Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Don Byron Interview

I got my Bachelor's in Music Ed and Trumpet from Peabody Conservatory. I got my Master's in Jazz from Queens College. But I did my REAL graduate work playing with clarinetist Don Byron. My first gigs with Byron were playing Stravinsky and Raymond Scott. We also played Ellington, Earth Wind and Fire, Herp Alpert, Klezmer music, the music of Junior Walker, and we even did some performances of music from the Sugar Hill Gang! Byron is a walking music wikipedia. He's into such a wide range of music; he's also a really unique composer and arranger. I was able to get a quick interview with him recently for jazztruth.

GC: In terms of your musical scope, all the things that you are into and that you have explored as an artist, is that something you are conscious of or just how you’ve always been, into different musical avenues?

DB: Well, I always had a few different things that I was into. When I was an undergrad, I kind of thought what I wanted to know was how to play classical music of a certain ilk, how to play jazz of a certain ilk, I was playing a lot of Latin music, and I was starting to play with the Klezmer Conservatory band. When I first started being interested in being a jazz musician, the job of being a jazz clarinet player was really very limited. Most musicians my age, black musicians especially, were not really interested in the instrument. So I guess my idea of jazz clarinet really kind of evolved out of trying to keep a theoretical thing going and a technical thing going on the instrument but that I would have one foot in the classical thing and one foot in the jazz thing. And certain ethnic traditions that I came upon that I might be playing authentically. Like I played even as an undergrad Latin music authentically, Klezmer music authentically, that there were traditions other than jazz and classical music where the clarinet was a well-used instrument. And at that point a lot of people that played good clarinet were not willing to play music like Klezmer music. They weren’t willing, they didn’t want it to drag them down. Maybe some of them came from Jewish backgrounds, they weren’t going to go backwards.  Now-a-days, any underemployed clarinet player plays some Klezmer music, it’s just normal. But my thinking was more to have an awareness of these ethnic avenues where the clarinet was going, where it was vital – in Colombia, in Trinidad, in Brazil – these are places just in the Western Hemisphere that at this point, not even in the past but currently, have moving clarinet traditions that were moving ahead. Whereas I didn’t see the jazz clarinet tradition moving ahead. I saw more “traditional jazz”, pseudo-New Orleans whatever, that kind of thing, and then the swing era stuff. Then all of a sudden, there’s very little clarinet. There’s Jimmy Hamilton, there’s Tony Scott, there’s Buddy DeFranco, but in general there’s not a lot. Basically whatever it is, I kind of fashioned it out of feeling like there wasn’t a real clarinet job, I was going to have to make this job, and the job that I made was kind of a collection of skills.

GC: So it was really motivated by your relationship with the instrument rather than an all-encompassing desire to embrace many styles?

DB: Well in my undergrad days, I knew guys like Greg Osby and Donald Harrison and those guys, and being a jazz saxophone player was much more of a job. There was just a job. And it wasn’t a job that you never saw black people doing. So they went to New York and they pursued that job, whereas I kind of prepared myself for many jobs. On the classical tip, I never thought I was going to be chosen to deliver the Mozart and Brahms stuff that’s the center of clarinet literature, but I did think that I had grown up seeing a lot of people on a lot of instruments who only played really contemporary new music. And they were good players, but they seemed kind of stylistically dedicated to that sound. And so I decided that, if I was going to keep preparing myself as a classical player, that’s the way I would prepare myself. I would make sure I played some Schoenberg, some Stravinsky, some Messiaen, Bartok…those things that I considered modern, I would prepare myself in that way. On the jazz tip, I found swing era playing very triadic compared to the way that a saxophone player or trumpet player would approach playing a chord. The difficulties of even thinking harmonically on the instrument made people kind of thing in very structured ways, and it was hard enough to play things like that. So what I was trying to do with my jazz clarinet playing was look at what Coltrane was doing, and Joe Henderson, and Gary Bartz, and try to translate that somehow technically. So I just worked on different kinds of things. I was really into Eddie Palmieri, I was writing out Eddie Palmieri solos as an undergrad.  I was studying Stravinsky’s music, I was studying with George Russell a bit, studying with Joe Allard a bit, just trying to make sense of all the things that I enjoyed hearing, the things that excited me.

