By Mabel Suen
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"It matters very little to God whether or not a piece of music is Jazz," says clarinetist Don Byron in the liner notes to his remarkable 1996 CD Bug Music, "only that it is a compositional act." That is to say, you can describe the sound of music any way you want to, but what matters most is its nature as a creation.
And Byron, of anybody working in the field of interpretation and composition, takes this philosophy to heart. With a repertoire that encompasses such diverse musics as the klezmer of Mickey Katz, the '70s funk of Mandrill (which he recreates, along with his own compositions, on his recent Nu Blaxploitation) and gentle Schumann ballads, he pursues music with a fantastic equanimity. His success as an artist stems from this broad vision; using his music as a podium, he constantly pounds the point that it's wrong to categorize artists on the basis of commonly held opinions, be that critical praise or simply a genre tag.
More important than his repertoire, though, is the luminous tone he unearths inside his clarinet; it glows with warmth and life, coloring each composition with a tense comfort. He could toss off "Three Blind Mice" and spin it magically. And his own compositions, especially the remarkable Music for Six Musicians (Elektra), are constructed as ironclad containers within which the musicians seem free to roam.
When Byron performs at Washington University's Edison Theatre this Friday, he'll be playing music from his critically acclaimed Bug Music (along with, he says, "maybe some Coltrane"), on which Byron's 15-piece big band reworked and recontextualized the music of Duke Ellington, Raymond Scott and John Kirby.
Ellington you know -- though probably not as well as Byron does. The other two may be less familiar. Scott's music laid the foundation for the manic, schizophrenic workings of cartoon composer Carl Stalling. Its somewhat chaotic structure jumps around in snapshot increments; employing a big band whom he trained to spin his music around in circles, Scott -- who gained most of his prominence in the '40s and '50s -- was dismissed in his day by "serious" composers and musicians but has been rediscovered in recent years, partially as a result of Byron's vocal praisings. Kirby's band existed around the same time. According to Byron in the liner notes to Bug Music, "The bravery of Kirby's music can be appreciated if one considers what an African-American musician was supposed to sound like in this period or, more directly, what an African-American musician was supposed to know. The band's sophisticated sound led to many society engagements, and Kirby's was one of the earliest black bands to have its own radio show."
Recently, New Orleans pianist/composer and occasional freelance writer Tom McDermott interviewed Don Byron for the RFT. The resulting crumbs of information -- Byron is notoriously tight-lipped and occasionally confrontational in interviews -- from one of the most versatile and important musicians, jazz or otherwise, working today are directed specifically at Bug Music.
On Duke Ellington: The way I see it, Duke got into an "elegance" thing in the '40s, so the early stuff is rougher and has more of an edge, which I prefer. But I'm not going to say the Washingtonians' (an early Ellington big band) sides are "better" than the Anatomy of a Murder or "Far East Suite" periods; I just like the early stuff better.
On performing Bug Music live: We just scale them down, and they work fine. The Raymond Scott is pretty much played as he wrote it, and the John Kirby stuff we open up a little more.
On the likelihood of recording more Ellington pieces: Well, if I was asked to do something I would do it, but I can't say I enjoy the transcribing end of it. I'm good at it, but it's hard work, especially that early stuff with the lower fidelity. I've done as much repertory as I'm going to do in a jazz way for a while. My next record might have some later Ellington, but I can't see doing an entire album for a while.
Asked about the success of the Squirrel Nut Zippers: What does that have to do with my music?
After further explanation: Most of the new bands don't swing enough to be called jump bands. The jazz world hates the Squirrel Nut Zippers, but (the Zippers) don't care because they're selling 20 times as much as any jazz band; they don't need my approval. That music has more to do with social functions. It's music to show off your new clothes for ... does it swing like Art Blakey? Obviously not. The Squirrel Nut Zippers are just too simple for me (pauses). Ultimately it doesn't matter how good or bad your music is, if people don't hear it.
Elaborating on one of his quotes from a New York Times article in which he said, "As we define more narrowly what jazz is, we black musicians get painted into a corner": Well, having done the range of stuff I've done, I think white musicians have more options. I had a hard time, for instance, getting the Mickey Katz record stocked around the country. When you're a black musician you get labeled more easily -- how many black "alternative" bands have you seen out there?
Don Byron and his mini-big band perform Bug Music at Washington University's Edison Theatre on Friday, Dec. 11.