Interview with Don Byron
Tuskegee Strutter’s Ball
from Tuskegee Experiments
FRANK J. OTERI: I am really glad you made it, and it’s a pleasure to have you here. I’ve been wanting to do this forever, and ever since I first picked up Tuskegee Experiment years and years ago, and heard you live at the Knitting Factory many, many times, and this whole thing was actually provoked by a comment you said at the Knitting Factory when I heard you there, I think this must have been in like ’94, ’95, this goes a while back. You made a comment that you loved playing at the Knitting Factory because you felt you could play what you wanted to play there. You felt that you could do what you wanted to do, express yourself in your music in ways that you couldn’t in other places.
DON BYRON: I felt like that at the time.
FRANK J. OTERI: Well, I wanted to explore that comment and really talk about how where a musician plays, whether it’s in the studio, or a live venue, a concert hall, an outdoor festival, a jazz club, other kinds of clubs, how that affects what you play, and what audience expectations are, ’cause you’ve done it all.
DON BYRON: Yeah, but, for example, I mean, on a jazz side, although I’ve won all the polls and all the prizes, it’s still kind of bandied about whether I should exist or not. That’s still like in question, whether I should be allowed to exist and do my various projects. So, a lot of times, when I’m playing in those places, I might be internally trying to come off like I know a lot of stuff about playing chords. Whereas I might play just as many chords if I wasn’t feeling that, but I also might play some other stuff.
FRANK J. OTERI: Right.
DON BYRON: I would say that I’ve had to really sit on the fence between all of the stuff that I want to do and the fact, and just face the fact that even though I’m as much a downtown artist as any of the white downtown artists, that I’m essentially on the jazz beat, and what is normal for African-American musicians in the jazz beat is to do this kind of straight-ahead thing, and if you’re not doing it, the reason that you’re not doing it is because you’re a bad musician and you can’t play. I don’t really see the downtown cats, especially at this point, now that their thing is strong, I don’t see them going through that. They’re not subject to, you know, can they play the shit out of rhythm changes at breakneck tempos? Nobody’s doing that to them; they’re just doing what they want to do. And that I’ve been addressing for a long time. At one point [Peter] Watrous gave this incredible review to Braxton. It just wasn’t based on anything because everybody knows the kind of music Braxton’s playing. It’s not even applicable to question if he could play straight-ahead jazz.
DON BYRON: Exactly. Or could Elliott Carter write like Thad Jones… you know what I mean?
FRANK J. OTERI: Right.
DON BYRON: So, it’s almost like, you’re not really giving the black musician the full respect that he is something other than a jazz musician.
FRANK J. OTERI: Well, that’s the thing. We have these words, we put these labels on things, and whenever we put a label and try to define something, we limit what it can be. Now, we’re sort of stuck with this word ‘jazz,’ for better or worse, just like we’re stuck with the words ‘new music’ or ‘classical music,’ but nobody really knows what any of these terms mean anymore.
DON BYRON: Well, they don’t mean much, except that all of the people that write for them, and all of the outlets in which you hear them, believe they have an audience that is something.
FRANK J. OTERI: Right.
DON BYRON: For example, I wrote this on the Blue Note website, I think that in jazz, especially since the Wynton era, there’s been this kind of set life pose. Now, you know, I know a lot of these young lion guys, especially the first group of them. We were all going to Berklee and New England and stuff together. So I knew Smitty Smith, and Jeff Watts, and all of these guys that are involved in that. And I know that they had other interests. Someone like Greg Osby has been really true to all the things that he’s been interested in. But some of these guys, you know, they like some rock and some funk as much as the next guy, but they know that they can’t play it. They know that because they’re on this jazz beat they’re in this thing where they can’t do everything that they’re interested in, or maybe from their perspective, they’re getting paid doing what they’re “supposed to be doing,” quote unquote, so they just don’t do anything else. But, for me, I think the clarinet, and both the wide-openness of it and lack of opportunities ready-made in contemporary improvised music, have led me to do just whatever I felt like anyway, because the clarinet is not, you know, you don’t see people startin’ up, you know, burnin’ straight-ahead, post-Blakey things and say “I need a clarinet player today.”
DON BYRON: It’s not the saxophone or the trumpet.
DON BYRON: It’s the thing. But, you know, the clarinet is not part of that thing.