Jazzman nods to R&B hero
Sunday, February 18, 2007
Breaking the mold of jazz musicians is a habit with dreadlocked
reedman Don Byron. The Bronx native is one of the few prominent
African American jazz clarinetists to have emerged since the 1940s,
when the instrument, closely associated with Dixieland and swing
bands, largely fell from favor among young black musicians.
Byron considers himself a "multilingual" musician. He has performed
the jazz of Duke Ellington, John Kirby and Lester Young during his
16-year recording career. He's also composed his own music -- some of
it politically charged, as on the albums "Tuskegee Experiments" and
"Nu Blaxploitation" -- and paid tribute to Mickey Katz, the onetime
Spike Jones sideman who combined klezmer clarinet virtuosity with
Yiddish humor. And, outside the recording studio, Byron has played the
music of Igor Stravinsky and Herb Alpert, among many others, and
collaborated with pioneering hip-hop group the SugarHill Gang.
On his current Blue Note CD, "Do the Boomerang: The Music of Junior
Walker," Byron delves into "Cleo's Mood," "Shotgun," "(I'm a)
Roadrunner," "Pucker Up, Buttercup," "What Does It Take (to Win Your
Love)" and other songs from the 1960s by R&B tenor saxophonist and
singer Autry DeWalt, known professionally as Jr. Walker.
Byron plays clarinet on one track and bass clarinet on another, but he
blows tenor sax on the 10 others, including one non-Walker tune, James
Brown's "There it Is." The disc was produced by Byron's longtime
friend and manager Hans Wendl, a Berkeley resident of German birth
whose extensive credits include albums by Charlie Haden, Ravi Shankar,
Peter Apfelbaum and Bill Frisell, plus Bay Area artists Todd
Sickafoose, Beth Custer and Tin Hat.
"I always loved Jr. Walker," Byron, 48, says in a pronounced Bronx
accent over the phone from his home near Woodstock, N.Y. "He was one
of the few black instrumentalists that really had hits on AM radio. On
the white side, there was Al Hirt and all this different stuff. On the
black side, there were very few instrumental artists who could carry a
record the same way. We're talking about Jr. Walker and King Curtis,
and then the list starts getting thin.
"During the '60s period that I was growing up in, Jr. Walker and King
Curtis were the two guys that were actually on the radio, and I was
much more likely to hear that kind of radio than I was to hear some
jazz radio. It was important to me that they were there."
Byron heard Walker, who died in 1995 at age 64, in person several
times. As a child, he saw the saxophonist at Harlem's Apollo Theater,
where his parents would take him on the subway.
"It took like a half hour to get there from my house," he says. "When
we used to go to the Apollo, you'd spend all day there. You could see
the show two or three times and see some movies and some weird novelty
Later, while at the New England Conservatory of Music, he heard Walker
and his All Stars combo, at a bar in Boston.
"He was an entertainer," Byron says. "People say that I'm avant-garde,
but I really like musicians who entertain. That's what I liked about
Mickey Katz, besides the fact that he could play. He was an
entertainer, and there's an energy to that that's really nice."
Byron is on tour performing material from "Do the Boomerang" with
organist George Colligan, guitarist David Gilmore, bassist Brad Jones
and vocalist Dean Bowman, all of whom played on the CD. Will Calhoun
of the band Living Colour is filling in for regular drummer Rodney
Holmes, who took a leave of absence because of a family emergency.
Byron says audiences have been highly receptive to his interpretations
of Walker's soul music.
"When we played New York, it was just, like, 'Pow!' It was normal
people. Everybody understood what was happening," he says. "It wasn't
some vast intellectual question. It was people who like blues and
stuff. We got a lot of people who had never checked out any of my
stuff before, and they just had a good time."
Byron arranges his touring schedule around his twice-weekly duties as
a visiting professor at the State University of New York in Albany.
He's now in his fourth semester of teaching composition, theory,
saxophone and music history. The history classes allow him to expound
on his eclectic musical interests, which have recently come to include
the Texas country blues of Lightnin' Hopkins and the contemporary
gospel music of such performers as Yolanda Adams, Twinkie Clark, Kirk
Franklin and Donnie McClurkin.
His investigations of African American gospel music, Byron says, led
to a deeper appreciation for Walker's music.
"Everything that happens in an R&B situation is either something that
could happen in gospel music or comes directly from gospel music," he
says. "If you're doing R&B, you essentially are doing some of those
kinds of things. For me, doing Jr. Walker's music in the way that I
wanted to do it, which would be not copying Jr. Walker, came out of
studying the gospel thing.
"I realized that what he was playing was out of the same kind of vocal
energy that comes from gospel. I got to a place where those notes
actually meant something to me in a different kind of theoretical way.
I never really could figure out exactly what would make somebody play
the way that he did, but now that I've experienced this kind of black
gospel culture, it all really makes much more sense to me."
Despite his passion for gospel music, Byron has no intention of
playing it himself.
"I don't know if I really want to do a gospel project until I feel
somewhat religious," he says. "That is not the kind of thing that you
want to be faking."
DON BYRON: 8 and 10 p.m. Mon.-Tues. at Yoshi's, 510 Embarcadero W.,
Oakland. $12-$20. (510) 238-9200. www.yoshis.com.