Chris Byars: Studying Unsung Heroes
AAJ: I was looking for an answer a little less abstract. For instance, you hung out a lot in the NYC club, Smalls, and also benefited from direct study with some of the last of the bebop generation.
Chris Byars Quartet (l:r): Ari Roland, John Mosca, Chris Byars, Stefan Schatz
CB: At Smalls, two important things happened. I was allowed great liberties of space and time for musical development (around 700 gigs), and I was able to interface with two great musicians from an earlier generation. Together with bassist Ari Roland, I led the band known as Across 7 Street. This band cycled through several incarnations over nine years, holding down a steady Sunday night spot. The majority of that time was spent with the late, great Jimmy Lovelace as our drummer. Jimmy played with Wes Montgomery and George Benson in the 1960s. Jimmy Lovelace was a rather idiosyncratic fellow, who blended into the local New York scene, turning down international tours and big exposure limelight for the comforts of his adopted hometown. He was originally from Kansas City.
Jimmy played from a Max Roach and Kenny Clarke vocabulary. His accompaniment was remarkably intuitive. He would emphasize the accents that a soloist would create as they would happen. Many drummers engage in cat and mouse playback, but he would be playing side-by-side, or even one step ahead of the soloist. His powers of listening were incredible! He could learn arrangements after one play through, and would never forget them. When it would come time for his solo, he would hold a clinic on bebop phrasing and sequential organization. Jimmy Lovelace's solos were classic storytelling and were always showstoppers. I have never heard a drummer equal the total capability that he possessed. Off the bandstand, he was gentle, soft-spoken, and humble. Tragically, we lost him to pancreatic cancer in 2004.
My other opportunity to learn from a master came when I replaced Charles Davis in Frank Hewitt's Quintet in 1998. I played four years of steady Saturday nights with Frank Hewitt, who frequently employed Ari Roland and Jimmy Lovelace. Frank would never call a tune. Instead, he'd ramble through a rubato introduction that would not refer directly to the oncoming selection. After a brief pause, he would pounce onto the melody and the band would catch him as quickly as we could figure out what he was playing.
I can say that I have never heard any musicians on any instrument play as fast as he did. The notes would stream out, with a huge sound and an unpredictability that is the trademark of a great improviser. He could literally blow everybody else away. Frank was of the same generation as Jimmy Lovelace, in his early 60s. He grew up following Charlie Parker and Bud Powell around when he was a teenager. Eventually, he played piano as an outlet for his own creativity, but like Jimmy Lovelace, he kept to the shadows and out of the spotlight.
Frank, unlike Jimmy, was not known for his humility. He was outspoken, bombastic, fairly confrontational, and comedically gifted. After coming to the realization that I shouldn't drink alcohol anymore, I was happy to find out that Frank had also sobered up. The last two years of our late-night tenure featured hilarious train rides uptown. The #1 train would often take 20 minutes to arrive. I would listen to Frank and laugh. He was great company, and we had a friendship that spanned generational and ethnic lines. The jazz community was shocked to hear of his fast decline and passing in 2002.
I encountered other musicians at Smalls, but these were the two that had the greatest influence. Frank Hewitt and Jimmy Lovelace aren't big headline names. For some people, this lack of popularity may interfere with their grasp of the depth of Frank and Jimmy's contributions to the art form. They were well known and respected in the inquiring jazz world, and they never stopped and never gave up on the music. This was even during the lean years of the '70s and '80s. I'm sorry to have lost them bothwhen we were playing, it seemed like a great thing that would go on forever. I knew it couldn't, but I didn't see the end coming as quickly as it did. Both of them were in their final years and showed no signs of slowing down, either physically or musically.
CB: I believe that the sound of jazz was formed by many influential voices. Some are given more exposure than others, but they are not entirely unique. The musical messages from the usual suspects also contain trace elements of the players of the dayplayers we might know little about, or perhaps nothing at all. For example, the style of Chu Berry had a great impact on Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. John Coltrane owes a lot of his melodic inclinations to Tina Brooks, or perhaps those who influenced both Tina Brooks and John Coltrane.
To date, I have made a thorough study of the four individuals who you just mentioned. Each of them could be characterized as unsung heroes would it not be for the fact that they sang plenty in their time. I like to define them as musicians that helped shape jazz as we know it. In March of 2006, I presented a mass unveiling of full original repertoire of Lucky Thompson. I performed four nights at Smalls, putting forth 70 of Lucky Thompson's originals, including recently discovered octet arrangements from a 1963 radio broadcast.
