Parisian Interlude: Don Byas
Years ago, to mark some anniversary a radio station played an
old interview with Charles Mingus (1922-1979). The interviewer asked him who he
listened to and who he liked. Of course there was Charlie 'Bird' Parker
(1920-1955) and Duke Ellington (1899-1974). But then he leaned closer to the
microphone, a small stream of names came out, names that were not as well
known, sounding as if he were incanting a spell.
As I delved deeper into jazz, not all the names continued to be
as esoteric but the power of Charles Mingus's spell remained. I would
eventually get around to tackling his list to see what inspiration and
enjoyment I could glean from it all.
It is the rainiest season in Paris which I can remember. One of
the days I am out I get caught in a storm and have to keep ducking into
doorways. A few streets over from home is a bazaar; selling everything from
batteries and film for the tourists to bottles of Orangina, knock off Pashmina
scarves and tins of cat food. Near the door are two large kiddy pool sized
baskets of CDs. I flip through them, the cashier tightly lacing up their shoes
in case I decided to grab and go.
My mind goes back to some of the spell, I look for the names.
There is actually rather a lot. I cut bootlegs out of my choices which shrinks
my options down but only a little. On the first of many 'jazz runs' I grab a
few Don Byas discs. Even later, after I have been in many times, diving down
into the bin, the cashier eyes me with suspicion, disappointed at having to
stay behind the counter, unable to show sprinting prowess.
I luck out. All the CDs which now double the weight of my
luggage when I head back stateside are very good. A favorite discovery is Don
Born Carlos Wesley Byas, he cut his teeth initially in big bands
of the 30's. He started out with among others, Andy Kirk (1889-1992) and Lionel
He would also find himself in the two bands which epitomized the
Kansas City scene: Benny Moten's (1894-1935) Kansas City Orchestra and The Blue
Benny Moten would spirit away many members of The Blue Devils
including their pianist Count Basie (1904-1984). Eventually the greater part of
The Blue Devils would be absorbed into Moten's orchestra including Blue Devil
founder Walter Page. Upon the death of Benny Moten, the band would continue
under the leadership of Count Basie as the first incarnation of his band.
From 1941 to 1943 Don Byas would join the Count Basie Orchestra
taking over the spot formerly held by Lester Young. He would gain recognition
for his solo on the song 'Harvard Blues.' While with Count Basie, he would also
make recordings under his own name with small combos.
He would participate in the late night jam sessions on the
52nd Street scene and in Harlem, at Minton's Playhouse. This was
ground zero for an emerging music, where its chief architects ( Thelonious Monk
1917-1982, Kenny Clark 1914-1985, Charlie Christian 1916-1942, Charlie Parker,
Dizzy Gillespie 1917-1993) could be heard when their big band 'day jobs' were
over with, jamming the night away. While he never outright became a be-bopper,
he did appreciate what they did and the increased freedom granted by some of
the then new theories. He best utilized some of this new found freedom in
combination with his already established voice in a series of duets with
bassist Slam Stewart (1914-1987) at a Town Hall concert.
To some extent, Don Byas can be viewed as an artistic link
between the big band soloists and the then burgeoning modern jazz movement. So
comfortable was the fit with this next musical wave that on the newly
discovered Dizzy Gillespie/Charlie Parker Town Hall 1945 recordings (Uptown
Records, 2005) he can be heard sitting in on the first number, covering for
a yet to arrive Charlie Parker.
There were a few more years of recording as both a leader and
with other groups and then in 1946 he joined Don Redman (1935-1964) for a
European tour, leaving America, aside for a brief 1970 Newport Jazz Festival
appearance, for good.
Don would find himself in Belgium and Spain but mostly made his
base of operations out of France. His emigration hurt his reputation stateside
if for no other reason than the out of sight out of mind phenomenon. He was far
from inert though in his European exile. There was a growing community of
American expatriate artists to play with and for. Then as now, jazz is taken
more seriously and there was a whole first generation of young players wanting
to learn from him.
Not every musician who came to Europe wanted to stay, but many
would request Don's service for concerts or recording sessions. There were
several reunions with Dizzy Gillespie and also many greats who he had not had a
chance to connect with back in America.
