Interview with Don Byron



If 6 Were 9 {Jimi Hendrix}
from Nu Blaxploitation
{Blue Note 93711}
[29 seconds]
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FRANK J. OTERI: Well, it’s making those connections which makes your music so fascinating. Being open to the influences of the different genres. You know, getting back to Nu Blaxploitation, I mean, that was a controversial album in some circles, because here you were saying, okay, well, hip-hop is part of my vocabulary as well, and…

DON BYRON: I don’t consider that record hip-hop at all. Not at all. I mean, and that’s not to say that you misperceived it. But it’s not, that’s not what we were doing exactly. Because, you know, you can’t read hip-hop. You know, you could sit down. You know, you got a brother like Sadiq talking about Foucault and shit like that, I mean, these hip-hop cats have a pretty limited world view.

FRANK J. OTERI: Not all of them.

DON BYRON: Not all of them, but you know.

FRANK J. OTERI: Someone like Chuck D can be a pretty erudite…

DON BYRON: Well, Chuck D is trying to be a figure in a larger kind of way, but I think, you know Sadiq is a poet. I mean, even among, you know, real grass roots people, poetry and hip-hop are different. Black poetry is really, you know… obviously there’s been an impact on it. But I wanted a level of poetry that I could stand to read. You know, that, like, I think that the real tip-off with Nu Blaxploitation and the poetry in it was that it was complicated enough that people would hear it once, totally get the wrong idea about what we were saying, which like, if you’re reading some poetry or listening to it really carefully, you get to all these double meanings and things like that, you know, that’s the pleasure of poetry.

FRANK J. OTERI: But in the sense where it was like hip-hop, in that, to use Chuck D’s phrase, it was a parallel to CNN. You were talking about stuff that was going on right then and there, the Louima case was in there.

DON BYRON: In that sense, yeah.

FRANK J. OTERI: And it was really topical, and really, you know, direct.

DON BYRON: You know what was really great, when we went to England and everybody wanted to talk about how we were dealing with the Princess Diana thing, that was hilarious. I mean, I’m so glad that I did that at that point because it was just, it just made me feel like I did the right thing. Even when people didn’t agree with us. Just what kind of conversations came up between me and just normal people about what we were trying to say, and how they had seen the whole thing come down, and their feelings about this and that.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, in terms of the whole political thing, a lot of your albums don’t have vocals at all, yet the titles still deal with political issues. And how do you feel the music reflects the titles of what you’re playing?



The Importance of Being Sharpton
from Music for Six Musicians
{Nonesuch 79354}
[33 seconds]
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DON BYRON: Well, when you’re dealing with instrumental music, unless you want to get really Wagnerian, like this little line is this gnome, and this, you know, I mean… I think the feeling, say like, you know, one of my favorite pieces on the Six Musicians is the Sharpton piece. Now Sharpton to me is a figure who is both an incredibly good and necessary person to the black community, and someone that fucks up every once in a while. He’s not perfect; his hairstyle is abominable. He’s not someone that, like when you see Jesse Jackson, there’s a stateliness to Jesse Jackson, you know, and they’re both reverends, but you know, Sharpton’s stuff does not have the Teflon thing to it. But the tipoff with Sharpton always is for me, that when people say, he shouldn’t be your leader, they never have anybody else. It’s like, who’s better than him? Who’s there? Do you think if somebody’s killed in Brooklyn we shouldn’t respond at all? Which is probably what they do think.

FRANK J. OTERI: That is what they think.

DON BYRON: So, for me, I took what little I know about the second Viennese sound, which is ambiguous but has the feeling of chordal movement, but certainly is ambiguous in terms of tonal center, and that’s the kind of piece I wanted for that thing. The other, I mean, just to think of pieces off that record…

FRANK J. OTERI: The Shelby Steele piece, which I love.

DON BYRON: Oh yeah, that’s a good piece of music.

FRANK J. OTERI: In fact, that was the piece you were playing live that night at the Knitting Factory when you made the comment about being able to play what you wanted to play.

DON BYRON: Oh yeah?

FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah.



Shelby Steele Would Be Mowing Your Lawn
from Music for Six Musicians
{Nonesuch 79354}
[31 seconds]
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DON BYRON: That’s a good piece of music. You know, I mean, it’s just, I remember the only really obvious thing I did, I quoted “Bells in England” in the bridge of it, just to say that what was happening with Shelby Steele was little bit of colonialism.

FRANK J. OTERI: [laughs] Right, right.

DON BYRON: You know, just internalized colonialism. Shelby Steele is a evil fuck. He needs to be killed. He doesn’t need to be killed, but he just …

FRANK J. OTERI: Publicly exposed.

DON BYRON: The whole phenomenon of black conservativism and forms that it takes, you know, someone like Stanley Crouch, it’s obvious what he’s doing. Shelby is slick. And he knows he can say something incredibly true, and say something so killingly false, within a whisper. He’s a very clever man, and very dangerous. And then, you know, a lot of people that have no contact with black people at all read him.

FRANK J. OTERI: Right.

DON BYRON: And that’s their opinion on how shit would go, it’s based on him, and not, hmm… Why don’t you hang out with some black folks and then you can decide what your conservative politics on the subject should be, you know. But people read him instead of experiencing black folks. Like if I had Shelby Steele in the cab I was just in… You’ve got people coming in, you know, Russian emigres, people from different parts of Asia, and the first thing they know is that they shouldn’t have any respect for somebody of color that’s already here. No matter how long you’ve been here, or what your thing is, they know, it’s not even so much they’re scared of us, they just know they’re not supposed to give us any respect. And, you know, that’s what happened. ‘Cause I saw this guy, just his whole reaction when I got in the cab, he was like, “oh, no.” What would Shelby Steele say? I mean, what could he say? Ellis Cose has a great book, and it’s all, it’s full of little humiliations of conservative black guys, you know, guys in the military, and then somebody, you know, a private, like, vibes them for their ID. You know, these little humiliations really contrast the possibility of there being black conservativism.

FRANK J. OTERI: There was a line on Nu Blaxploitation that really stuck out for me that I thought was really poignant about how there are people out there watching sports figures on their televisions and those are the only black people who have ever been in their homes.

DON BYRON: It’s true.

FRANK J. OTERI: And that gets to this question of, you know, we were saying that Nu Blaxploitation sort of operates, it might not be a hip-hop album, but it operates on the level…

DON BYRON: It does. But I’m a little sensitive about talking about that album in those terms, because what I was doing when we were starting to put that together was feeding Sadiq the Rollins Band and Nirvana, and I’m saying, well, you know, this is not the most blackified sound in music, but this has a quality that we need. And you know, it was a very delicate balance, you know, to me, you know, a record like Six Musicians could have been made better. A record like Blaxploitation is perfect. So if somebody doesn’t like it, it’s not because it’s not good.

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s because they’re closed to it.

DON BYRON: It’s just because they’re just not open to it. That record does everything that it’s supposed to do. Everything.

FRANK J. OTERI: I grew up in New York, I watched the news, I was around for all the crap that went down with Louima, and, you know, the whole Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas thing, so I know all those things. When I see your titles, I get the references. But if someone’s in Europe, or if someone’s from another city, or someone ten years from now may not get those references, whereas on Nu Blaxploitation it’s clear.

DON BYRON: Yeah, but if someone’s in Europe and you name a title after a girl and they didn’t sleep with her, how they gonna know what you mean either?