J08: Jaki Byard and the indestructible aluminum baby

On Thursday, April 19, at 8 p.m. the New England Conservatory (NEC) Orchestra, under the direction of jazz department chair Ken Schaphorst, will present a free concert of the music of the late Jaki Byard. See related story at: NEC Website.

Byard was quite possibly one of the most famous musicians to come out of Worcester – certainly the most prominent in jazz. While still a teenager, growing up in the Laurel/Clayton neighborhood, he was already a legendary figure. An account of his Worcester days are vividly chronicled in Don Asher‘s classic memoir, Notes from a Battered Grand. Asher is also a pianist who studied with Jaki and remembers comparing notes on his lessons with another famous Worcester pianist, Barbara Carroll.

Jaki went on to effortlessly scale the heights of jazz greatness before dying tragically from a gunshot in his home in Queens, NY in 1999. He was 76. The case is still unsolved.

In its press release for the concert, NEC’s sent out this little bio sketch of Jaki that reads: “Byard was a member of the bands of Herb Pomeroy and Maynard Ferguson. He recorded extensively with Charles Mingus, and toured Europe with him in 1964. He contributed to Mingus’s landmark recordings Black Saint and the Sinner Lady and Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus. He also made important recordings as a sideman with Eric Dolphy, Booker Ervin and Sam Rivers. As a leader, he recorded a series of critically acclaimed recordings for the Prestige label during the 1960s: Here’s Jaki, Out Front, Hi-Fly, Freedom Together, Sunshine of My Soul, and The Jaki Byard Experience.

To see a clip of Jaki live with Mingus in Norway click here.

Gary Giddins, in his memorial tribute said this about his piano playing: “Listening to him was like turning on a tap in which all the strains of modern piano, from James P. Johnson to Cecil Taylor, flowed in one luscious rush.

Often overlooked in Byard’s career is the fact that he was a trailblazer in the way of jazz education. He shared his skills privately at NEC and the Manhattan School of Music. This fact is not lost to such notable players and ex-students as Jason Moran, Fred Hersh, Anthony Coleman and D.D. Jackson.

As a jazz educator, Schaphorst says Byard was “one of the first in a way. He certainly influenced NEC and I think his influence is still felt there. I thought a lot about this recently because, first of all, he has this complete historic understanding of the music, which very few people have – not just intellectually, but being able to play all those styles — and yet he was very modern. He was very interested in the latest thing – whatever that was. I think that influenced the school to this day. There’s been a dedication. That’s not that common in jazz education. I’m grateful to be at a place where that is understood.”

The immensity of Byard’s talent as a player, composer, arranger and teacher is virtually impossible to measure. In tribute, noted jazz critic Don Schlitten said this about him: “Jaki Byard: Promethean eclecticism was only the beginning.” Fortunately, a great deal of Byard’s music was documented on record. One only has to listen to the expanse of his music.

Here are some listening samples.

Unfortunately, the written documentation of Byard’s output still need to be collected. Here’s where Schaphorst comes in.

“I had heard Jaki years ago with the Boston version of his big band,” he says. “This was probably the summer of 1979. It impressed me. I hadn’t heard any music like it. It was kind of wild, chaotic but very beautiful. He certainly was an impressive pianist and saxophonist.”

In 1969, the then president of NEC, Gunther Schuller hired Jaki Byard to teach at the school. Byard was also in residence for many years at Michael’s Pub, a local bar where he led the Apollo Stompers, consisting largely of NEC students such as Anton Fig and Ricky Ford, among others. Byard taught arranging and jazz improvisation at the conservatory for more than a decade.

Schaphorst arrived at NEC first as a student studying for his masters in composition in 1982. “I met Jaki then, but I didn’t study privately. He wasn’t as involved at that point as he was earlier,” Schaphorst says. “Then I came back to teach at NEC in 2001.”

In his third year of teaching, NEC celebrated the 100th anniversary of Jordan Hall, the school’s main concert venue, and Schaphorst thought the big band should play and present the music of Byard. Unfortunately, although he had arranged for such big bands as Herb Pomeroy’s, Maynard Ferguson’s and his own Apollo Stompers many of the charts were either not available, lost or in some cases never existed on paper.

“I couldn’t believe how hard it was to find his music” Schaphorst says. “Since then Herb Pomeroy gave me a couple of things. So we ended up playing ‘Aluminum Baby.’ Byard arranged that for Herb. It was recorded in 1957. The recording I have is called Life is a Many Splendid Gig. Jaki is playing in tenor in the section.

Schaphorst says that the NEC big band played a short set of Byard tunes and the 2003 concert went off beautifully. “I guess ever since I’ve been digging around seeing what I could find,” he says “I got in touch with his daughter, Diane. I heard at one time that she was considering donating some of the stuff to the school. She sent me a little bit. My goal, and I told this to Diane, and I think this is one of the reasons she was really supportive of the project, was to have a book that we could play – maybe once every generation – so every group of students who come to the school will get a chance to hear and play his music.”

A small collection of Byard’s works were left at the school, but there were also quite a few missing parts as well. “It was frustrating but fun because I had to reconstruct a few things, from a combination of recordings and guessing,” he says. “I think I’ve gotten to know his style — ‘Okay, this is the way he is voicing the saxophone section. The missing note must be this.’ So there were a few things where pages were Xeroxed and there was a note or two off the page.

“I was at a lunch with Eddie Palmiei. He’s at Harvard and the guy at Harvard says, ‘Oh, I have a couple of things of Jaki. So, I’m hoping that just the fact that we are doing [the concert] will draw some attention to it and maybe we can collect more music. My goal more than anything is to have his music played. Because it’s not played. That’s the sad thing — as great as his arrangements are – high school band’s should be playing them. Some of them are difficult. Some of them are out. It’s sad. I try to be optimistic and thinking that the truth of that music will survive. It needs a little help. So it’s been more work than usual in terms of getting music ready, but I think it is going to be a great concert.”

The program for Thursday’s concert is filled with highlights. Special guests include pianist Anthony Coleman. As a child, he studied with Byard in New York City. Ran Blake, who had recorded with Byard, is also on the bill. Blake is a longtime NEC faculty member. After Jaki was shot he wrote a piece dedicated to him called “Only Yesterday.” He will play the piece at the concert. The NEC big band will play “Up Jumps One,” which is Byard’s take-off one on Basie’s “One O’Clock Jump.” Audiences will also hear an arrangement of Oscar Pettiford’s “Tricotism,” “St. Thomas,” “God Bless the Child,” “Satin Doll,” as well as Byard’s “Aluminum Baby,” “Two-Five-One,” “Apollo Theme” and “Spanish Tinge.”

“He wrote so much,” says Schaphorst. “I haven’t heard anything that I haven’t liked. There’s so much history. One thing that inspired me to do this is I got a hold of one chart and it was number 251. Typically in a big band book you number every chart from 1 to whatever. That suggests that there is a lot of music out there that we still need to find and I hope we can.”

The concert will be held at Jordan Hall, 30 Gainsborough St. It is free and open to the public. For more information call 617-585-1122 or visit www.newenglandconservatory.edu.

Here’s a clip of Jaki with Earl Hines.

Click here for information on Anything for Jazz, a Rhapsody Films documentary.

Here’s a fan’s tribute.

A discography site.

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