Friday, July 31, 2009

The History of Jazz in 88 Notes...

My initial immersion in the music of Jaki Byard happened back in the 80's when I hosted a weekly late night jazz radio program called The Night Train for a local campus/community radio station in my home town. The show aired from midnight till two in the morning. That was back in the days when you couldn't download an MP3 file of it after the fact and listen to it at your convenience and, except for extraordinary circumstances, you couldn't listen to it if you were more than 100 miles from the station. Each week I came into the studio with one of a various number of overarching themes. One scenario would be entire shows made up of music recorded on the date of the show (e.g. February 10 or September 26) down through the history of jazz. The show would play out chronologically from the earliest date to the most recent. If I was lucky, I could further refine the playlist by finding an accompaying theme within the main theme, like a focus on quartets or saxophonists or places. It just took a little musical mining. That was the easy theme provider because all the music was there before me and all I had to do was pare it down to find the patterns.
For me the hardest over-arching themes were always entire shows devoted to one musician whose date of birth happened to land on the day of the show. Remember, this was before the internet download universe. What this meant was researching the artist's discography, checking with friends to see if they owned the records I did not, checking local record stores to see whether they had them in stock and, finally, checking to see if Cadence Records had them in stock. This usually meant at least a two month process before I even had a chance to hear all the music! And it always meant spending money, sometimes lots of it.
That's what happened with Jaki Byard. I decided to prepare a show about him. It cost me lots of money. I'm glad I did.
I was lucky to see/hear him live (in Halifax, Nova Scotia) before he died. He was grumpy and brilliant.
With the possible excepetion of Mary Lou Williams, Jaki Byard was and, for my money, still is the most versatile pianist in the history of jazz (bear witness to his "Tribute to the Ticklers" included herein). He could comfortably surf between boogie woogie, swing, bop, modal, classical and free playing without skipping a beat or a note. He could take you on a conducted tour of the history of jazz and was often asked to by his longtime employer Charles Mingus. Jaki was often called upon to regale the crowd and band with a survey of America's classical music while everyone looked on in awe.
The concert we have here was recorded in Chicago in 1992 and amply displays Byard's astounding mastery of all the jazz periods. Listen for yourself.
The playlist is:
01. Conversation :33
02. Hello, Young Lovers 5:01
03. Tribute to the Ticklers 5:36
04. Tribute to Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington 9:43
05. Take Five/Chico Chico Quantro Boogie Woogie 4:20
06. Chicago 3:12
07. Hollis Stomp 4:32
08. Saxophobia for Me 4:42
09. European Episode 4:43
10. How High the Moon 3:46
Byard plays piano - the instrument he will forever associated - and alto sax (the instrument which he played while a member of Earl Bostic's band in the late 40's).
Here are a few of my favourite albums by Jaki Byard:


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