GC: When we get into things like the Sugar Hill Gang, Herb Alpert, Earth Wind and Fire, that seems like that’s going pretty far from what you’re talking about, and in some ways you would think that in today’s society that we have so much access to all different kinds of music, it wouldn’t be considered weird that somebody would present concerts of all different kinds of things. And yet, don’t you think that’s kind of rare? Most musicians do what I would call “sticking to their genre”, not really going outside of certain territories. You seem like you’re not only willing to go outside of certain territories, but it doesn’t seem like a gimmick – you genuinely know and care and have studied widely differing things. Do you see a connection between all of them, or is that just your nature? Why isn’t everyone else doing that?

DB: Well everyone else has become a lot more like me in the past 10-15 years than when I first started out as a solo artists and I was completely weird. Now a lot of people do a lot of different things. I think when I started people just thought it was weird that I was playing the clarinet, that I was playing Klezmer music. I will say about Earth Wind and Fire that, as a member of the Third Stream department, we all knew all about Earth Wind and Fire. Ran Blake, even though he is what he is as a player, he loved Earth Wind and Fire. That was official Third Stream music. There was a group of things in the Third Stream that were really promoted as stuff that you should know about, amongst them was Greek music, Jewish music, Indian music…the stuff in the Third Stream was a collection of things that the people who taught there [New England Conservatory] were into. It was a kind of department where either people did a lot of things pretty good, or they did one thing that was neither jazz or classical music very well. So you combine that environment with the fact that you could take anybody who would take you as a student to be your teacher. So that allowed me to study composition and study my instrument. You could take a semester and use that to study chamber music with somebody. Because the Third Stream only had like 3 faculty members at certain times, they were open to you studying with different people. And you could split your 4 credits amongst more than one teacher even, so over that time I just managed to study a lot of different things with a lot of different people and I was just really doing the music that I was interested in in the scope of what was happening in the Third Stream. The Third Stream was not particularly Latin friendly, but that’s what I was doing so that was a part of it. I think a lot of my framework really comes from the Conservatory, where before I got there Gunther [Schuller] was the guy who introduced people to ragtime or made an orchestral take on country fiddle, and those kinds of things were all happening at the school before I got there. So there was a kind of environment where people were exploring very specific kinds of things. There was a woman there who was a few years ahead of me in the school and she was putting on Bulgarian women’s choir music, putting that together before any of that got famous. She was just studying that, she was doing it, and she was doing it with people who knew nothing about it. She was teaching them! She wanted it to happen, so she made it happen. And then there was a lot of activity around singers singing Indian music at the school. It was just a real interesting moment.

GC: In a way, you say about the instrument that you wanted to have a relationship with classical clarinet and jazz clarinet. Somebody might look at Wynton Marsalis and see the same thing. What would you say to someone who might say “well that’s just like Wynton Marsalis, that’s what he did?”

DB: Well Wynton actually went further in classical music than I did. I studied it, I really just couldn’t see myself feeling relaxed playing that kind of music but I really felt like I needed to know the instrument in that way. Which is a different thing that wanting to be an orchestral musician. But I did want to know the instrument in that way. There was a real set of beliefs, and still when you encounter classical clarinet players they think nobody outside of classical music can really play clarinet. So my idea was just to keep studying clarinet. Even when I first was an artist, people would say “why are you into classical music?” There’s no other way of learning how to play that instrument. There really isn’t. There’s lots of trumpet players who never really study classical music. And they’re good trumpet players, they can play in a band and play in tune, all of that. I just don’t think that’s really possible on the clarinet. You can’t learn the clarinet on the street. And you can’t learn the clarinet just from learning jazz. You have to deal with written music, there’s certain technical things on the instrument that you have to be exposed to, and right now you cannot do it. Alvin Batiste studied with the same teacher that taught Richard Stolzman. I studied with the same teacher that taught Stanley Drucker who also taught Jimmy Hamilton. In terms of learning the instrument at a certain level, the clarinet is just not an instrument that you can kind of learn without having a relationship with classical music. You have to have a relationship with it, and as much as people used to vibe me about it, every clarinet player has that. Paquito has that, Anat Cohen has that, we all have that. Or else you wouldn’t be able to play chromatic music! You would be able to do it unless you had studied a bunch of written music.

