Tribute to Jaki Byard

Written by Diane Jamila Byard and Prof. JR Mitchell

A musician that has spanned the generations of Jazz is Jaki Byard. Jaki Byard was born John Arthur Byard, Jr. on June 15, 1922 in Worcester, Massachusetts. His father was a member of the marching hands at the turn of the 20th century and played the trombone. His mother played the piano for the African Methodist Episcopalian Zion Church (AME). His maternal grandmother played the piano for the silent picture shows (visual movies without sound before "talking movies" were invented). It was on that piano that Jaki began his musical odyssey. When he was 8 years old, he started taking piano lessons from a piano teacher named Grace Johnson. The swing rhythm of the time and the lure of the big bands inspired Jaki throughout most of his career.

At the age of 16, he played his first professional engagement. During WW II, Jaki was drafted into the army, but with luck and circumstance, he was able to join the army along with Earl Bostic, with whom he would later form a musical alliance with.

By the time he was in his late-thirties, Jaki had a recording contract with Prestige records who engaged him in many recording sessions which allowed him the freedom to have his own compositions heard. It was also around this time that he performed with Charles Mingus as part of an ensemble that featured among its players many fabulous musicians: Eric Dolphy, Jack De Johnette, Johnny Coles and Bobby Jones, who toured Europe and made some great sounds and history. During the 1960's, he saw great success, and all of his albums received mostly 3-4 star ratings in DownBeat magazine. In 1966, he won the Down Beat Jazz Poll Award for most promising musician of that year. In 1979, his 21-piece big band, The Apollo Stompers was voted the Best House Band in New York City while playing at Ali's Alley, a club in downtown New York. On his own, Jaki was to win numerous awards and citations for his music and contributions to teaching and dance from many major academic institutions. He always felt "academia" as he put it was very important. A most cherished and proud moment for Jaki was when he was asked by Duke Ellington's son Mercer to sit in for Duke as part of his orchestra while the Duke was ill.

He was presented with an award by the Duke Ellington Society for his performances. In February of 1988, he was also presented with an award from the Mayor for Outstanding Contribution in Black Music and Presence in Boston (the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Award). He has the key to Worcester, New Orleans, and many peoples hearts. In 1995, a year after the death of his beloved wife, Louise (my mother), he was presented with an award by then Mayor Rudolph Guliani for his work with the Apollo Stompers in recognition of Harlem Week and its 100th anniversary. And while Jaki won many awards, the most cherished for him was the honor he gave to himself and others when he could write a tune for someone he loved or for a passing whimsy or idea that would send him to the piano with a pencil and composition paper, and it was this love that he did transmit through all of his performances dosed with his outstanding wit and humor.

The sixties and seventies saw a moderate amount of success on the entertainment level. Jaki turned back to teaching and academia in the late mid 1970s, 80's and 90's with occasional recordings in between. In the early 1970's he accepted a position at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts where he would stay for over a decade teaching both in the curriculum and privately. Some of the other schools that he taught at were The Hartt School of Music, Northeastern University, Bismark State College, Alma Lewis School of Fine Arts in Boston, The New School in New York City, The Brooklyn Conservatory of Music in Flushing, and lastly The Manhattan School of Music in New York City. He also never had enough time for his parcel of private students who would gladly, trek out to his home in Hollis, Queens for their one on one lessons.

Around 1979-1982 Jaki, along with some other local musicians (among them, percussionist/composer/friend! JR Mitchell, bassist Peck Morrison, vibraphone keyboard player Dwight Gassoway, saxophone player Harold Ousley and bassist Larry Ridley) formed an organization called the Unification of Concerned Artists in the hopes of creating more recognition and engagements for New York-based musicians whose gigs were just too far and few between. As with most endeavors of this sort, things panned out well for a while, but somehow survival happens and time had to be spent on that. I used to transcribe the minutes at the monthly meeting of the Board of Trustees, and in retrospect I can say that we really did try to create some openings. I think that if more time could have been devoted to his effort, it, too would have succeeded.

Jaki's career that spanned over six decades was still going strong. He was still recording and still arranging, composing and teaching. In February of 1999, he was invited to conduct a seminar and play at the Berkley School of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. He never did make it to that engagement. However you define success, for Jaki Byard, being able to play his music for the joy, the creativity, the fun and the teaching of it was all that really mattered to him.

Jaki Byard died (tragically) on February 11, 1999. He was 76 years young and still had much to offer the music and artistic community. And while his death was a tragedy, his life was full of dreams coming true, wonderful times and lasting relationships. Five years later, as his only surviving daughter, I only wish that he could have had his last wish which was to buy a boat. Not a big wish to have. I would like to think that maybe he did buy that boat and that maybe our dreams do not die with us, and that maybe he's just sailing right through heaven now, listening to the music he admired, gigging with his departed fellow musicians and enjoying the high seas of heaven as only he could. There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think of him. Everytime I do though, it is mostly with a gladness that I can't explain. I guess because he was a happy, humorous individual, a joyous upbeat person and perhaps the most positive person I have ever known and whose inspirations, love and kindness will live in my heart forever.

-Diane Byard


In memory of Jaki Byard: family man, musician, composer, teacher, and friend.

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