Don Byron, at 32, is arguably the best young jazz clarinetist in the country--Downbeat's Critics' Poll has argued to that effect two years running. He plays and records with a dozen groups, ranging from the Duke Ellington Orchestra to the rock band Living Colour. He leads a contemporary-classical chamber ensemble called Semaphore and has just recorded an album with his Quartet. He's putting together a calypso band, and is into another two or three projects he "can't talk about yet."
Byron doesn't like it, but it's when he plays klezmer, the traditional music of the Eastern European Jewish ghettos, that he really gets noticed. Klezmer came to America early in this century, and was largely shunned by Jews after the Second World War because of its association with the suffering of the Holocaust.
One of his current gigs--"Don Byron's Music of Mickey Katz"--is a tribute to the late klezmer bandleader, clarinetist, Yiddish humorist and popular parodist of the Fifties. And what bothers Byron about the attention he gets for performing and documenting the work of Katz (the father of Joel Grey) is that it always focuses on the fact that he, Byron, is a black kid from the South Bronx.
Katz, in his time, was criticized by purists for popularizing klezmer by incorporating, with humor, the Jewish experience in America. Byron sees Katz as an ethnicist who preserved klezmer and advanced the genre. That role, as much as the music, is what they have in common.
It's a great shtick. And on stage--leading a six-piece band through Katz's sinuous arrangements, in front of a crowd of jazz fans and older Jewish couples who get the Yiddish jokes--Byron plays it up: "This is klez--Jewish hip-hop, you know what I'm SAY-in'?" But it's not a gimmick.
"I've played klezmer since 1980. But it hasn't been easy to feel entitled to play it. A white man plays World Music, and no one questions the ethnic connection. But not too many brothers play music from Bulgaria. I spent hundreds of hours transcribing Katz's records; I feel entitled to participate. But what amazes people is that I'm a black guy doing the music of people who are supposed to be white."
The upbringing that gave Byron his sense of entitlement combined rigorous classical training with the media sensibility of a child of the Sixties. "The real basis of my aesthetic was the TV show 'Shindig.' I identified with the backup band. Those cats could play behind anyone--Jackie Wilson, Chuck Berry, the Righteous Brothers, the Lettermen. When they cancelled that show--I was five or six--I cried for weeks. My parents took me to the New York Philharmonic, but I was more interested in Lawrence Welk: his band featured a clarinet. And they were on TV."
In the Seventies, more non-classical influences moved into his neighborhood in the form of Dominican salsa bands. "They knew I knew something about music, and I ended up writing down records and doing arrangments." It was the first time he'd taken a serious look at music outside the classical genre. "I realized these salsa arrangements had a lot of 'writerly' stuff going on that I hadn't expected to find in popular music. So I investigated salsa. I bought everything I could by the best salsa arrangers. By the time I moved to Boston to go to the New England Conservatory of Music, I was a fledgling Latin arranger."
At school his divergence continued. "You don't see many black people in symphonies because they go to school--and they don't finish. There's a lot of the racism in the classical pedagogy--a lot of 'jazzism.' Black players are automatically suspected of being jazz musicians. The vibe is that we don't know our instruments, can't play in tune, can't really read. I knew one cat that couldn't get a string section for a recital because teachers told people that reading his parts would ruin their sound."
Byron had never even tried to improvise. "Classical teachers try to convince you that if you improvise, you won't be able to play. So I tried not to. I believed all of it--until I felt I had nothing to lose. Ultimately, I noticed I could play things improvising that I might stumble over on paper."
Soon he was playing be-bop "with cats I had read about," and was recruited by the Klezmer Conservatory Band, which he stayed with for seven years. "By the time I left Boston, I had my avant-garde set, and my straight-ahead be-bop set. I was playing with the klezmer band, and did chamber music with people I played softball with."
Byron denies that he chooses music to make a statement; and he disputes the political implications of genre. "I'm not doing Jewish music or doing classical music instead of doing black music. I play what I like, and I don't feel the need to 'live' one genre of music like the young be-bop cats who only listen to be-bop and put down pop music."
He compares most musicians to character actors. "It's like, 'He's only in Westerns, when you walk in the saloon, he's the guy with one eye bigger than the other.' But I want to be like Richard Burton. Or Dustin Hoffman. He'd be 'The Graduate,' then a ninety-year-old Indian. That was magnificent. Those cats, you want to see what they're going to do next."
According to Byron, technology has changed the concept of genre completely. "100 years ago, or even 30, the only way for most people to get information was to be there. You were tied to a particular music simply because of where you were born. Now, with recording, everything is available to anyone. Marshall McLuhan had something to say about this. It's almost incomprehensible how technology has sped the progress of jazz--of all music. In this century you have Eubie Blake and Cecil Taylor shaking hands. That's like Palestrina knowing Messiaen."
Byron constantly reels off names like these (a ragtime pianist, a free-jazz extremist, a 16th-century Italian composer, and a 20th-century French theorist, respectively) as though you know who they are. His language is an unexpected mix of jazz-cat jivetalk and academic sophistication; he enjoys his command of the instrument of speech--it's something he'll tease and test you with, playing at the edges of your familiarity.
He plays with musical ethnicities the same way--other people's and his own. For Don Byron, they exist as flavors, to be appreciated and shared without social or ideological stigma. "If there's a political point," he says, "it's that there's a lot of funk out there besides just black people's funk." When he says that he "wants to remove as much as possible the social aspects of the music," that doesn't mean removing the ethnicity.
"I'm trying to show that ethnicity doesn't have to be a deficit. When young Jews don't want to go to a temple to hear a band, it's not because of the spirit of the music, but because of their associations with the venue--their religious training, whatever their parents laid on them." Exclusion and assimilation both happen for social reasons, and ethnicity is what is lost. "In America, we're penalized for being too funky. People naturally think a cat with a heavy ethnic accent is dumber, when that isn't true. You can change your accent, change your name...but black people, we can only change so much. The color line is really The Line--and it's why we've developed."
Don Byron, as a black man, has something to gain from helping people to appreciate ethnicity without what he calls "the social associations." And that's what he does when he performs. Byron doesn't look like a classical musician, and you can't pretend he's Jewish. But because he plays Stravinsky and "outsky-freesky" jazz and klezmer, and does so with equal empathy and skill, he can carry you past any feelings you may have about his appearance or the genre he's playing; he can take you to a place you may have avoided and make you feel comfortable there.
Maybe that's why he asked me to come to the Bronx for this interview--28 subway stops from downtown Manhattan, via the South Bronx and Hunts Point. At the other end, Don rolled up on his bicycle. We talked in a playground he's been coming to all his life, and in a Greek restaurant when the rain started.
A few nights later,
I ran into him in Manhattan. He was talking about the Bird House
at the Bronx Zoo. "I go there once a year," he was saying, "to play
the recorder to the birds. Sometimes you get a good bird. You go
'tweet-a-deet,' he goes 'tweet-a-deet.' But you never know what you're
saying to them--if you're claiming their territory or asking them to mate.
When they start coming at me, I stop."