GC: You said Wynton went further as a classical player, and certainly he’s had a lot of success, winning Grammy’s and so forth, but don’t you think that your interest in classical music as a way to understand composition has gone further than Wynton Marsalis? Maybe we don’t even want to get into that…

DB: I don’t want to compare myself to Wynton Marsalis… I will say that one of the reasons that I had a really hard time being a classical music was that I was trying to understand it while I was playing it. And I would really get distracted fairly often. I’d be counting rests and I’d say “wow, that’s some bad shit…oh! I just missed something!” It was always my assumption that if I saw orchestra cats were playing, they understood all the chords and all the stuff. That was always my assumption, I had to get involved to see that that really wasn’t true. When I left New York and went to New England, all of the stuff that I worked on I felt like I could play better if I understood it theoretically. So I studied it. We’d get groups together and throw together ……? But I’d be looking at it. We’d throw together Contrast, but I’d be looking at it. We threw together whatever we threw together and put on performances but I’d be looking at it and we’d be rehearsing cooperatively based on looking at the score and seeing structurally what the individual lines meant, which is something beyond being able to look at a piece of sheet music and playing the right fingering at the right time. So I became a composer from learning the music the way that I thought that I could learn the music.

GC: So let me ask you this… if you do a concert of the music of Earth Wind and Fire, or a concert of Stravinsky, is it going to be a jazz concert or does it even matter at this point? Does it ever matter?

DB: No, it’s not a jazz concert, I’m just a black guy. That’s basically it. Deal with it! It’s really classical, and I’m a black guy. It’s really Klezmer music, and I’m a black guy! That thing that I wrote that doesn’t sound straight-ahead and sounds like Satie? It’s really classical! And I’m a black guy! It seems like there was no way that that’s not jazz. There was no way that what I did in Klezmer music wasn’t jazz to people. But it wasn’t!

GC: Don’t you think that part of the nature of jazz is kind of to absorb a bunch of different things?

DB: Yeah, but it wasn’t necessarily in my intention to coopt Eastern European music as jazz. It was my intention to play that music in a way that interested me. And the things that interested me were not necessarily the jazz-like things about them. If you have a kind of music, there’s moves you can make and move you can’t, there’s scales you can play and scales you wouldn’t play, rhythms that you would play or wouldn’t play, ornamentation - which is a very important thing in my world – ornamentation that you would play that you wouldn’t play in other musics. And unless you’re willing to think separately about these things, you’re not going to really learn that much about any of them, unless you’re able to objectify what makes something sound like Chardash? What makes something sound like a Bolero. Unless you’re really willing to sit down and look at the difference between what makes certain musics sound the way that they sound, you can’t really learn anything. I was never really interested in doing a “jazzy idea” of things or fusing jazz with Klezmer music…that idea, you don’t really get the idea of how a thing works, unless you’re able to bring a certain kind of alertness – the same alertness that maybe enabled you to play jazz, but it’s an alertness about difference elements. It’s not to say that once you played some jazz you can’t go back. That can’t be.

GC: Obviously you’ve done a lot of teaching, do you think that young musicians should be exploring lots of different types of things, or do you think that young people today have this mindset?

DB: I have to confess, I’ve never really taught at a super jazz school. I’ve done residencies at super jazz schools, but in terms of teaching full time, the schools that I taught at were not the kind of schools where everyone was thinking about a central non-classical ideal. So for me, those kids were more open to what you told them. At one school I had one kid who had only played Mariachis, and I had him writing out Freddie Hubbard stuff. I was really trying to get him to understand the note choice involved in what Freddie was doing.  The kids that I taught had either very specific goals…one kid wanted to be a producer, but he also played bass, so I was trying to get him to learn a bunch of James Jamerson lines, and then learn them on the piano with the chords that go with them in the correct space. It’s not like he did those things for me…(laughs)…but those kinds of things were more the kind of kids that I had. I had one kid who was into high-tech Bluegrass. But he couldn’t play his instrument! So I tried to turn him onto a book about fingerings so that when he got into certain situations, he’d know how to get around. So the kind of kids that I taught were usually into one kind of thing. On the other hand, they weren’t necessarily as technically dedicated as someone who goes to a Berklee sort of place, or a conservatory…they didn’t have that kind of time. A lot of times they were doing other things.

GC: Personally, in my experience, I see that if you study music at a college-level, you’re sort of herded into a very narrow scope. Classical musicians study excerpts, and the three B’s, in jazz you study the swing era up through the 60s. What is your take on that? Is there any way to fix that?

