With collaborations ranging from Eric Dolphy to Charles Mingus to Duke Ellington, pianist Jaki Byard’s path through the history of jazz is too lengthy to document in a brief summary. Born in Worcester, he is called a “guru” who “brought bebop out into the open” in Boston in the 1940s. He made a different kind of mark when he taught at New England Conservatory during the jazz program’s first decades, starting in 1969. When he was found shot to death in his Queens, N.Y. home in February 1999, the shock waves carried through many generations of jazz musicians. The following is a portrait in words by some who knew him.
Jaki Byard is the reason that I became a jazz pianist. When I was around 17, a friend of my folks gave me three records: an Art Tatum and a Miles Davis (pretty safe bets), and, for some reason, a Phil Woods record on which there was this pianist playing like some kind of maniac (I mean that as a compliment). Reading the liner notes, I learned that he (Jaki) taught at New England Conservatory, whereupon a voice in my head said, “You mean you can actually STUDY with someone who plays like THAT? I’ve got to check that out.” And within two years I was doing just that. … My lessons featured a lot of two-piano duets, and I remember trading choruses of 12-bar blues with him in every key, thinking, “Here we go. Jaki will now kick Jeremy’s butt in Blues in B.” But it was so much fun. Those of us with “conservatory training” tend to over-emphasize the more challenging aspects of music while forgetting that music, at its core, should be enjoyable. A joy to play and a joy to hear. With Jaki, I never saw the joy not there.
—Jeremy Kahn ’80 is a freelance pianist who lives in Illinois.
Jaki was very generous with his knowledge and his time, although he taught in a way that could be frustrating for those expecting a spoon-fed musical education on a predictable schedule. I remember walking into a lesson one day and asking Jaki what he thought I should work on. “Well, how should I know? You’re the student!” he roared, comically. Jaki wanted students to take charge of their own search for knowledge—a lesson that not every student was ready to hear, but a lesson worth learning.
—Joe Berkovitz ’81 is a composer and software architect who lives in Massachusetts.
Jaki was the greatest teacher of jazz in its many facets and an under-recognized figure in the history of the music. … With Jaki, you learned what the music was about in a very profound way.
—Marty Ehrlich ’77, quoted by Larry Nai in JazzIz. Ehrlich is a multi-reed player who lives in New York.
Jaki was wacky and wonderful—he has an approach to music which is similar to some of what happens here in Holland. He was not afraid of humor and he was willing to just drop what he was playing if he felt like it. I know that it hurt him career-wise but, ultimately, it’s liberating. If you’re playing a tune and it feels stale halfway through, why bother playing the head out? Why not just go someplace else? He also had a very deep knowledge of rhythm—I feel that no one can play like that anymore—it’s something that will disappear with the generation. I remember a concert in Zurich with the ICP Orchestra and guests where Jaki was comping in such a subtle and skillful manner that [drummer] Han Bennink could not keep up with him.
—Michael Moore ’77 is a multi-reed player who lives in Amsterdam, and names Jaki Byard as “my reason for going to NEC.” After winning the Boy Edgar Prijs for his contribution to the Dutch music scene, he was allowed to organize a concert; Byard was among the artists he brought to the Netherlands for this occasion.
Jaki Byard was a big influence on different aspects of my career. I was in his big band for three years, and learned to arrange for big band from Jaki. I wanted to document our experience together through recording, so he played on my first recording for Muse, Manhattan Plaza (1978); in later years he appeared on other recordings of mine: Ebony Rhapsody (1990) and Manhattan Blues (1989) with Milt Hinton. He was a great teacher and a great improviser, and opened my ears up to different musical possibilities. He taught me how to write music and create music for big band. There was also the personal relationship: he was like a second father to me, and I spent a lot of time with him and his wife. You could say it’s a sound teacher/student relationship that blossomed into a professional relationship—in later years, the interaction was mostly professional.
—Ricky Ford ’83 is a tenor saxophonist who lives in Paris. In 1998 he brought Jaki Byard to Paris to make his last recording, on which Ford also plays.
What I remember most about Jaki Byard’s class was his annual “history of jazz” lecture. He would remind us that when he was a child, Paul Whiteman was the “King of Jazz,” Benny Goodman was the “King of Swing,” and Duke Ellington was the “King of Jungle Music.” The irony of these classifications was, of course, lost on no one in the class. Jaki would open the door of the classroom, let us take in a little of whatever Brahms or Chopin was being played down the hall, and close the door in mock disgust, complaining about being surrounded by “saloon music.”
—Hankus Netsky ’76, ’78 M.M. is a multi-reed player who has taught at NEC since 1978. He chaired the NEC jazz department from 1986 to 1996, and currently heads NEC's Contemporary Improvisation program.
