after teacher, he also served as the artistic director of jazz for the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the late 1990s. During the pandemic, he was one of three Virtual Visiting Artists to teach online for the renowned new-music program at MIT.

Enjoy these eight great tracks by Don Byron.

  1. Track: “Tuskegee Strutter’s Ball”
    Album: Tuskegee Experiments
    Label: Elektra
    Year: 1992

When Byron burst onto the scene with his remarkable debut album in 1992, he did not hide the rage that fueled it. He called the project Tuskegee Experiments, referring to the horrific medical testing done by the US government on Black people with syphilis in the mid-20th century. The hissing, screaming, and weeping that emerged from his instrument are something to behold.

But there’s also sardonic wit, as in the track “Tuskegee Strutter’s Ball,” which nods toward the Shelton Brooks tune “Darktown Strutter’s Ball,” which was a huge hit in the 1920s and ’30s. With breathtaking virtuosity, Byron oscillates between angular, pointillistic dissonances and fluid, figured lines that conjure up a stride pianist’s right hand. Standout guest artists include Pheeroan akLaff on drums and Greta Buck on violin.


  1. Track: “Shelby Steele Would Be Mowing Your Lawn”
    Album: Music for Six Musicians
    Label: Nonesuch
    Year: 1995

Starting with the stunning Jacob Lawrence painting on the cover, everything about Music for Six Musicians is fascinating and insightful. The titular players are Byron, pianist Edsel Gomez, cornetist Graham Haynes, bassist Kenny Davis, drummer Ben Wittman, and percussionist Jerry Gonzalez. Bill Frisell, who has worked a lot with Byron, has a guest spot on guitar.

This is another politically-driven set of tunes. The title of “Shelby Steele Would Be Mowing Your Lawn” references the conservative Black social critic whose controversial work in the 1970s placed part of the blame for racial inequality onto the shoulders of African Americans. But you can also just listen to it as abstract music: this complex piece combines a bebop-inspired use of parallel harmony in the horns, free-jazz piano chords, and an Afro-Caribbean groove on the congas.


  1. Track: “Blue Bubbles”
    Album: Bug Music
    Label: Nonesuch
    Year: 1996

Bug Music showcases some old swing by the likes of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. Yet about half the tracks are by Raymond Scott, a pianist and bandleader known for his innovations in electronic instruments. The fact that Byron combines the Scott tribute with Ellington tracks is a typical display of his naturally all-encompassing view of music. The album represents a certain cross section of the second quarter of the 20th century.

“Blue Bubbles” was co-written by Ellington and trumpeter Bubber Miley in 1927. Byron approaches the tune with great good humor, teasing the audience into thinking he’s going to play this in a traditional style, only to bend notes or screech in his top register when we become complacent. At the piano, doing his best Duke-Ellington-refracted-through-time, is Uri Caine.


  1. Track: “Happy Together/If 6 Was 9”
    Album: Nu Blaxploitation
    Label: Blue Note
  2. Year: 1998

Byron brings in the funk for Nu Blaxploitation, a joyous journey through that boisterously sexy offshoot of soul. Of course, such an endeavor requires the perfect bass player, which Byron has in Reggie Washington, as part of the group Existential Dred.

One of many highlights is this medley of Jimi Hendrix’s “If 6 Was 9” and the Turtles hit “Happy Together,” in a Jamaican-flavored deconstruction. It is sung in disjointed slow motion by Dean Bowman, with everyone else, including Byron, providing backing vocals.


  1. Track: “I’ll Follow the Sun”
    Album: A Fine Line: Arias and Lieder
    Label: Blue Note
    Year: 2000

Lest we forget that Byron had top-notch conservatory training in Boston before starting his jazz career, his classical sensibilities are on display in A Fine Line: Arias and Lieder. But this is a Don Byron album, so it’s many things at once, reaching far beyond classical music.

For one thing, there’s the egalitarian concept of what constitutes Lieder. You can practically hear him saying, “It just means ‘songs,’ man, so it can be anything.” Hence the presence of John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s “I’ll Follow the Sun.” The delicate lyricism of Byron’s playing, especially entwined with Bill Frisell’s guitar line, is a sun worth following.


  1. Track: “Abie the Fishman”
    Album: Ivey-Divey
    Label: Blue Note
    Year: 2004

Ivey-Divey is a fun-filled blend of post-bop and avant-garde. It finds Byron in a quintet of equally daring associates, including Jason Moran on piano and Jack DeJohnette on drums. The track list ranges from standards like “I Cover the Waterfront” and “Somebody Loves Me” to new compositions like this one by Byron called “Abie the Fishman.”

This tune is a good example of the difference between avant-garde and free jazz. The former, which this is, typically has experimental harmonies and rhythms while holding together as a unified and structured whole, as opposed to the meandering and unfettered meditation one finds in free jazz.


  1. Track: “Pucker Up, Buttercup”
    Album: Do the Boomerang: The Music of Junior Walker
    Label: Blue Note
    Year: 2006

Junior Walker, a.k.a. Autry DeWalt II, was a saxophonist and singer whose specialty was not jazz, but R&B. He spent his career primarily in Motown. So here we have another tendril of the floral canopy that makes up Don Byron’s musical interests.

Walker and his All Stars recorded “Pucker Up, Buttercup” in 1966. Although Walker did compose a lot of his own music, this tune is credited to his bandmates Johnny Bristol, Danny Coggins, and Harvey Fuqua. Responding phrase by phrase to Dean Bowman’s vocals is Byron blowing a mean tenor saxophone. George Colligan’s Hammond organ makes the track sparkle.


  1. Track: “Hide Me in Thy Bosom”
    Album: Love, Peace, and Soul
    Label: Savoy
    Year: 2011

Love, Peace, and Soul is a tribute to the Reverend Thomas A. Dorsey (1899 – 1993). This musician and preacher – not to be confused with bandleader Tommy Dorsey! – is often called the father of gospel music because he preserved some traditional African elements in the genre.

Dorsey wrote many songs, including “Hide Me in Thy Bosom.” It’s performed here by a small group led by Byron and calling itself the New Gospel Quintet. The vocalist is D.K. Dyson, whose voice has an impressive flexibility and nuanced intonation.


Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Ed Newman.

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