DB: I tend to think there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, if that’s what you want to know. If somebody says to me that they want to play like some middle of the road kind of player, that’s really cool But if you decide to say that you want to play like Wayne Shorter or Herbie Hancock… that decision to latch on to all of the aesthetic elements that go along with that…I think it’s the best guys in jazz, especially the ones who’ve got kind of an out side and an eclectic side…focusing in on those players will kind of elevate a lot of things about the way that you’re thinking. The question is, in a jazz kind of place, how are you thinking about the players?  Are they great in this unnamed kind of way? Are they completely reduced to their technical elements? Is a certain amount of dealing with the impulses of playing free music, is that discussed? If all of those things are discussed, then I think you’d kind of come out with a well-rounded version of whatever it is that you’re doing. But if you only focus in on a technical element, or the free part…I think that when you focus on that level of player, you see so many different kinds of streams of study in one person. Joe Henderson to me has like five or six different ways of playing. From Middle Eastern playing, to straight bebop, to superimposition, to real gut-bucket blues…if you really think about all of the things that go into some of these great players, studying the really great ones and not mincing words about what makes them great, or not aggrandizing them to the point where you’re not seeing how many things are involving. Some of those things that are involved are things that are discouraged. In the great players, they’re there anyway.

GC: That reminds me, a long time ago I remember you saying that you feel like the downtown cats need to play more traditional, and vise versa.

DB: Oh yeah, yeah, I’ve always thought that. When I look at the way I play downtown gigs…I play harmony that they were used to playing with. When I play with more traditional cats, I play more scronk than they’re used to.

DB: Well some of these older players really think of themselves as free players, some of the really straight-ahead guys. I mean…you know, like [Sonny] Rollins has such an “out there” streak, when you hit that East Broadway Run Down kind of period, Alfie, the stuff that he does with Cherry, you can really see it. And then you look back at the super straight-ahead stuff that’s got all of this harmonic information, but what’s really driving the engine of that is some real outness. There’s some real outness in the way that he approaches things. Whether he has enough technique to carry it out, there’s some impulse there that’s a little left of center to very left of center. I guess I’ve never been that interested in free music as an occupation. In my life, I’ve tried to show aspects of both all the time, usually where they don’t belong.

GC: You brought the Eb clarinet to the last gig with Jack [DeJohnette]. Are you going to bring it on the next tour, and do you want to say anything about that instrument? It seems like you were gravitating towards it, really getting into it.

DB: I don’t think I’ve played any Bb clarinet on that gig. The last time I played with Alan Tucson I didn’t play any Bb clarinet. I can’t even believe that I never played Eb clarinet because I feel so comfortable on it, yet I’m still learning technically and the intonation is just…you know, anybody’s who’s ever played that instrument knows there’s this struggle that you’re used to. You have a million fingerings for the same note, and in certain situations you use one and not the other…it’s a separate instrument. A lot of the way the great bass clarinet players, they don’t even play regular clarinet, or some of them don’t play good Bb clarinet. Bass clarinet is really a separate instrument, you can go to a school and major in it. I don’t know if you can go to a school and major in Eb clarinet but it certainly is an instrument with very limited repertoire, you can buy one book and pretty much see all the major stuff which is mostly orchestral. It’s not like there are millions of things but the things that are in there are really major and when you play through the excerpts for "The Firebird" and "The Rite of Spring", you can see that a lot of the sound of those ensembles emanates from the Eb clarinet. There’s so much important Eb clarinet – Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Berlioz – it’s just an amazing instrument. And it’s an instrument that is very melodic-related, the things that you play on it. You don’t play whole notes, you play melodies. And it’s just lovely! And it’s improved my clarinet technique because everything you do on it, you have much less room for error in terms of fingering and finger position, so it really makes you play very strictly.

GC: It seemed to fit in with Jack’s music very well.

DB: Well it’s a little more like a soprano, it has a little more of a hard edge to it than normal clarinet. Normal clarinet, even amongst good players, the middle register is kind of like the way a subwoofer inundates a room. It doesn’t come at you like a laser beam, it’s a little lazy. It can be a little…”over creamy”. And there’s something kind of hard-edged about the Eb clarinet that reminds you of soprano, but it has a flute-like quality too. It’s a cool instrument, it’s very difficult to play. Extremely difficult…I was just practicing "Daphnis and Chloe" , "Symphony Fantastique", "Bolero", "Shostakovich's 5th Symphony"… It’s not like clarinet, where there’s a million Sonatas and things written for it. It’s really just this stuff.

GC: Speaking of Stravinsky, how did you first fall in love with Stravinsky and how has he influenced you?

