Reading Gary Giddins’s tribute to Jaki Byard in the February Jazz Times stimulated memories of that astounding pianist. Giddins builds his article around the CD called Sunshine Of My Soul, reviewed in Rifftides last March. The magazine is now on news stands. The piece is not available on line.
I was at the recording session for the Phil Woods album Musique Du Bois in RCA’s storied Studio B in New York in 1974. The rhythm section was Byard, bassist Richard Davis and drummer Alan Dawson. Phil later wrote that the album “never settled, never got off the paper,” but that he liked my liner notes. I am flattered by his second asssertion puzzled by the first; the album still sounds good to me. When 32 Jazz reissued Musique Du Bois as a CD, they eviscerated the notes, but in this book they are reproduced intact. Here’s a snippet:
Jaki Byard wanders in, looking, as always, slightly bemused and mystical. He greets the others and sets about testing the piano. Asked how he likes it, Byard says, “It’s a piano. I had a good one once, in France.” The universal suffering of jazz pianists; an endless chain of inadequate instruments binds them together as surely as their love for Art Tatum.
Paul Desmond and I stood in the ballroom of the Royal Orleans hotel during the 1969 New Orleans Jazz Festival listening to a jam session that included Byard and Roland Kirk. Jaki finished a virtuosic piano solo, then jumped to his feet, grabbed an alto saxophone and played with an intensity to match Kirk’s wildness. Desmond said, “I wish he’d mind his own business.”
Later that week, among the guests on a television program I hosted were Byard, Desmond, Al Belletto and Danny Barker, who I have always considered the world’s second greatest rhythm guitarst after Freddie Green. In a discussion of Kansas City style, I asked Byard and Barker to demonstrate. They had never played together. Jaki demurred. He said that he couldn’t do justice to what Count Basie had perfected. I coaxed. Finally, he moved to the piano, Barker unsheathed his guitar and two great musicians of widespread generations worked their way into into a blues that captured the essence of Basie and Green. How I wish that I had a recording of that encounter.
The house band at the ’69 New Orleans JazzFest was Byard, trumpeter Clark Terry, tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims and bassist Milt Hinton, with Dawson on drums. Among their appearances were an evening on a Mississippi riverboat and support for assorted soloists at main festival events. This CD captures their concert with Sarah Vaughan, one of her most inspired and most likely the only recording she made between 1967 and 1971. On this CD the house band backs trumpeters Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, Buck Clayton, with Terry and Bobby Hackett making a guest appearance on Eldridge’s set. Byard’s kaleidoscopic solo on “Rifftide” with Eldridge was a highlight of the festival.
Jaki has received a good deal of attention lately with the release of a previously unissued 1964 Cornell University concert by the Charles Mingus Sextet–covered in this Rifftides review–and a Jazz Icons DVD of several of the Mingus group’s European concerts the same year. It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of the musicianship and excitement he contributed to that remarkable band and, indeed, to music in the last half of the twentieth century. The mystery of his 1999 death at seventy-six by gunshot in his home remains unsolved.
For a substantial profile of Jaki Byard, including audio clips of him and musicians who admired him, go to this NPR profile.