Don Byron

Don Byron
Leads The Return Of The Black Stick
By Mark Ruffin

It is mostly because of Don Byron that jazz is experiencing a renewed number of musicians focusing on the clarinet. Byron, known for his eclecticism, is not only playing music written for the clarinet in the instrument’s glory day, but he is also writing new music for the black stick. He’s also performed and/or recorded classical, Caribbean and even klezmer music.  His current album “Bug Music” features the music of Duke Ellington and Raymond Scott among others. However, his next album, his first for Blue Note, will be a rock album of original music.

Byron was named top clarinetist in Down Beat’s Critic Poll for four consecutive years and has appeared on albums by Cassandra Wilson, Anthony Braxton, Craig Harris and Living Colour. The Kronos Quartet commissioned and premiered his 1994 composition “There Goes the Neighborhood.” He also appeared in Robert Altman’s film “Kansas City” and is heard on the two soundtrack albums the movie spawned.

Recently Byron held a week long residency at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, the highlight of which was hearing Byron’s own original soundtrack played live to a rare film titled “Scar of Shame.” He also found a few moments for JazzUSA.

JazzUSA: Did you enjoy working with director Robert Altman in the film “Kansas City?”

DB: I would say that I enjoyed when we were actually doing stuff. Mostly it was sitting around in wool suits in really cold weather or in really hot studios. Also, the conditions, if you’ve worked on films, when they shoot indoors and they want it to look atmospheric, they use a kind of thick white smoke. It’s not even dry ice, it’s based on this oil stuff. So a lot of people got sick. I would say that it was fairly difficult conditions. The moments when we were playing were the nicest part about it.

JazzUSA: You were with Nonesuch Records and now you’re with Blue Note. It does say something, that in the 90’s a clarinet player can go from one major label to another.

DB: Who says that?

JazzUSA: I can’t think of another clarinet player in America who can go from one major label to another, or who has.

DB: Maybe Eddie Daniels.

JazzUSA: Well there are some folks who criticize what he plays, saying it’s not really jazz.

DB: If people say that about him, they certainly say that about him, they certainly say that about me. I’m even more like that because I don’t play jazz all the time. He just plays a lot of corny music. That’s a different issue.

JazzUSA: That’s right you began playing classical, right?

DB: Yes, classical clarinet.

JazzUSA: Tell us about the other very unique movie project you’re working on now. The movie is called “Scar Of Shame,” and it’s a restored Black silent film from the 20’s. What’s your role with this film?

DB: Basically, I kind of wag my arms and hope the musicians come in on time. It’s not really a thing where I’m playing every minute. Doing live music to silent film isn’t exactly the exact science that scoring a film might be. It’s a lot of constant playing. The film might run fast or slow and I basically make sure that the musicians get to the spot that they need to get. And I kind of watch the film along and cue up different pieces of music for different things.

JazzUSA: How many pieces are with the band that’s performing with the film?

DB: There’s about eight musicians. We have a whole lot of different pieces. It’s not like a Phillip Glass thing where we’re playing three notes for an hour. It’s more like we have a whole bunch of different pieces that we go through. Then we just stop and start in different spots.

JazzUSA: How did you get started with “Scar Of Shame?”

DB: It was commissioned. There’s some of the same music on my album “Music For Six Musicians” like the piece “Sex/Work.” We play the “Shelby Steele” piece, we play “The Lure Of Entanglement” from that record. They were all commissioned by the Museum of the Moving Image in New York which is kind of on the site of the Kaufman-Astoria studios where they make “The Cosby Show,” where they made a bunch of the Marx Brothers films. It’s like this ancient kind of film studio and there’s a museum for film and they commissioned me.

JazzUSA: The titles on that album are very interesting, like “Sex/Work, Clarence/Anita?”

DB: That’s the way I saw it. She seemed to be about work and he seemed to be about sex.

JazzUSA: “The Importance of Being Sharpton.”

DB: I think that Shapton is a little over-dissed, but he’s and interesting and flawed fellow.

JazzUSA: “That Sucking Sound, For Ross Perot.”

DB: That was Ross Perot’s slogan about the jobs going down to Mexico. You can hear that sucking sound of jobs going down there to Mexico. It’s one of my favorite political slogans ever. (HE DOES A DEAD ON IMPRESSION OF PEROT) You can hear that sucking sound, that sucking sound, those jobs going down to Mexico.

JazzUSA: What is “Scar Of Shame” about?

DB: It’s kind of the story of a scorned woman, or as they call her a “rose of Sharon.” I don’t know what that means but it certainly sounds dramatic. The female character is kind of abused by her step-father. And then there’s this kind of uppity brother who’s almost like a Duke Ellington type of figure. Some people call him dicty in the film. I love that word, dicty. People don’t use that enough anymore.

JazzUSA: I noticed that it was used in the title of a tune of the “Bug Music” album.

DB: It’s a Duke Ellington tune, “The Dicty Glide.” Aside from what that word means, that’s one of the most beautiful pieces that Duke ever wrote. Basically, the characters kind of hook up as man and wife. The male character’s life continues to slide down. He’s kind of light skinned and his parents have a certain kind of level of marriage in mind for him. He goes from that to landing in jail and being a fugitive. It’s a pretty ridiculous story. But, it really shows class struggle inside the black community, which most white people don’t really know that much about, that we have class issues between each other. Even over stuff like hairstyles. There aren’t that many films that deal with that.

JazzUSA: Spike Lee addressed it in “School Daze.”

DB: And there’s “Soldier’s Story,” which was a fantastic play which really used the military metaphor of people ranks along with that class struggle.

JazzUSA: But “Scar Of Shame” was made in the 20’s.

DB: We had class struggle in the 20’s.

JazzUSA:Yeah, but it didn’t get on the American screen very often.

DB: That’s what makes “Scar Of Shame” special for me. Some people wouldn’t even read it that way. But for me, that’s what I see in it. That’s my wheelhouse-class struggles, bias issues and just kind of exposing things that people aren’t talking about. Because we’re still not really talking about it.