The Jazz in Paris series is by Gitanes Jazz Productions which is
a subsidiary of Universal France. All the CDs are remastered and come with a
liner note booklet in English and French. The cover photos show different
streets and arrondissements in black and white; the Paris of one's dreams. The
artists covered run the full gambit of styles and ensemble sizes, the
commonality being that the sessions took place in Paris and usually during the
50's/60's. There are some sound variations from album to album but overall the
sound is typically very good.
There are several with Don Byas, two as leader Laura and Bebop
and one under Dizzy Gillespie Cognac Blues where he is given equal amount of
solo time and is heard to great effect as more a collaborator than guest star
Laura is a great place for someone to begin their foray into his
body of work. The album is culled from three sessions by three different bands
with Don as leader occurring from 1950-1952. Each band is comprised of session
players made up of the small local community of expats and touring musicians.
The 'sidemen' on all the Jazz in Paris albums are very capable but what I have
noticed is that if it is not a formal preexisting band then the sidemen make
solo statements but there is not the usual interplay one would expect. This
effect is made all the stranger since I have yet to encounter a weak link in
all the non-band Jazz in Paris discs I now own.
The first two line ups are quintets featuring guitar which very
much stays subtly in the background ala Freddie Green (1911-1987). The last
part of the album, five tracks, is made up of a quartet with only the tenor sax
on the front line. I do not have a band preference as the sound both sonically
and in regards to program remains equally good throughout the album.
An interesting phenomenon experienced by jazz artists in Paris
during the 50's and early 60's was the freedom. They were encouraged to delve
deeply into what ever new thing they had or could envision. Likewise, there was
no pressure for an artist to be ultra au courant. A beautiful standard was
still appreciated no matter how often it had been played. This mentality of
acceptance is often reflected in a lot of the Jazz in Paris albums where can be
found albums of standards peppered throughout, with new pieces or more
intricate solos than what may have been recorded for the big labels stateside.
Laura too exemplifies this, it is an album made up of standards which lean
towards ballads with a few bluesy up tempo pieces mixed in.
Although ballad/standard heavy it is by no means overly
saccharined music. With both Laura and Cognac Blues, there is an immediacy to
the cadence and tone of Don Byas's horn. He, like Art Pepper (1925-1982) and to
a lesser extent, Dexter Gordon (1923-1990) began to incorporate components of
what came after them into their sound and way of playing.
The opening track is one of my favorites, 'Summertime' a cover
from the George Gershwin (1898-1937) Opera Porgy and Bess (1935). It begins
with the piano slowly chiming as the guitar is strummed in sympathy. It is done
at a slow tempo which heightens the melancholy aspect. Don Byas's sax has a
rich tone married to blues based vibrato which truly gives the effect of horn
as a voice.
A song often done by Duke Ellington, 'Flamingo,' is another
favorite. With the tone of its strummed guitar, it has shades of gypsy jazz
minus the overly virtuosic fret dancing. Throughout the piece the piano can be
heard and there is a tasty piano solo, brief and subtly emotive.
'Laura,' the song he did for the Otto Preminger film of the same
name (1944) is taken on again here. It begins with a soaring lone blast of his
horn before brushed drums signal the rest of the band's entrance. After the
initial opening roar, the tone here is warm and breathy conjuring up the beauty
and danger of the song's namesake.
Not usually a song I enjoy, 'Georgia On My Mind' is done in a
bluesy late night last call here. The song was actually written by Hoagy
Carmichael (1899-1981) in 1930 and although Ray Charles's version may be the
best known, this version beats it to record by about eight years.
Another Gershwin song, 'The Man I Love' also makes an
appearance. It is taken at a casual pace, the piano providing shimmering
flourishes beneath the guitar and subtle brush work of the drums. While
maintaining a warm sound, this piece shows what he can do when combining it
with some longer, more legatoed runs which create an even richer effect.
Arguably there are several musicians and singers who already 'own' this song.
This version is not a radical departure from what has come before it but
neither is it an anemic offspring. Like the album over all, it shows that well
worn songs can still bring about joy, and that what we get out of an album or
piece of music need not be gauged by innovation of the artist alone.
Maxwell will return with more adventures in sound -
Jazz in Paris: Don Byas Laura Gitanes Jazz Productions
Don Byas-tenor saxophone
Art Simmons, Maurice Vander-piano
Jean-Jaque Tiche, Jean Pierre Sasson- guitar
Roger Grasset, Jacques'popof' Medvedko, Joe Benjamin-bass
Claude Marty,Benny Bennett, Bill Clark-Drums