In honor of Black History Month, we are taking a look into the career highlights of African American artists and their contribution to the world of jazz and blues.
Dick Stein tells the story of an impromptu performance critique by piano master Jaki Byard for a hopeless – and hapless – would be clarinetist.
One night in New York City a long time ago, I was in search of a last gasp of civilization before a taking up a year’s exile at an Air Force radar site in the Bering Sea. I found it – and more -- at The Dom, an East Village jazz joint where pianist Jaki Byard's quartet was playing.
I’d known of and admired Jaki Byard from his time with the Maynard Ferguson orchestra in the early ’60s. That night at The Dom, his group was playing hard-driving, straight-ahead jazz and I was soaking it up right by the bandstand. Good as it was, the evening’s real entertainment didn’t begin until Byard called the break.
While Jaki leaned against the bar his sax player Clarence "C" Sharp took the spare chair at my table. As we chatted, a drum and clarinet duo stepped up to play. Then as now there were many bad clarinet players, myself among them, working their mischief in this world. Even so, this abuser was a contender for Most Squeakalacious. The sounds he was producing bore no relationship to music as understood by Earthlings.
I could only speculate at what the audience thought about the sonic assault, but judging from their carefully held rapt expressions and knowing nods, cynical old me thought it must have been: “This is so sophisticated that it sounds like noise to me. I’ll pretend I understand it so I won’t look like a square.”
Sharp, a first-rate alto player was, of course, not taken in. He and I were having a fine time rolling our eyes and grimacing in mock agony when Byard’s bellow blasted from the bar.
“WHAT THE HELL IS THIS?” He'd been drinking a little.
“Uh-oh" grinned Sharp, all but rubbing his hands together. "Here we go." The duo’s drummer, not one for confrontations, slipped out from behind his Silvertone snare and quietly made his way to the back of the room. Clarinet Guy looked surprised. He’d probably been getting away with this stuff just fine elsewhere. What the hell was this, indeed?
"Hey man, I'm just tryin’ to play my music…"
“Music!” sneered Byard. “That's not music. That's crap!”
A collective gasp went up from the audience. Clarence gleefully elbowed my ribs. Clarinet Guy toughed it out. “Just 'cause you can't understand these kinds of advanced musical concepts, man…"
He really shouldn’t have said that.
I’d heard that Jaki Byard had studied with the legendary Madame Chaloff in Boston. He would go on to become Professor Byard at the New England Conservatory and Manhattan School of Music among others. He could play all styles of jazz and, to say the least, knew advanced musical concepts very well indeed. He also knew advanced musical baloney when he heard it.
“‘Advanced’ my ass!” he sneered. “You can’t play that thing at all. Hell, I bet you couldn’t blow a simple 12-bar blues. Here — I'll even comp you.” He charged to the bandstand, sat down at the piano and began chording a blues.
Seconds into this Trial by Byard, it became apparent to even the most determined would-be hipsters that Clarinet Guy had no musical ability at all. He was, in fact, a kind of melodic black hole from which no music could escape. Next to him even I, the world's second worst clarinet player, would have sounded like Artie Shaw.
Clarinet Guy’s agony was brief. The previously deferential crowd now turned mean, adding their laughter and boos to Byard’s hilariously profane running critique. CG bolted from the bandstand and fled into the East Village night, his humiliated exit both cringe-worthy and deeply satisfying all at the same time. Clarence and the rhythm returned to the bandstand. Byard took a little noblesse oblige bow, counted off “Jordu” and wham — the evening rocked on.
I never heard of or saw Clarinet Guy again after that night, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that he’d given up music for a career in politics.