with Don Byas - JHAS 613
I Remember Clifford
All The Things You Are
Moonlight In Vermont
Don Byas (tenor saxophone); Stan Tracey (piano); Rick Laird (bass); Tony Crombie (drums).
Prepared for CD release by Les Tomkins and Dave Bennett
Remastered by Dave Bennett
Digital editing by Paul Adams
Notes: © Les Tomkins We did not know, in September 1965, as we witnessed the great Don Byas enjoying himself in the company of the excellent Tracey, Laird and Crombie, that one of the titles he played had a poignant truth, and he was, in fact, in the autumn of his illustrious jazz career. These were his first performances in London; he was to die seven years later in Amsterdam at the age of 59.
In a previously unpublished interview, Don expressed his pleasure in being here, after 20 years spent mainly on the Continent. "It's a wonderful place - the people are very, very nice. And it's certainly a new sort of scene for me, altogether different from anything I've seen before. It's completely different from New York, Paris, all the other big cities. In fact, I find that London has quite a lot of character, probably dating back into the years - which is as it should be. There are so few modern cities today that still contain their original character. I definitely feel a sense of that here".
He then paid tribute to his musical associates at Ronnie's: "l'm working with a very swinging group. I mean, Stan Tracey's just fine - everything's going lovely. I certainly wouldn't find any better anywhere in Europe".
Don Carlos Wesley Byas was born in Muskogee, Oklahoma on October 21st, 1912, where he learned to play violin and clarinet at an early age. "I played nothing but classics up until I was ten. Then I heard what was called'this terrible music' - ragtime, and I became obsessed with it. That was the beginning of my jazz studies. I abandoned the classics completely". He also abandoned the violin and the clarinet. "I didn't like them for jazz instruments. Of course, clarinet has always been a jazz instrument - but there wasn't enough sound in it for me. So I bought me a second-hand alto saxophone and I began to study it. Actually, alto is my instrument - it wasn't till much later that I changed over to tenor".
On alto he played with his idol, Benny Moten and, at 17 in Oklahoma City, with the band of the man who later became Basie's bassist, Walter Page's Blue Devils. At 20 he led his own college band; at 21 he left for California with Bert Johnson and his Sharps and Flats - with which band the tenor change-over took place.
"I was playing first alto, but one day the bandleader was listening while we were rehearsing, and he said: 'Don, have you ever tried to play tenor?' I said: 'No - never'. He said: 'Would you try it - I just want to hear something'. So I just played a couple of choruses on tenor, and he said: 'That's your instrument - that's what you should be playing, man, with the sound you get out of that. Your alto sound is bigger than the one he gets out of his tenor!' I told him: 'I have no money to buy an instrument'; so the other guy said: 'Well, if you want to play tenor, let's switch. I'll take your alto - you take my tenor'. I said: 'Crazy - okay' - and from then on I've been playing tenor".
Certainly, the Byas sound has often been described as "big". As he put it: "It sort of goes with what I have to say on my instrument, you see. Because to me there are, shall we say, two extremes - music and noise. There is the dividing line in the middle. Well, in order to play jazz music - in order for it to remain music - it should have as big and beautiful a sound as possible. In the first place, you're working under a handicap as it is, because the masses are not jazz-lovers. So I try to give it to them dressed up as prettily as possible".
However, referring to the element of his performances that is twice represented in my CD selection here, he insisted: "The only actual compromise I've ever made was not in my playing but in the choice of tunes because they have sort of typed me as a ballad player. I mean, I don't mind that so much - I love a beautiful ballad, and it gives me a chance to exploit my tone. I would have played ballads, that's for sure, but not in such a quantity, I don't think. I don't regard myself as only a ballad player, but I think I can play a nice ballad - so I agree with the public about that."
"I mean, there are not many that can play a good ballad. Yes, it's almost a lost art. I love the way Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins play ballads". I cited Stan Getz (who also started on alto) as a prime exponent of the ballad. "Yes, but I don't dig the sound he gets - he doesn't have enough sound for me. But he's a marvellous musician, of course - I grant you that".
One of the first friends Don made on arrival in Los Angeles with the Johnson band was Lionel Hampton. He was 23 in 1935 when Lionel recruited him for his very first big band, along with another tenor giant Herschel Evans and trumpetman Buck Clayton, in whose band he later worked. Other employers during Don's twenties included Eddie Barefield, Don Redman, Lucky Millinder, Andy Kirk, Edgar Hayes and Benny Carter. In January 1941, in New York, came the call he had been waiting for - to join the Count Basie band.
"Actually, it came about very strangely. It happened to be a Friday morning, which also happened to be on the 13th, and Basie had a record date to do. The whole band waited in the studio about three hours - but no Lester (Young). Finally, Basie called up the Woodside Hotel, where he lived, and Lester says: 'Well, no, Daddy, I'm sorry. I don't work on Friday the 13th. And Basie said:'Well, if you don't work on Friday the 13th, then you don't work at all with Basie'. And Lester said: "l'm sorry, Daddy, that's the way it is". So Basie called me and said: 'Don, would you like to make a record date?' I said: 'Beautiful' - and I stayed four years in the band."
"Those were the happiest years of my life. I really enjoyed my time with Basie's band. It was so necessary for the fulfilment of my career. I needed that whole experience, in order to grow as a player and, as you might say, to find myself".
In the 'forties Don also found himself assimilating the bebop idiom, working with Dizzy Gillespie, and on 52nd Street with his own and other all-star bands. In 1946 he travelled with Don Redman's band to France, where he took up residence.
The French jazz critic Hugues Panassie paid this tribute to Don Byas in 1956: "He is one of the most brilliant saxophone players in the Hawkins manner and an oustanding virtuoso of his instrument. He has the gift of pointing a melody while swinging it, and of lightly paraphrasing it with consumate art".