The buildings and monuments of Paris were largely untouched during World War II by the Nazi occupation. Paris also endured little in the way of Allied bombing or German sabotage during its liberation. The city was too pretty. As a result, its infrastructure remained intact. For the first few years after the war, the city suffered financial hardship along with the rest of the country as it struggled to regain its footing without much assistance from a tapped-out French government. [Photo above of Don Byas in 1946]
Paris's fortunes changed starting in '48, when France began a long period of steady growth and modernization as it worked to catch up with the U.S., aided largely by the American Marshall Plan. As Parisians' spirits picked up rapidly, French record labels like Swing, Pathe, Blue Star, Odeon, Vogue and Royal Jazz thrived. Beauty was essential to the rapid recovery, and French labels needed music, so they turned to many American jazz musicians who traveled to Paris after the war. Among those who recorded in Paris was tenor saxophonist Don Byas. [Above, a Parisian model wearing Christian Dior in 1947]
Byas had traveled initially to Europe with Don Redman's band in 1946 but left the band late in the year along with pianist Billy Taylor and a handful of other musicians to remain behind in Paris. The city was too exciting and welcoming. [Above, Don Redman]
"Guys were still coming home from the service in 1946 so bands were still having difficulty finding and holding onto players. Don [Redman] needed me, so he told me I could bring my wife Theodora. Don Redman took his wife, and Timme [Rosenkrantz] took his. Timme's wife, Inez Cavanaugh, became the band's singer. [Above, Billy Taylor]
"Don [Byas] was very special. He did something that was unbelievable in terms of really playing and showing the Europeans that the music was moving forward. What the Europeans heard him play was the beginning of what John Coltrane and others like him eventually did. He paved the way over there. He was way ahead of Coltrane on those sheets of sound. He was trying to make the tenor saxophone sound like Art Tatum. He and Coltrane had the same idea for the same reason. They both had heard Art's seamless runs on the piano. Don was trying to do that on the tenor back then. He was head and shoulders above everyone else. Don was also playing bebop and pre-bop. What I mean by pre-bop is he was playing things that led up to bebop. They were long phrases and new ways of using harmonies so that they sounded like the dominant melody. This stuff hadn't been done yet until Don started playing them."
But unlike Billy, who returned to America with his wife, Byas decided to remain in Paris. Billy continued to reflect on Byas and his motives for remaining...
"Don told me on the tour that he didn't get enough credit at home. In New York, Hawk was the man. Don loved Hawk but said, 'I played in his band. I know what he’s doing and I know what I’m doing. Why can’t everyone hear what I'm doing?' It was sad in some ways. Don didn't get enough credit because I don't think Don was ever in the right place at the right time. When we went to Europe, he came close to receiving the kind of celebrity he was looking for—over there. At one point he came up to me and said, 'I’m not going back. People don’t treat me right at home, and these people treat me just fine. I’m going to stay here.' And he did. In Europe, he made a big impact on European musicians. Over there he was a big fish in a small pond. The '46 tour with Don Redman was only supposed to last six to eight weeks. We wound up staying eight months. By January 1947, the small combo we formed caught on, and toward the end we ended up in Holland with Tyree Glenn and Don Byas. We changed guitarists and used another bassist and drummer. We mixed the groups up a bit. We were all there at the same time so guys on the recordings were together working separately." [Above, Inez Cavanaugh in Zurich in 1946]
Byas recorded in Paris from 1946 until 1954, before he married Johanna "Jopie" Eksteen from Holland and relocated to the Netherlands in 1955. All of his Paris recordings are available on one three-CD set—The Don Byas Quartet: Complete 1946-1954 Recordings. Interestingly, once Byas was liberated from American labels and their formulaic A&R men, he was free to be himself, to record as he pleased. The result was a long stretch of beautiful, passionate ballad playing.
Many of the tracks on this set are taken nice and slow, giving you a chance to hear what made Byas special. He was less gruff than Hawkins, sweeter in tone and more drawn out in his notes. And while he wasn't as hefty or intimidating in his playing style as Hawkins, Byas was remarkable in other ways, particularly in his long, expressive lines. Among the highlights on the set are Because of You, And So to Sleep Again, Slow Coach (Slow Poke), Cottage for Sale, I Cover the Waterfront, Old Folks, Remember My Forgotten Man and I Should Care. On the last one, he was accompanied by the Beryl Booker Trio—with Booker on piano and vocal. There also are 15 sides from a 1953 session with Mary Lou Williams (photo below).
Though Byas came out of the Hawkins huffing-and-puffing school of horizontal chord-running, he had a romantic way of handling songs and a powerful technique. While he often toiled in Hawkins' large shadow in the States, Byas's true artistic personality was able to emerge in Paris, as we hear on these wonderful recordings. Byas died in Amsterdam in 1972.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find The Don Byas Quartet: The Complete 1946-1954 Paris Recordings here.
JazzWax notes: You'll find my JazzWax interview with Billy Taylor here.
For more on Don Redman's 1946 European tour, go here.
JazzWax clips: Here's Don Byas playing I Can't Explain in 1947, with Jacques "Jack" Dieval (p), Jean-Jacques Tilche (g), Lucien Simoens (b) and Armand Molinetti (d)...
And here's Byas playing This Is Always in 1952, with Art Simmons (p), Joe Benjamin (b) and Bill Clark (d)...