DB: Well when I was a kid, my junior high school band teacher played in the New York City Ballet, which was the Stravinsky ?. That’s where all of that happened. I heard some Stravinsky back then, but I didn’t really get into it until later. Somehow I just really understood bi-tonality, I just really understood on some level what he was doing harmonically. And it was my curiosity about the chords that he was writing that made me want to look at music more closely. That and Gustav Mahler’s music, the chords in there. I would just hear something and go “what is that?” Because in the kind of harmony that I was getting taught in the schools, we were just writing Roman numerals under the steps of the major scale. That sounded like a V chord, but it didn’t sound like the kind of V chord that I knew. So with Stravinsky’s music you didn’t even need someone to explain that it was bi-tonal, you could see it. You could look at a score and you could see it. But there was something really magical about his intelligence, the intelligence that came off in the way that he arranged his stuff, the way that he rhythmically varied things. So you’d have a group of 5, then a group of 3, then a group of 4, then a group of 7…just kind of mixing up seemingly random rhythmic groupings. There’s a lot of stuff like that in the Rite of Spring. So once I started getting into his amazing cleverness, and that somehow he’d make all of this stuff that was really weird but would sound right. Like what else would you want there except a whole bunch of measures that aren’t the same length? I just had never heard any music like that. And then what was really crazy was that at the same time I had discovered him, I really got into Eddie Palmieri and I could see the same elements in his music. For me, it was Stravinsky and Eddie Palmieri for a long time, that’s what I was really looking at. I love Eddie Palmieri. He really managed to do what Stravinsky did only in one music. He had kind of a skronky thing, a very traditional sense of harmony, he mixed and matched them and pitted them against each other. He had the kind of complexity that Stravinsky had in his music and yet people were dancing to it. What could be better? Not professional dancer, but normal people would sit down and they were dancing to some of the wildest music that I had ever heard. So I think the moment where the Stravinsky really sank in was around the time of "Sentido", and "Unfinished Masterpiece", and those kinds of records that were really kind of out there. Those two artists, one dead and one living, they really fueled my standards for what music was supposed to have in it. What kind of innovation or playing with the elements or rhythmic and harmonic trickiness. It was really around those two artists.

GC: What’s next on the list for you in terms of projects? I know you have the Gospel project. Is there anything coming down the pipe?

DB: I’m doing some research in Banda music. Banda is vocal music, but it features large Mexican instrumental groups. A banda group like the ones that travel, they might have a section of four or five clarinets. I saw this group called Cuisillos that had four clarinets and they could all play! There’s a bunch of these groups. I just started doing research on them and I think the Cuisillos guy, the founder, is a clarinet player. I’m always interested in what’s happening on the instrument outside of the two big musics. What’s happening on Banda is really exciting as a wind player because the groups play with this kind of wide vibrato that sounds very idiomatic, like if you hear a Mariachi band. There’s that big wide vibrato on all of the instruments, all the wind players play with it. When I first started listening to salsa groups, at first I kind of liked it, and then I could hear the sophistication in the writing. Guys like Luis Perico Oritz, or Luis Cruz… you can see the potential for that kind of growth in Banda. They’ve got a lot of troops that can really play their instruments. And with or without that vibrato, you could do a bunch of crazy stuff and every once in a while you hear these groups and they’re playing really instrument lines behind singers. So there’s a parallel to the salsa stuff even though rhythmically it’s very different music. But you get a sense that that music could really explode really soon. There’s really a potential for growth because the average person is hearing these high-level instrumental groups as pop music. When I first started really studying Latin music, I couldn’t believe that normal people could sit around and hear some stuff as out as what Eddie Palmieri was doing in a dance music contest. I couldn’t believe that people were enjoying it. If you did those things in other music, people would cringe and leave. But once you really got into the music and you could really see (..) is putting Woody Shaw to use in this different way. These guys really could take this information and apply it. I could really see that happening in Banda. I’m trying to put together some kind of Banda collaboration with an established group.

GC: If you had unlimited budget, what would be a dream project?

DB: I’d probably do some stuff with some famous singers. Have different groups behind different singers. I made a record years ago called “Fine Line” and the way that it started was that I was trying to get some famous voices to be on that record. Not because they were famous but because I wanted to work with familiar voices and also singers that meant something to me. At that time we asked Phoebe Snow to be on that record. I really wanted that. I was really happy that I got Cassandra [Wilson] to sing Stephen Sondheim. But I really want to experiment with different singers because some of the stuff that I’ve been talking about about studying ornamentation and phrasing and things like that…as an instrumentalist, I always feel like we need to get closer to what the singers are doing, and vice versa. And there’s probably some singers that I would like to work with just for a tune or maybe for a whole record, I don’t know.


  1. Wow, nice piece George! I'm a huge Byron fan!

  2. Love this interview. Really inspiring to get a sense of Don Byron's attitude towards music and creation, and to see a glimpse of the breadth of his knowledge.

  3. It really takes another musician to make a musician really talk about music.


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