Away back in the late 70s, in the days when I was first getting seriously interested in jazz, there was a late night jazz programme on Radio Two on Sunday nights. It was presented by Peter Clayton (I think), and lasted for two hours, the first hour being given over to records and the second to live sessions.
One night I was lying in bed listening to it, when a record came on with some of the most gorgeous sounding tenor saxophone playing I’d ever heard. The saxophonist turned out to be Don Byas, the man after whom this blog is indirectly named. (He wrote a number of tunes punningly based around his name: as well as “Byas’d Opinion”, there are “Donby” and “Byas a Drink”).
Carlos Wesley Byas, to give him his Sunday name, was born in Muskogee, Oklahoma 100 years ago today, on October 21st 1912, and died in Amsterdam on August 24th 1972. In his early career he was one of the transitional figure between swing and bebop. He replaced Lester Young in the Count Basie Orchestra, and a few years later played on the Dizzy Gillespie tracks which were among the very first bop recordings. Around about the same time he made a number of small group recordings as leader, featuring both swing players like trumpeter Charlie Shavers and boppers such as Max Roach.
What is most instantly impressive about Byas’s playing is the beauty of his sound when playing ballads: a rich full-bodied tone rather like a mellower Coleman Hawkins. But he could swing hard when he needed to. Sonny Stitt is quoted as saying: “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.” Charlie Parker reckoned that Byas “was playing everything there was to play”.
In 1946, Don Byas toured Europe with the Don Redman Orchestra, liked what he saw, and decided to stay on in Paris. As a result, his career rather dropped off the radar as far as the American jazz world was concerned. There are still some decent recordings from the fifties and sixties, such as the live Anthropology, recorded in Copenhagen with a teenage Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen on bass, but in general he made disappointingly few recordings with compatible musicians after World War 2. Europe offered him a better life: there was less racism, and he found it easier to live a healthy life there than on the hard-drinking New York jazz scene (he became a keen scuba diver); but there’s still a disappointing sense that later in his career he could have made more, better, recordings if he’d continued to live in the US.
Unfortunately his recordings aren’t all that easy to track down, but here are a couple of performances which, I hope, show why Don Byas is high on my list of jazz players who aren’t nearly as well known as they ought to be.