Today, when the info-tech "celestial jukebox" provides an unprecedented ease of access to the historical and geographic span of recorded music—often while stripping it of data that would give contextual meaning—we are reminded that it is the music that crosses, transcends, or illuminates the borders of categories like "style" or "genre" that may prompt re-consideration of what such categories mean, and how they might be fruitfully handled in the process of making resonant art. From this perspective, the work of pianist, composer, arranger and educator Jaki Byard sparks useful thoughts.
John Arthur "Jaki" Byard grew up in working-class Worcester, Massachusetts. He was raised in a rich African American musical milieu : Jaki's father played brass instruments, and both his mother and maternal grandmother played piano. He took music seriously from a young age, practicing assiduously, developing quickly, and performing locally on piano, trumpet, trombone, and tenor and alto saxophones. Jaki drew inspiration from big bands that performed in the area, as well as from recordings by Art Tatum, Count Basie, James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, Earl Hines, and many others. He transcribed big-band arrangements for local bands to play, eventually writing his own arrangements and compositions; he studied classical scores in local libraries; he studied with private teachers from time to time, and the skills he developed led to steady work in the fertile and robust jazz scene in 1950s New England, and, eventually, beyond.
From the early 1960s, Jaki garnered critical acclaim as one of the world's great jazz pianists, touring and recording as a bandleader, and as a valued sideman to Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, and Duke Ellington. He was also one of the first teachers that composer/conductor/scholar Gunther Schuller brought into the Afro-American Studies program—the world's first conservatory jazz studies department—at New England Conservatory of Music.
Jaki became renowned for his mastery of an unusually wide swath of jazz piano history : "two-fisted" ragtime and stride; Earl Hines–type "trumpet style" phrasing; a chord vocabulary showing deep knowledge of Ellington, Basie, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, and others; the bebop idiom that emerged in the 1940s; virtuosic arpeggio passages à la Chopin, Debussy, Rachmaninoff, and Art Tatum; and uses of dissonance that would not be foreign to Stravinsky, Bartók, or Cecil Taylor. Few jazz musicians of his time chose to integrate such a wide range of stylistic vocabulary so deeply into their personal dialect, or to wield it so freely as an expressive practice.
In his book Weather Bird : Jazz At The Dawn Of Its Second Century, Gary Giddins wrote about Jaki's historical knowledge, and its role in his iconoclastic style:
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. Yet having described the most obvious aspect of his playing, I feel obliged to backpedal from the old saw that his music stood for no more than a promethean eclecticism. His style was his own and unmistakable, by turns hard, percussive, witty, sentimental, sardonic, whimsical, subversive, ebullient, anguished.1
It is worth noting that Jaki formed his expressive approach during an era of significant change in African American musical culture. His early years as a professional performer were a time of regular work in non-formal venues : halls and clubs where audiences sought and expected entertainment that addressed the spirit and body along with the intellect; art that could surprise as well as soothe; music that could employ humor, and perhaps be danced to—as a student of his, I recall Jaki mentioning playing for "shake dancers"; later, he regularly worked with tap dancers such as Tina Pratt. Joy is a core value in much African American art, and it is certainly evident in Jaki's work. Coupled with his wide-ranging musical curiosity and openness, his embrace of joy is an element in the "free-wheeling" feeling found in much of his playing.
Jaki’s respect for—and intimate knowledge of—so much music led to a long career as an educator during the advent of formal college-level jazz instruction in the United States. In addition to his faculty position at NEC, he taught at the Manhattan School of Music, Connecticut's Hartt School of Music, and The New School for Social Research in New York. Among the generations of distinguished musicians who attest to his influence are several pianists who have become influential educators themselves : Hal Galper (The New School, Purchase College Conservatory of Music), Bruce Barth (Columbia University), Alan Pasqua (Thornton School of Music, University of Southern California), and Jason Moran (Artistic Director for Jazz at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts). Many non-pianists, including woodwind artists Jamie Baum, Marty Ehrlich, Ricky Ford, and Michael Moore, also claim Jaki as a formative influence on their musicianship and their artistic concept.
