Lea was two months old the first time we took her to a concert—
Jaki Byard’s 1989 recital at Weill Hall. He sat at the piano and played a 10-note discord. She whimpered, looked distressed. But he followed instantly with a lambent stride passage. She raised her head and smiled, then fell into an hour’s sleep. I knew the feeling. Jaki never put me to sleep, but he always made me smile and frequently knocked me out. Listening to him was like turning on a tap in which all the strains of modern piano, from James P. Johnson to
Cecil Taylor, flowed in one luscious rush. Yet having described the most obvious aspect of his playing, I feel obliged to backpedal from the old saw that his music stood for no more than a promethean eclecticism. The result was his own and unmistakable, by turns hard, percussive, witty, sentimental, sardonic, whimsical, subversive, ebullient, anguished. Like Sonny Rollins, he could fake you out— making you think, for example, that those corny arpeggios were a joke, so that you didn’t know whether to feel embarrassed or grateful at the emotions he extracted from them.
Jaki died February 11, at 76, of a gunshot wound, in his home in Hollis, Queens, and rumors abound— an intruder, someone personally close, suicide. I can’t believe the last, though he was hit hard by the death a few years back of his wife, Louise, his devoted and amusingly acerbic companion of some four decades. He left two daughters, Denise and Diane, whose names and occasional singing are known to admirers of his compositions and recordings; a son, Gerald; and a passel of grandsons and great-grandsons. He also left an enormous number of students past and present, both institutional
— eight years at the New England Conservatory of Music, four at the Hart School of Music, three a lecturer at Harvard, among other affiliations— and private, including Marty Ehrlich, D.D. Jackson, and a young musical therapist named Vanessa Kaster, who came to learn improvisation and said last week, “Every particle of him was music. Sometimes the lessons would last three hours. His clock wasn’t set to real time, only to music.”
I studied with him in 1974, when he was part of the faculty at Martin Williams’s critics colloquium at the Smithsonian; but I’d been studying his music long before that. In the mid ’60s, he was one of the pianists who regularly played the Village Gate mezzanine. If you were short on cash, you could sit at the bar and nurse a beer through several sets and no one bothered you. I loved trying to follow his stream-of-
consciousness forays, medleys of songs and techniques— never dull, never indifferent. He was a master of stride, r&b, ballads, and free improvisation, a great Garner, Tatum, and Hines player; these were not affectations, but integral to what he knew and believed about piano. When Vanessa asked him about stride, he said it was no big deal, that you could find it in classical music, that it was all part of the piano repertoire. Still, what I liked best was what I came to think of as Jaki’s core style, a driven bebop linearity that ranged over the whole keyboard with a fierce purposefulness, every note struck like a hammer. He could make a piano roar. But as soon as you thought you knew the song, he turned the corner and you were in another country.
One night at the Gate, a little juiced-up Billy Eckstine wannabe who sang as “Junior Parker” and had no fixed address, just an oversized overcoat, walked in and asked to sing. Jaki shrugged, and soon Junior was there every night, arriving in the middle of the set to wail “Getting To Know You” in an impossibly slow, cellolike arrangement. Jaki included him and it on his next album, the irresistible Freedom Together!, after which Junior disappeared. On a college break, I went to the Gate to find Jaki no longer in residence, and asked if he was playing anywhere. “Oh, Jaki’s at the 82 Club,” someone said, giving me directions to the East Village. When I finally found the joint I was greeted by a midget transvestite who said he’d never heard of Jaki Byard but I was certainly welcome; I stomped out, annoyed at the joke played on me. Years
later, I told Jaki. He said, “Man, you should’ve come in. Those were nice people. Actually, that was one of my better gigs.”
Which was probably true. He was briefly in the rotation at the Village Vanguard, but after 1970 I mostly heard him in restaurants or one-shot concerts— among them, encounters with David Murray, Greg Osby, and Archie Shepp. In later years, he was inconsistent, sometimes noodling in introspective meditation, waiting— Rollins-like— for the muse to jump-start him. He looked increasingly like a bemused bear, his hair a straightened thatch sprouting around his head, his face round and line-free, his expression quizzical. He loved big bands more than anything— he had come up with Herb Pomeroy in Boston (despite more than three decades in Queens, he
never lost a scintilla of his accent), toured the country as pianist and arranger with Maynard Ferguson, worked closely with Charles Mingus (he arranged much of the 1964 Monterey concert), and occasionally subbed for an ailing Duke Ellington. Incredibly for a guy who struggled to get trio work, he organized a big band, the
Apollo Stompers— named, he was quick to point out, for the Greek god, not the theater. His final recording, made last spring and as yet unreleased, was his third with the orchestra.
Jaki will be best remembered, however, for the astonishing recordings he cut between 1961 and 1972, mostly for Prestige, though he insisted his personal favorite was a solo date for Futura in Paris (1971, never released here); and for piloting Richard Davis and Alan Dawson in one of the greatest rhythm sections ever assembled. If he never acquired a commensurate following, he was long a critical favorite and he had a loyal and imaginative producer in Don Schlitten, who assembled that rhythm section in 1963, for the first of the Booker Ervin “Book” LPs. Like Armstrong’s Hot 5 or Morton’s Red Hot Peppers, it existed only in the studio, but over the next decade it proved a telling alternative to HerbieRonTony, a combustible, cohesive, swinging unit that never tempered the individuals involved— you couldn’t believe what was going on in that cauldron.
Most of the albums are out of print, some for more than 15 years. But they’ve been
slowly returning, one by one, and they merit reassessment. Jaki was the kind of musician who played “Giant Steps” slow (Here’s Jaki) and “Lush Life” fast (Out Front). On Hi-Fly, he disguises the title tune with a full-bore rhythmic buildup and makes James P. Johnson’s “Yamekraw” sound modern. He was also an exceptionally deep and versatile blues player, as you can glean by comparing “Searchlight,” “Out Front,” and “Freedom Together.” The untuned piano at a place called Lennie’s on the Turnpike inspired him (as did saxophonist Joe Farrell) to one bashing climax after another on the two volumes of Live! (a third volume was never released). For the full Byard effect, however, you must follow him into the twilight zone of Freedom Together! (Schlitten has always liked exclamation points); On the Spot! (the title track is brutal hard bop while “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” is r&b); the dazzling Jaki Byard Experience (with Rahsaan, a friskier companion to Kirk’s own Rip, Rig, and Panic); and the staggering Sunshine of My Soul, where his assimilation of Taylor is given free rein on “Sunshine” and “Trendsition Zildjian,” his fluent Tatum chops sweep through “Chandra,” and his own bopping proclivities erupt on “Diane’s Melody.” Jaki Byard With Strings! has “Cat’s Cradle Conference Rag,” in which the leader plays “Take the A Train,” Ray Nance plays “Jersey Bounce,” George Benson plays “Darktown Strutters Ball,” Richard Davis plays “Intermission Riff,” Ron Carter plays “Desafinado,” and Alan Dawson plays “Ring Dem Bells”— at the same time. A few complicated arrangements notwithstanding, that album is mostly an upbeat jam. His most resonant work is to be found on the lavishly varied recitals, Solo Piano, There’ll Be Some Changes Made, Duet! (an ardent collaboration with Earl Hines), To Them— To Us, At Maybeck. Perhaps, someday, even the Futura album he loved will cross the Atlantic. Jaki gave up waiting long ago; me, never.