Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians
Byars, Christopher (Lawrence)
His father is James b.1940 (oboist, music educator) and his mother is Janita b. 1942 (clarinetist, music educator). His brother is Michael b. 1964 (former ballet dancer w/NYC Ballet; now a lawyer). A bebop-influenced tenor saxophonist, Christopher's main inspirations are Lucky Thompson, Lester Young, Paul Gonsalves and Don Byas; the writers of that period are equally influential, including Tadd Dameron, Duke Ellington and Gigi Gryce.
Chris came from a family of classical musicians who started his musical experiences early, which included both private study as well as public performances. Drum lessons began at 5, performances with the New York City Opera at 7, The Metropolitan Opera Children's Chorus at 8, classical piano lessons at 8, jazz saxophone lessons at 13, and jazz piano at 14. His singing career lasted spanned 7 years and included much solo work in operas such as La Boheme, The Magic Flute, Wozzeck, Tosca and the Cunning Little Vixen. At 13 his voice began to change. His father, a saxophonist turned oboist, gave him the recording "Bird and Diz" and the alto saxophone quickly became a primary focus. During the next few years, he strove to learn solos off of records and play tunes from lead sheets, and began forming groups of talented or interested friends to play music together which he would compose and arrange.
Things took a step forward when he met bassist Ari Roland and guitarist William Ash at an audition in Sept. 1986. Although they were only 13, William and Ari were playing the melody to Donna Lee at full tempo in unison without mistakes. Soon Chris switched to the more mature-sounding tenor saxophone, and together with his two new friends formed a quartet with drummer Greg Hutchinson and rehearsed weekly, learning many tunes and pushing the boundaries of key and tempo. Their role model was Barry Harris, who ran the Jazz Cultural Theater, a teaching space by day and jazz club by night. Barry gave regular improvisation workshops and had lots of time for interested youngsters; he also booked some gigs at the club for the young quartet. Another inspiring figure was Clarence "C" Sharpe, who played weekly with Ash, Roland and Hutchinson; frequently jazz legends like Bill Hardman and Junior Cook would sit in on these gigs. The exposure for the young jazz musicians was invaluable.
Upon graduating from Stuyvesant High School at a young 16, Byars left briefly to study with David Baker at Indiana University in Bloomington, and quickly returned to continue study at Manhattan School of Music, where he received a Bachelor's and Master's Degree in Jazz Studies. He has since performed with the Vanguard Jazz, American Jazz, Bob Wilber, Harry James, Glenn Miller, Jimmy Dorsey, and Stan Rubin Orchestras, toured as a featured soloist in Egypt, Portugal, Chile, the Philippines, and Armenia and recorded with GRP, Criss Cross, and Smalls Records. He was an artist-in-residence for the Westchester Philharmonic in April 2000, and composed a work for Symphony orchestra and jazz tenor saxophone called "Centrism".
He has worked often as a copyist, assisting the likes of Slide Hampton, Don Sebesky, Dick Lieb and Mark Lopeman with music preparation. He leads groups of all sizes and has a significant amount of material arranged for quartet, quintet, sextet, septet and octet. His most recent work is a jazz/classical hybrid suite called W.W.W. (World Without War) for clarinet, jazz bass, drums/marimba, and string quartet, to be played in a clarinet recital by his mother, Janita Byars in April 2003.
He co-leads a quintet with bassist Ari Roland, Made in New York. This group played every Sunday night at Smalls for nine years.
His wife is Sarah b.1972. They were married in 2000. Their child is Anna b. 2002.
Night Owls (2002); Detour Ahead (2002); The Real Underground; Across 7 Street: Made in New York (2004)