Pianist Fred Hersch, a twelve-time Grammy nominee, has written about his experience as a student of Jaki's at NEC:
He could play like Fats Waller or Bud Powell and demonstrate the mechanics of each technique. He had a profound and detailed understanding of why each pianist sounded the way he did—to this day I'm not sure where he got such vast knowledge. For that ability alone he was ideally suited to teaching. He was also funny as hell and great company. He taught from the deep well of experience he had accumulated over many years as a professional musician—he had a lot to teach . . . I learned a lot from Jaki simply being in his presence. As a musician and as a person his spirit was fearless—he didn't let stylistic constrictions get in his way of playing whatever he felt—and he was not the least bit ostentatious. He had an unmanicured view of jazz and life in general.2
In the course of a lesson with me, he might play in half a dozen styles. But no matter what tune he played or what style he played in, the music was definitely his. Jaki had his own approach to line, to rhythm, to color, and to touch. I learned quite a lot from watching him over the keyboard, playing piano duets with him, and just simply listening to him . . . what I took away from Jaki was what I learned being next to him while he played, watching him use the whole instrument, top to bottom, style by style, in a way that always had his own musical signature.3
Hersch and Giddins both highlight the presence of strong personal character, alongside a clear embrace and use of tradition, in Jaki's work. Over the years, some listeners seem to have missed that aspect of it ; typical of this view is Len Lyons's comment :
Of course, Byard has paid for his reliance on jazz tradition by giving up the pursuit of a clear stylistic identity for himself. It has hurt him commercially; the public, unless it is indulging in an occasional bout of nostalgia, demands individuality and novelty.4
Perhaps those listeners have been distracted, confused or challenged by Jaki's puckish and hurly-burly use of echoes of bygone times. Perhaps his disdain for pretension or his willingness to use humor led them astray, as Giddins points out :
Like Sonny Rollins, he could fake you out—making you think, for example, that those corny arpeggios were a joke, so that you didn’t know whether to feel embarrassed or grateful at the emotions he extracted from them.5
I would suggest that the locus of this type of reaction is not so much the music itself ; rather, it is what the terms genre and style have come to mean for many listeners. Prominent elements of style and genre are often experienced as signifiers, "triggers" that elicit seductive surface-level association responses : "Look ! I know what that is ! That's old ; that's stride !" (or "that's 'bebop' or 'avant-garde'—or hip-hop, or classical, or . . . insert the genre label of your choice).
Composer/trombonist and Columbia University music professor George Lewis has spoken about another musician whose work has, in a somewhat different manner, engaged these concerns :
What's interesting about John [Zorn] is the way he has managed to confound ideas about genre and tradition in a very truthful way that opened things up for a lot of younger people," Mr. Lewis said. "The early jazz musicians would always tell you that you should listen to everything. John took that about as literally as can be.6
Much the same can be said about Jaki Byard. Elements of style—whether tied to place/time/identity/category, or unshackled from them—carry artistic content and expressive meaning that exist parallel to, and distinct from, such associations. Jaki Byard's work can fruitfully be viewed from this perspective : as music that playfully explores and illuminates the rich relationships among history, culture, group and individual identity, and human expressiveness.
The author gratefully thanks Marty Ehrlich for his contributions to this essay.
Falling Rains of Life (Chet Williamson, The Projects Publishing, Holliston MA, 2018; www.jakibyardbook.com) is a detailed biography of Jaki Byard, and was an valuable resource.
1Gary Giddins, Weather Bird : Jazz At The Dawn Of Its Second Century (New York : Oxford University Press, 2004), 222.
2Fred Hersch, Good Things Happen Slowly : A Life In and Out of Jazz (New York : Crown Archetype, 2017), eBook edition, 103-104.
4Len Lyons, The Great Jazz Pianists : Speaking of Their Lives and Music (New York : Da Capo Press, 1983), 186.
6Ben Sisario, “Lionized, but Restless as Ever”, New York Times, July 10, 2013.