Out Where? 

Jazz clarinetist Don Byron reconfigures jazz...and classical and popular music

Jazz clarinetist Don Byron reconfigures jazz...and classical and popular music

Don Byron

8 p.m. April 1

Vanderbilt's Langford Auditorium

"Henry Mancini don't owe nobody nothing!" insists jazz clarinetist Don Byron. I've just suggested that the famed composer of film scores like Breakfast at Tiffany's must have had an ear for popularizing the jazz styles of his time, including the floating lyricism of Paul Desmond, the sax player in Dave Brubeck's Quartet. "I wish you'd chosen someone more heavyweight than Desmond," Byron adds sharply. "If anybody at that time should've been given a chance to write a score, it's Herbie Hancock."

To argue passionately over what makes a film score enduring is just one of the many ways that Byron, now enjoying nearly a decade of recognition as the best jazz clarinetist of his generation, claims a stake in musical pursuits that stretch far and wide. Our banter about shoot-'em-up directors Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone, as well as the music to the TV series Combat and The Prisoner, testifies to Byron's own work as someone who views the scoring of films as an unrecognized art form. Noting Aaron Copland's scores for movies like Of Mice and Men, he explains that the best composers and arrangers re-create the atmosphere of another time and place, but also draw on all the colors and timbres that an orchestra provides and seriously raise the bar for popular music.

Not wanting to be considered as strictly a jazz composer, Byron routinely weaves between several musical genres and knocks down the walls between popular and high culture in his enterprises. The term "eclectic" just barely describes his approach to playing, composing and selecting material. Besides reworking the music of Hancock and Mancini—who had "that second-line Viennese shit going for him"—Byron has delved into Stravinsky, klezmer music, Earth, Wind & Fire, hip-hop poetry and Raymond Scott, the composer of offbeat pieces that later were adapted for Looney Tunes. One of Byron's ongoing projects, Bug Music (named after an anti-Beatles episode of The Flintstones), brings the pleasures of cartoonish musical arrangements, along with animated clips, to children everywhere.

But it's his longest-running project as a composer, Music for Six Musicians, that he'll be bringing to Vanderbilt on April 1. Inspired by his Jamaican ancestry and the musical currents that surrounded him growing up in the Bronx, Byron subverts expectations by writing and performing works that step well outside the conventional genres of Latin and Caribbean jazz, consciously avoiding the pigeonhole of making the music a vehicle of ethnic expression. In fact, he claims that his academic reconsideration of the clave, the strongly rhythmic vamping figure that underlies Latin jazz, opens up more of its potential than what usually falls under that heading (e.g., performing a bop standard with its routine chord changes over a Cuban dance rhythm).

To make his point, Byron is ready to tip over any sacred cow that stands in his way. "When you listen to Dizzy Gillespie or Mario Bauza [pioneering musicians who fused Afro-Caribbean sounds to bebop in the 1940s], there were lots of conceptual options in their work," he says. Since then, Byron claims, it's been a downhill slide (Buena Vista Social Club or no), with later musicians stuck in the nostalgic, pre-Castro era of dance halls and gambling casinos. "Why do Cuban musicians have to keep proving that they can play American jazz?" he asks.

Nor has Byron ever had the urge to prove himself by seeking out the hard-bop giants of the early '60s. Unlike his contemporaries, the onetime "young lions" who "had to pay big-time to get Ron Carter on one track of their first albums," Byron opposes the jazz patriarchy, not believing in the play-acting that the Marsalis generation used to establish their credibility. "It's like saying, 'I'll be Miles, you'll be Herbie,' " as if this were enough to establish their claims to succession of the only "true" jazz tradition.

Much of Byron's status as an outsider among his jazz contemporaries was already determined by his instrument of choice. The clarinet tended to be seen as a throwback to the swing and ragtime eras, and thus was of no interest to the young lions or the legends they idolized. "They didn't know what to do with it," he says.

Though Byron studied under maverick theorist George Russell at the New England Conservatory of Music, the realities of the working musician's life didn't offer many realistic options for someone of his ambitions. However, since he began recording nearly 15 years ago, Byron has gone places where Benny Goodman, among other clarinet players, had never trod. The polymorphic paths of his career have never allowed him to settle into a single style, but he has openly embraced and reconfigured all living currents of classical, popular, jazz and freer styles, always keeping an underground feel and finding quirky angles or less-than-obvious material to cultivate.

His early klezmer projects stepped far outside the roles that Marsalis and his critical supporters like Stanley Crouch defined for African American jazz players of his generation. "It's nobody's business what I do as a working musician," Byron insists. In this case, he found opportunities that helped spearhead the New York klezmer revival of the '80s, even though his high level of playing and creative liberties troubled some of the old guard in this camp, too. "They were lucky to have me," he says defiantly. With his 1993 recording of Mickey Katz's compositions still holding up over time, Byron remains proud of what he brought to klezmer music, finding an opportunity that "none of the Jewish musical students, with their classical training, wanted to take."

Regrettably, he feels he hears a similarly exclusionary message from Afrocentric critics like Crouch, who privileges an aesthetic of blues-based jazz. On the other hand, despite his high level of academic training in Western "art" music, Byron knew early on that he'd be an unlikely candidate for a seat in a classical orchestra. Notwithstanding their different allegiances, both the self-appointed spokespersons for vernacular traditions and the classical establishment "limit the representations of blackness" in the musical world and tend to pigeonhole the types of work he—or any African American artist with eclectic ambitions—might be expected to undertake. Before they became established, Byron notes, "The members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago were called upon for R&B gigs, but not necessarily by choice. If there was a production of Kiss Me, Kate in town, no one would have contacted them."

One tradition Byron does recognize is the advocacy of civil rights by jazz musicians like Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln and John Coltrane. His song titles can point to the obvious, like the strident "Dub-Ya," but also to the more intellectual "stuff that me and my friends talk about," like the neoconservative critic of Affirmative Action, Shelby Steele. Other times, it's to matters that time has forgotten, like Bernhard Goetz's racially motivated New York subway assassinations of some 20 years ago.

For all his in-your-face pronouncements, which at times make him sound like a musical Spike Lee, Byron is surprisingly self-effacing, even prone to a bit of gallows humor about how his social activism is conveyed through his music. "Sometimes I go up onstage and just talk about the things I think about," he says, "but then again, so did Spalding Gray."

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