Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Byard, Jaki (John Arthur)

Pianist Jaki Byard could play it all: stride, blues, rag, bebop, and free jazz, with a freedom and technical command very few musicians could match. A memorable collaborator of bassist Charles Mingus in the 1960s, Byard left a rich legacy as an educator and mentor of young talent.

Jaki (John Arthur) Byard was born on June 15, 1922 in Worchester, Massachusetts. Byard came from a very musical family. Both of his parents were musicians. His father played bass horn and trumpet, and taught young Jaki how to play trumpet. His mother and grandmother both played the piano. His grandmother played piano for silent movies, and when the theater closed, they gave the piano to his grandmother. She in turn gave it to Jakiís mother. Jaki learned on this piano growing up.

                       Jaki Byard, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

Byardís early style was heavily influenced by Earl ďFathaĒ Hines, and even more so by Teddy Wilson. Byard also cited the big bands of the thirties as prime influences. In 1940, Byard moved from Worchester to Boston, but was soon drafted into the army following the entrance of the United States into the Second World War.

Byard was stationed in the military from 1941 to 1946, and during this time he played trombone and studied piano. He was stationed in Florida for a time, and befriended drummer Kenny Clarke while he was in Boston. Following his discharge from the army, Byard went to the Boston public library and began to immerse himself in classical music. He has stated that Stravinsky, Bach, and Beethoven were his favorites during this period.

While living in Boston in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Byard was a mentor to many of the cityís young and aspiring musicians. Herb Pomeroy said it was Byard who showed the young musicians how to play and change with the ever-evolving landscape of jazz and black music.

In 1949, Byard toured with saxophonist Earl Bostic, then settled into a solo piano engagement at a bar called the Stable in Boston. In 1955, Byard became the tenor saxophonist in Herb Pomeroyís big band, with whom he stayed until 1957. In 1958, Byard recorded his first album, Blues for Smoke, on solo piano. He said he recorded solo because it was good money, and he didnít have to worry about all of the politics involved with hiring a band and splitting the take.

In 1959, Byard joined Maynard Fergusonís big band where he remained until 1961. It was during the 1960s that Byardís influence over the jazz world took shape. He recorded, toured, and performed with some of the decade's most influential musicians, including saxophonist Rahsaan Roland Kirk, bassist Charles Mingus, and clarinetist Eric Dolphy. In 1960, Byard joined trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and drummer Roy Haynes on Eric Dolphyís album Outward Bound and can be heard on the songs "On Green Dolphin Street" and "Glad To Be Unhappy."

After performing with Fergusonís big band, Byard joined Mingusís Jazz Workshop in 1962. Byard can be heard on the classic Mingus recording Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, which was released in 1963. Byard is featured on several songs, including "Hora Decubitus" and "II B.S."

Byard was one of the few musicians who understood Mingus and could cope with his eccentricities. Also in 1963, Byard appeared on tenor saxophonist Booker Ervinís album The Freedom Book along with bassist Richard Davis and drummer Alan Dawson. This band played many of Ervinís original compositions, including "A Lunar Tune." Byard also performed and recorded with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and can be heard on Kirkís album Now Please Donít You Cry Beautiful Edith on the song "Slippery, Hippery, Flippery." This song also featured drummer Elvin Jones and bassist Richard Davis.

In 1964, Byard toured Europe with Mingusís band, which also included Eric Dolphy, drummer Dannie Richmond, and tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan. This band can be heard on the song "Orange Was the Color of Her Dress, Then Blue Silk," a live recording from this tour.

In addition from being a loyal member of Mingusís band, Byard released several albums of his own during the 1960s. Byard's first album for Prestige in 1961 was Hereís Jaki, and it featured Ron Carter on bass and Roy Haynes on drums. Other notable releases from Byard on Prestige include 1964ís Out Front and 1967ís On the Spot!, which featured bassist Paul Chambers and Billy Higgins. Also in 1967, Byard released Sunshine of My Soul, which featured Elvin Jones on drums. The pianist is heard reinterpreting classics of the jazz repertoire, including W.C. Handyís "St. Louis Blues."

Byard, a longtime student and educator, formally joined the faculty of the New England Conservatory in the early 1970s, where he remained for more than a decade. Many well-known musicians studied with Byard during his tenure at NEC, including Tony Williams Lifetime keyboardist Alan Pasqua. Byard formed his own big band in the 1970s, called the Apollo Stompers, with members based out of both Boston and New York City. In addition to teaching, Byard still performed and also found time to record, including his appearance on Al Cohnís and Zoot Simís 1973 recording Body and Soul. Byard is heard on the song "Blue Hodge."

Byard also recorded with Phil Woods in 1974 and Archie Shepp in 1978. Byardís true coining as a jazz master may have come in 1974, when he stepped in for a very ill Duke Ellington shortly before the pianist/composerís death later that year.

Byard continued to teach from the 1980s until his death. He held positions at the University of Harford and at the Manhattan School of Music in New York City. Byard also continued to perform, having appeared with numerous musicians throughout his career. His wife, Louise Byard, died in 1994. In early 1999, Jaki Byard was found shot to death in his Hollis, Queens home. While some evidence suggested he was murdered, other evidence suggested he was killed in a case of mistaken identity, because of an outstanding drug debt owed by his son. Byard is survived by his daughter Diane Byard.

Jaki Byard left behind a musical legacy few musicians can aspire to achieve. He was a master at all forms of jazz and stood as a symbol for education, never hesitating to offer his services or knowledge to the young and aspiring mind.

Select Discography

As Jaki Byard

Hereís Jaki (Prestige, 1961)

Out Front (Prestige, 1964)

On the Spot! (Prestige, 1967)

Sunshine of My Soul (Prestige, 1967)

With Charles Mingus

Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus (Impulse, 1964)

With Eric Dolphy

Outward Bound (1960)

With Al Cohn and Zoot Sims

Body and Soul (Pony Canyon, 1973)

With Rahsaan Roland Kirk

Now Please Donít You Cry Beautiful, Edith (Verve, 1965)

Contributor: Jared Pauley