Interview with Don Byron



Bernhard Goetz, James Ramseur and Me
from Romance with the Unseen
{Blue Note 99545}
[20 seconds]
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DON BYRON: When I discovered the KnitGreg Osby turned me on to playing at the Knit…We played a duo concert, and that was the first time I played at the Knit. I saw what was happening there, like the Negativland stuff, you know, I was into all that… When I was in school, my little crew were into all these downtown cats: DNA, James Chance and the Contortions, Pere Ubu… You know, we liked that kind of stuff. So I knew all these cats’ work. Then you could pull off some jazz stuff. Then you could pull off, you know, whatever you wanted to pull off. And there was an excitement about it. So, to me, it was what I refer to as kind of an objective form, which, you know, classical music on paper is an objective form, but obviously, it’s not. So it seemed like a place where people were just doing whatever they needed to do. And then, miraculously, you might have a bunch of reviewers in the audience. It was serious. And yet, there was a freedom to it. I don’t think it’s like that anymore.

FRANK J. OTERI: But now, the weirdness and the outness is an orthodoxy in and of itself. You’re expected to play a certain way there too, at this point.

DON BYRON: Yeah, I guess. I mean, I wouldn’t know. The funny thing about the old Knit was how many people hung out. You know, the old Knit, when the Gulf War started, I went to the old Knit, I was living in the Bronx, I went to the old Knit, if I was going to go, if there was going to be some terrorist shit, it was my neighborhood bar. I was friends with the bartenders. I was friends with the people who worked there. I was friends with the other musicians. And it was a scene where the musicians were listening to other musicians. You know, everybody, almost everybody who was of any kind of legitimacy could come in and out of the Knit for free the way the jazz cats would come out of Sweet Basil’s and go to the Vanguard. And so, it was an unusual time when you could hear a lot of stuff. Sometimes, you know, stuff in its birth stage, sometimes really developed stuff, but you could just hear a lot of music. And I just thought it was a wonderful time. In a lot of ways, it was my undergrad. You know, my undergrad, my real undergrad, was a thing, but there was another quality to the old Knit period that had a lot of sweetness to it and a lot of camaraderie, there was a lot of camaraderie among the cats, which, I think there is some, but it’s not around a place.

FRANK J. OTERI: Are there any places anywhere in the country that are like that now, that are these hotbeds of activity?

DON BYRON: Wow, I wouldn’t know, ’cause, you know… I mean, I think, depending on what kind of music you play, I mean, there’s Hothouse in Chicago, which is for the AACM cats, and all of them Vandermark-type cats, they have a little scene around little joints in Chicago. There’s nothing happening in L.A..

FRANK J. OTERI: They have this place called the Jazz Bakery

DON BYRON: The Bakery is a much more conservative place. But I know that the Knitting Factory is opening in L.A. They’re trying to do L.A. and Berlin. Berlin doesn’t need a Knitting Factory, ’cause the Quasimodo is a pretty progressive place, and the A-Train, the 2 clubs that people play at are, you know, they’re pretty open-ended.

FRANK J. OTERI: What about a place like Tonic, here in the city? Have you been there?

DON BYRON: Yeah. There’s a scene around Tonic. I’m just a not part of it. I mean, I don’t live in New York City anymore. When I lived in the Bronx, or I lived on Ludlow Street, you know, I hit these places everyday. Now I really can’t say that my musical life is based on that kind of connection to all these other guys. It’s not really based on that now. I mean, I have my crew, and you know, usually they’re playing something that I wrote, and it’s, it’s just a different time.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, in terms of this whole question, then, of composition, on your albums, they’re mostly your compositions, but you do some very, very interesting things with other people’s compositions, everybody from Ornette Coleman to Jimi Hendrix, there’s a Beatles tune on your most recent album. And it’s very clearly your voice through all of it. And I was listening, I laughed out loud last night when I heard your version of “If Six Were Nine,” the Hendrix tune, and you did this thing with the Turtles‘ song “Happy Together” on your solo.

DON BYRON: Well, you know, that just has to do with the little vamp at the end. There are only three tunes that I could remember that had that vamp. One of them was “Cherokee People” [a.k.a. “Indian Reservation“] by Mark Lindsay, you know, like Paul Revere and the Raiders, “boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boo doo.” You know, I just had that feeling and then that one. But you know…