Don Byas never quite got a fair shake. The tenor saxophonist had a big confident sound but was constantly compared to Coleman Hawkins by critics or ignored. Despite being one of the originators of bebop and a major player on the New York scene in the early and mid-1940s, Byas never managed to break out as a dominant figure. There were just too many terrific tenor players who had already made names for themselves in marquis bands.
Then in 1946, just at the height of his fame, he moved to Paris to escape the long tenor shadows in New York, becoming one of the first in a long line of jazz musicians to emigrate to Europe—a move that only made Byas less important and even more forgotten.
Yet when you listen to Don Byas' recordings between 1944-1946—without comparing him to other tenor players of the time—you realize how incredible a musician and innovator he was.
This, from tenor saxophonist Sonny Stitt, from the liner notes of a 1961 Byas album:
"Years ago the game was vicious, cutthroat. Can you imagine Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Chu Berry, Don Byas and Ben Webster on the same little jam session? And guess who won the fight? That's what it was—a saxophone duel. Don Byas walked off with everything."
Don Byas began his career in the 1930s, playing with the bands of Lucky Millinder and Andy Kirk. Byas came to New York with Eddie Mallory's band in 1940 and remained, playing with small groups at Minton's Playhouse in Harlem and in clubs on 52d St. Byas joined Dizzy Gillespie's early bop quintet at the Onyx Club in late 1943—a group that featured Max Roach on drums, Oscar Pettiford on bass and George Wallington on piano.
But Byas never quite fit in, as Alyn Shipton notes in Groovin' High: The Life of Dizzy Gillespie (1999):
"Byas was never an entirely convincing bebopper, but rather like Coleman Hawkins, he was a sufficiently adaptable tenorist to amend his playing to cope with all the vitality, speed and harmonic originality of the new jazz, and he rapidly changed bands at the Onyx to work with Dizzy and Pettiford rather than [pianist Al] Casey.
'He'd work with just about everybody,' recalled Billy Taylor. 'Erroll Garner and others up and down the Street. But Don wasn't a big enough name to draw the crowds on his own. In fact, Budd Johnson, who eventually replaced him, was far better known to the general public because he's been with some high-profile big bands like Earl Hines, which had put him in the public eye more than Don.' "
In early 1944, Byas was in Coleman Hawkins' orchestra, and by July and August he was recording with pianist Clyde Hart for Savoy. In January 1945, Byas was with Hart again on a new-famous blues recording date that included Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet, Charlie Parker on alto, Trummy Young on trombone, Hart on piano, Al Hall on bass, Specs Powell (who died earlier this month) on drums, and Rubberlegs Williams on vocals.
By the early spring of 1945, Byas fronted his own groups on record dates, and by May and June 1945, was playing in the Charlie Parker Sextet (the June date is captured on the recently released Town Hall, New York City, June 22, 1945).
Byas recorded as a leader and sideman in 1946 before joining Don Redman for a European tour. Once there, Byas fell in love with Paris and remained there (recording throughout Europe). In 1961, he married and moved to the Netherlands, where he died of lung cancer in 1972.
Here's what Byas told drummer Art Taylor during an interview in Paris in 1969 that appears in Taylor's book, Notes and Tones (1977):
AT: Who influenced you?
DB In the beginning, Hawk. That sound always stayed with me and never got away. In fact, I think I have a bigger sound now than he had. Apart from that, I dug what he was playing. Art Tatum really turned me on. That's where my style came from...style...I haven't got any style! I just blow like Art. He didn't have any style, he just played the piano, and that's the way I play. We were real close, and he loved me.
He used to sit down and talk to me, and one day he said, 'Don, don't ever worry about what you're going to play or where the ideas are gong to come from. Just remember there is no such thing as a wrong note.' He said, 'What makes a note wrong is when you don't know where to go after that one. As long as you know how to get to the next note, there's not such thing as a wrong note...
That's when the doors started opening for me music-wise. From that time I started practicing and remembering that, and all of a sudden I said, 'That's where it is.' There's no way you can hit a wrong note, as long as you know where to go after. You just keep weaving and there's no way in the world you can get lost. You hit one. If it's not right, you hit another...There was nobody playing what I was playing...
Bird [Charlie Parker] got a lot of things from me. I met Bird when he was about fourteen in Kansas City, so I've been knowing him for a long time. Even after Bird got to New York with Jay McShann, we were still real tight, and he used to always come and get me when he wanted to go and jam, which was damn near every night. He would say: 'Come on, Don, we're going to play Cherokee.' That was his favorite tune. What people don't know is that Bird got a lot of stuff from me, although he was influenced more by Pres (Lester Young]. Pres was really his boy.
AT: Do you feel unrewarded for the contribution you made to our music?
DB: Yes, in a way, but I can't say that I'm angry, because I split at the top of my success, so actually a lot of it is my fault...
AT: You were one of the first musicians to settle in Europe?
DB: I was the first. I came with Don Redman, after the war. I had a beautiful success and made a lot of money...
Don Byas was everything and nothing to many critics. But in his day, Byas was one of the most feared tenor soloists around and certainly one of the most interesting to listen to.
For evidence of his early prowess, I recommend listening to Byas' Savoy sessions. As you'll hear, Byas is still underrated—a casualty of his burning desire to be free of comparison.
Wax tracks: Don Byas's Savoy sessions (1944-46) are available on Don Byas: Savoy Jam Party. You will find the CD at iTunes or online.
Download Old Folks, Candy, How High the Moon, Donby, Byas a Drink and Cherokee. These six tracks prove without a doubt that Byas was extraordinary as a swing master and a bebop steamer.
Candy and Old Folks are taken at an ultraslow tempo, allowing Byas to show off his glossy ballad work. How High the Moon and the other uptempo numbers demonstrate just how agile and catlike Byas could be.
To hear Byas in all his European glory, download Ladybird from A Night in Tunisia (1963). Or download the entire album. It's an amazing date, and you really hear how unrestrained Byas had become at this point as he tears into uptempo songs and ruminates on the slow ones.
If you're feeling flush, spring for the imported box, Don Byas: Complete American Small Group Recordings (Definitive). It sells for about $35 and can be found here.
Wax clips: To see and hear an abbreviated clip of Don Byas in 1966, go here. Byas takes a little time to warm up, but when he does, you hear shades of the tenor killer from 20 years earlier.