Jaki Byard - Biography

By Nick Castro


Jaki Byard was one of the most original jazz pianist of his time. He was tragically and mysteriously shot in the face in 1999 in his home in Queens, NY and killed. He was born in 1922 in Worchester, MA. He grew up with music filling his home through the radio and through his father's trumpet and trombone playing and his mother's piano. Byard's grandmother used to play piano for silent films. Young Byard also took piano lessons from early on though, through the encouragement of his father, would also experiment with saxophone and trumpet as well, both of which he become competent enough to play professionally. Other instruments Byard would learn are bass, vibraphone, trombone and drums. By age 15 Byard was getting payed to play his music professionally. His varying influences led Byard to have one of the most diverse and encompassing styles in modern jazz. He was able to go from ragtime or blues to free jazz or swing effortlessly and the whole time maintaining a sound uniquely his own. His chording style is probably most easily associated with players like Sun Ra or Thelonius Monk who prefer chords with close or dissonant voicings played in sparse open rhythms.


Byard moved to Boston when was 19 to pursue music but was drafted instead. Through some cajoling and maneuvering he managed to get himself a spot in the army band. The spot of pianist was already taken but Byard being a jack of all trades sat in on trombone. It was here that he met fellow jazz musicians Kenny Clarke, Ernie Washington and Earl Bostic. It was in the army that Byard was able to refine his skills on the trombone. Upon his departure from the army Byard rsumed his original intentions of a professional career in jazz music. Through his serendipitous encounter with Bostic in the army he was readily able to secure a position in Bostic's band. Bostic was gracious and introduced Byard to many of the big names working in New York at the time and Byard soon gog work playing with artists as varied as saxophonist Sam Rivers and violin and trumpet player Ray Nance, who had been working with Duke Ellington in his orchestra. By 1955 Byard had gained the piano position in Herb Pomeroy's band until he left to join Maynard Ferguson's group a few years later.


It was in the 60's though that Byard would begin to take a new direction with jazz and sound. By 1959 he had met and was working with free jazz pioneer Eric Dolphy. Byard would play on Dolphy's Outward Bound (1960 - New Jazz) providing an important role on the album. This was one of Dolphy's first outings as a leader and soloist and though it is still fairly straight ahead for what was to come  you can hear both Dolphy and Byard stretching out into some interesting arrangements and disparate elements which hinted towards their future breakthroughs. This can especially be heard on their arrangement of the song "On Green Dolphin Street" with the combination of Dolphy's bass clarinet and Byard's oddly sparse piano playing they create a sound distinctly new and their own. Byard would play on a few other Dolphy albums including the album Far Cry (1960 - New Jazz) which would feature Byard's own composition "Mrs. Parker of K.C." as the opening track. This was Byard's dedication to the mother of Charlie Parker. This same year would see Byard's first solo album, Blues for Smoke (1960 - Candid), which was a collection of solo piano songs all written by Byard. It is an amazing display of his piano mastery and his diverse playing style, seamlessly flowing from stride piano to minimalist free jazz.


Byard would begin working with label Prestige and the first he did for them was Out Front! (1961 - Prestige), which was mainly a collection of standards and obscure covers with a few Byard originals, such as "Out Front", "Searchlight" and "European Episode", sprinkled in. This was a strong album but did not feature the progressive sound that Byard's recent recordings had achieved. His next album Here's Jaki (1961 - New Jazz), for Prestige's subsidiary label, New Jazz, was recorded with a power trio consisting of bassist Ron Cart and drummer Roy Haynes. This album is mostly Byard originals with a Gershwin medley and a strange half-tempo version of Coltrane's "Giant Steps". This album was very successful for Byard and he quickly followed up with what many consider to be one of his finest works, Hi-Fly (1962 - New Jazz). He is joined by drummer Pete La Roca and once again went with the trio format. This album fully demonstrates Byard's expansive view of music and composition and solidifies him as a master in his field.


By 1964 Byard would begin working with Charles Mingus on what would be considered  Mingus' finest recording, Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963 - Impulse!), which has remained as one of the most ambitious works either in jazz or in orchestral works. Mingus, himself an accomplished piano player, heard Byard's early solo piano album and knew he was the man for the job.


Byard would continue to make albums for Prestige including On The Spot (1965 - Prestige), Live! at Lennie's (1965 - Prestige), Freedom Together (1966 - Prestige), which would start to feature extended pieces ranging up to 11 minutes in length, and Sunshine of My Soul (1967 - Prestige). In 1968 Byard would release the album, with a slightly misleading title whch displayed Byard's penchant for comedy, Jaki Byard with Strings (1968 - Prestige), whose string section consisted of Carter on cello, Richard Davis on bass, George Benson on guitar and Ray Nance on violin.


Towards the later years of his career Byard would spend much time teaching at such institutions as New England Conservatory, Harvard, University of Pittsburgh and Manhattan School of Music. In 1999 Byard was found shot in the face in his Queens, NY residence with no signs of forced entry, no weapon, no evidence, no motives and no suspects the case has remained an unsolved mystery and horrific theft of one of the world's leading voices in jazz.




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