One of the reasons why I came to NEC as a student in 1980 was that I loved Jaki’s playing, and when I saw a picture in Down Beat of Jaki leading the Apollo Stompers at Michael’s Pub on Gainsborough Street, with a caption saying that the band included NEC students, the idea of studying with someone with his experience, intelligence, sense of humor, and ability to incorporate historical styles into fresh new playing was very compelling.
—Allan Chase ’81 is a saxophonist who chaired the NEC jazz department from 1996 to 2002 and chaired the Contemporary Improvisation department from 2005 to 2007.
Jaki was my shining light, and the only reason I ever went to NEC … he was the baddest.
—Alan Pasqua ’74 is a pianist who lives in California. He organized the West Coast memorial concert that launched the Jaki Byard Scholarship Fund at NEC.
I knew him as a man with three-dimensional humor. Some of it was a façade for a lot of anger, not only because of racial division in America, but society as a whole, the agony of an African-American; some of it was on himself; some of it was genuine humor and love of people. He was a walking encyclopedia of the history of jazz, from barrelhouse to avant-garde; he knew all the styles and lent authenticity as opposed to some kind of slickness. Only one other pianist encompassed so much: my favorite, Thelonious Monk.
—Ran Blake was the founder and chair of NEC’s Contemporary Improvisation department from 1974 to 2005. He performed at a memorial concert at the Berklee College of Music that had originally been scheduled as a Byard tribute to Ellington. On this occasion Ken Pullig, Berklee’s composition department chair, noted that “the ‘teacher’ side of Jaki … is probably the least well-known aspect of his legacy.”
Jaki Byard was one of the three original faculty, along with George Russell and myself, who founded the jazz program at NEC in 1969. He was a warm, kind, giving person and a marvelous and versatile musician. He was an accomplished saxophonist, pianist, and composer and a dedicated and caring teacher. Jaki was one of the last of the great “two-handed” piano players, and his genius will be missed by all who knew him and his music.
—Carl Atkins '75 M.M. was the original chair of NEC’s jazz department, from 1969 to 1976. He returned to direct the Thelonious Monk Institute for Jazz Performance at NEC in the late 1990s, and later directed NEC's doctoral studies program.
Jaki Byard always personified the past, present and future of jazz, wherever or whenever one might have been fortunate enough to experience his challenging ideas. An icon in the history of jazz, Jaki was Art Tatum, Earl Hines, Bud Powell, Ran Blake, Cecil Taylor, and Bill Evans, all in one. Yet, like these fellow icons, he was his own uncompromising, unique, living entity. He isn’t a household name, but most likely his low profile is the result of an irresistible need to constantly reinvent himself, the sure sign of the consummate artist. His history, from Boston’s Storyville to the countdown year of the millennium, leaves us with a rich history of his music, his life and times, allowing us to experience the intense struggle of a dedicated artist to keep his essence alive while still making us laugh with him along life’s corridor. There will never be anyone who can take his place.
—George Russell taught jazz at NEC beginning with the formation of the program in 1969. After his retirement in 2004, he continued to inspire NEC students as an NEC Distinguished Artist-in-Residence Emeritus. He died in 2009.
For the Record
Mr. Byard was an extremely important figure in modern jazz for several reasons. In his playing he spanned the history of jazz … he was a stylistic virtuoso … his improvisations were encyclopedic and profound. He also had a sense of humor that rippled through everything he played.
—Peter Watrous, The New York Times
The killing of John Arthur (Jaki) Byard snatched from the Earth an unheralded genius of jazz, frail and ailing in his own twilight, still ferocioius in the passion of his art … a musical magician who laughed out loud at the splendor of it all.
—Linda Yglesias, New York Daily News
Byard was a hugely imaginative jazz wizard, mixing up a wild brew of different styles. Yet he was also a wise master of each genre.
—Daniel Gewertz, Boston Herald
Byard ranked high among the handful of great artists whose roots run deep in the Boston area.
—Bob Young, Boston Herald
Byard’s humor and ebullient personality filled the bandstand and had a visible effect not only on audiences, but on the young musicians with whom he surrounded himself and who were devoted to him.
—Jon Garelick, Boston Phoenix
One of the most singular careers in jazz history.
—Bob Blumenthal, Boston Globe (Blumenthal is a member of NEC's Board of Visitors.)
Listening to him was like turning on a tap in which all the strains of modern piano, from James P. Johnson to Cecil Taylor, flowed in one luscious rush.
—Gary Giddins, The Village Voice
Jaki Byard’s recordings, many of them long out of print, are increasingly available as CD reissues and downloads. Anything for Jazz, Dan Algrant’s 1980 film on Byard, is available on video as part of Three Piano Portraits (Rhapsody Films).