Interview with Don Byron

Don Byron has been consistently voted best clarinetist by critics and readers alike in leading international music journals since being named “Jazz Artist of the Year” by DownBeat in 1992, the year he startled the jazz world with the release of his widely acclaimed debut album, Tuskegee Experiments. Continually striving for what he calls “a sound above genre,” Byron has created a unique musical aesthetic in a wide range of contexts over the years.

Born and raised in the Bronx, Byron was exposed to a wide variety of music at home by his father, who played bass in calypso bands, and his mother, a pianist. His taste was further refined by trips to the symphony and ballet and by many hours spent listening to Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Machito recordings. Byron formalized his music education by studying classical clarinet with Joe Allard while playing and arranging salsa numbers for high school bands on the side. He later studied with George Russell in the Third Stream Department of the New England Conservatory of Music and, while in Boston, also performed with Latin and jazz ensembles. These diverse experiences fostered the clarinetist’s affinity today for the music of a broad array of artists including Igor Stravinsky, Robert Schumann, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, Eddie Palmieri, Henry Threadgill, Joe Henderson, Raymond Scott, Nirvana and Bill Frisell.

His artistic collaborations include performances and recordings with Frisell, Cassandra Wilson, Hamiet Bluiett, Anthony Braxton, Geri Allen, Hal Willner, Marilyn Crispell, Reggie Workman, Craig Harris, Steve Coleman, David Murray, Living Colour, Ralph Peterson, Mandy Patinkin and Daniel Barenboim, among many others.

An integral part of New York’s cultural community for more than a decade, Byron served for four seasons as artistic director for jazz at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where he curated concerts for the renowned Next Wave Festival, participated in BAM’s educational programs and hosted weekend jazz performances. Other special projects include his arrangements of Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway music, an original score for the silent film Scar of Shame and a string quartet, “There Goes the Neighborhood,” commissioned by the Kronos Quartet and premiered in 1994 at London’s Barbican Center.

He has performed at major jazz festivals throughout the U.S. and Europe, including North Sea, Umbria, Berlin, Paris, JVC and San Francisco. He was featured in Robert Altman’s movie Kansas City and the Paul Auster film Lulu on the Bridge for which he also wrote and performed music. He has composed and recorded the theme music for the Tom & Jerry animated TV series currently being broadcast on the Cartoon Network, and is currently working on scoring episodes of the comedian Ernie Kovacs’ pioneering television broadcasts of the late 1950s and early 60s. He is also preparing an album of duets with pianist Uri Caine and a recording of chamber works by and in tribute of Igor Stravinsky for Angel Records.

Byron has released a diverse array of recordings during the 1990s. Following his groundbreaking recording debut, Tuskegee Experiments (Nonesuch, 1992), Byron’s other projects include: Don Byron Plays the Music of Mickey Katz (Nonesuch, 1993), a tribute to the musically challenging and bitingly humorous works of the neglected 1950’s klezmer band leader; Music for Six Musicians (Nonesuch, 1995) which explores a significant side of his musical identity, the Afro-Caribbean heritage of his family and the neighborhood where he grew up; No-Vibe Zone (Knitting Factory Works, 1996), a vibrant live recording featuring his jazz quintet; and Bug Music (Nonesuch, 1996), his spirited showcase of the nascent Swing Era music of Raymond Scott, John Kirby and the young Duke Ellington based on meticulous and faithful transcriptions of their recordings.

His 1998 Blue Note debut Nu Blaxploitation is a wide-ranging musical meditation with his band Existential Dred that fulfills its promise to be a “genre bending experience” by featuring poet Sadiq Bey and rap icon Biz Markie in performances reminiscent of the spoken-word pieces of Gil Scott-Heron, Amiri Baraka and Henry Rollins. The CD also includes musical tributes to Jimi Hendrix and the 70’s funk band Mandrill. His newest Blue Note recording, Romance With The Unseen, featuring guitarist Bill Frisell, bassist Drew Gress and drummer Jack DeJohnette, was released on September 21, 1999.

“Mr. Byron has not only almost single-handedly revived an instrument that was pronounced moribund with the end of the swing era – since Benny Goodman, how many other major clarinetists weren’t merely moonlighting sax players? – He has also taken a scholarly approach to jazz without a hint of academic stuffiness. Every time Mr. Byron revisits the music of a neglected jazz figure or mixes hip-hop with jazz in a way that eluded the acid jazzers, he’s not only charting new musical territory but he’s actually an undercover critic trying to re-write the music’s history.”

-The New York Times

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