Pianist John Hicks who was a member of Lucky Thompson's 1961 quartet was there to join us for the first night. The trio sound that Lucky Thompson created with [bassist] Oscar Pettiford and guitarist Skeeter Best was showcased on the second night. The third night featured the two horn arrangements that Lucky played with trombonist Jimmy Cleveland. On the fourth night, we played his neglected octet music. On lead alto was Jerry Dodgion, a colleague of Lucky Thompson's. We played my transcriptions of his charts from his Paris years and a boot-legged live radio broadcast from Germany. I played tenor saxophone on all four nights and had far more fun than anyone else. Since then, every note I play and write has been influenced by the music of those four days. So who's really being educated here? I think it's me.
Jimmy Cleveland is another influence on my playing and someone whose work I presented in a special concert. He wasn't a prolific composer. Jimmy Cleveland's career embodies something else that is vital to the existence of great jazz. He doesn't get frequent credit as a composer or leader, but his numerous sideman appearances give evidence to a career that influenced many players. He enabled great composers and arrangers like Tadd Dameron, Quincy Jones, Gil Evans, Gigi Gryce, and Don Sebesky to be prolific and well-recognized.
I did a tribute performance with a nonet, featuring repertoire that Jimmy Cleveland originally performed. Saxophonist Mark Lopeman helped out by transcribing half of the arrangements. The music was primarily arranged and composed by Gigi Gryce and Quincy Jones. Two wonderful bonuses to this event at Smalls were: one, the opportunity to feature my colleague, John Mosca, in a starring role on trombone (he played fabulously); and two, chance to build a relationship with Jimmy Cleveland himself, via telephone calls to his home in Los Angeles. We played the tribute show at Smalls, with Jimmy Cleveland listening to the first set, via a cell phone propped up on the front table.
I have greatly enjoyed exploring the work of Gigi Gryce. His amazing life story was revealed in 2002 with the publication of the biography Rat Race Blues. After disappearing from the jazz scene in 1963, he worked as an elementary school music teacher in the Bronx for 20 years. Living under the alias Basheer Qusim, his service to the community was legendary. He was a role model to the children, inspiring them with all the passion and creativity that he had previously devoted to the jazz world. Upon his sudden passing in 1983, the community school board voted to rename the school in his honor, now known as P.S. 53, The Basheer Qusim/Gigi Gryce School.
In June 2007, we presented an outreach program that posthumously connected the mysterious teacher with his former life as a prolific jazz artist. We performed three times at the school, bringing Gryce's biographer, Noal Cohen, to help tell the story of Gryce, explaining his accomplishments prior to his arrival at the school. In our last visit, two members of the Gryce family came to the school and were received as celebrities. This was very meaningful to all parties involvedlike the jazz scene, the Gryce family was also unfortunately left behind when Gigi Gryce became Basheer Qusim. His son, Basheer Gryce told me "I had no idea how important my father was to all of you." The students, faculty, and school parents are now more fully informed about the story of a local hero.
In addition to the thrill of solving a historical mystery, I got the chance to put it all down on a recording, entitled Blue Lights: the Music of Gigi Gryce (SteepleChase Records, 2009). This featured the Gryce originals that I felt needed more attention, including a recently discovered three-part suite. A lead sheet to "Al-Ghashiyah" was found in Teddy Charles' house, in skeletal form only. Spare melodic fragments were laid out, with tempo markings and roman numerals, indicating separate movements. No harmony was specified. My presentation of this piece involved a process of reconstruction that reminded me of the recent work in the Sistine Chapel. I feel that the result is something he could have imagined, and I consider it his tune, not mine. I also included a Byars original on this disc.
The music of Gigi Gryce played a crucial role in my recent trips overseas. In the last three years, the U.S. State Department has sent the Chris Byars Quartet on several tours to Muslim countries that are flashpoints for anti-American sentiment. By playing jazz for their audiences, we show a side of our world that is friendlier and more inviting to them than, for example, today's brazen American pop stars, the hyped-up athletic world, or heaven forbid, the news headlines.
In Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Syria, Jordan and Pakistan, we called attention to the cultural bridge provided by Gigi Gryce's compositions. He explored his Muslim faith through his art, using titles such as "Baba's Blues," "Evening in Casablanca" and "Basheer's Dream." Musically, he incorporated the sounds of the Arabic culture, the twisting melodies, open harmonies and driving rhythms that are so accessible to Muslim audiences. His life story highlights some values that are important in the Muslim world: learning a tradition from the great masters, converting to Islam, and leaving the public spotlight to become a teacher to young children. We backed this up by handing out copies of our Blue Lights CD.