Don Byron: Music Wikipedia
DB: Well, Wynton actually went further in classical music than I did. I studied it, I really just couldn't see myself feeling relaxed playing that kind of music but I really felt like I needed to know the instrument in that way. Which is a different thing that wanting to be an orchestral musician. But I did want to know the instrument in that way. There was a real set of beliefs, and still when you encounter classical clarinet players they think nobody outside of classical music can really play clarinet. So my idea was just to keep studying clarinet. Even when I first was an artist, people would say "why are you into classical music?" There's no other way of learning how to play that instrument. There really isn't. There's lots of trumpet players who never really study classical music. And they're good trumpet players, they can play in a band and play in tune, all of that. I just don't think that's really possible on the clarinet. You can't learn the clarinet on the street. And you can't learn the clarinet just from learning jazz. You have to deal with written music, there's certain technical things on the instrument that you have to be exposed to, and right now you cannot do it.
Alvin Batiste studied with the same teacher that taught Richard Stoltzman. I studied with the same teacher that taught Stanley Drucker who also taught Jimmy Hamilton. In terms of learning the instrument at a certain level, the clarinet is just not an instrument that you can kind of learn without having a relationship with classical music. You have to have a relationship with it, and as much as people used to vibe me about it, every clarinetist has that. Paquito [D'Rivera] has that, Anat Cohen has that, we all have that. Or else you wouldn't be able to play chromatic music! You would be able to do it unless you had studied a bunch of written music.
GC: You said Wynton went further as a classical player, and certainly he's had a lot of success, winning Grammies and so forth, but don't you think that your interest in classical music as a way to understand composition has gone further than Wynton Marsalis? Maybe we don't even want to get into that...
DB: I don't want to compare myself to Wynton Marsalis... I will say that one of the reasons that I had a really hard time being a classical music was that I was trying to understand it while I was playing it. And I would really get distracted fairly often. I'd be counting rests and I'd say "Wow, that's some bad shit...oh! I just missed something!" It was always my assumption that if I saw orchestra cats were playing, they understood all the chords and all the stuff. That was always my assumption; I had to get involved to see that that really wasn't true. When I left New York and went to New England, all of the stuff that I worked on I felt like I could play better if I understood it theoretically. So I studied it. We'd get groups together and throw together ......?
But I'd be looking at it. We'd throw together "Contrasts"[a Bartok piece for violin, piano and clarinet written for Benny Goodman, but I'd be looking at it. We threw together whatever we threw together and put on performances but I'd be looking at it and we'd be rehearsing cooperatively based on looking at the score and seeing structurally what the individual lines meant, which is something beyond being able to look at a piece of sheet music and playing the right fingering at the right time. So I became a composer from learning the music the way that I thought that I could learn the music.
GC: So let me ask you this... if you do a concert of the music of Earth Wind and Fire, or a concert of Stravinsky, is it going to be a jazz concert or does it even matter at this point? Does it ever matter?
DB: No, it's not a jazz concert, I'm just a black guy. That's basically it. Deal with it! It's really classical, and I'm a black guy. It's really Klezmer music, and I'm a black guy! That thing that I wrote that doesn't sound straight-ahead and sounds like [composer Erik] Satie? It's really classical! And I'm a black guy! It seems like there was no way that that's not jazz. There was no way that what I did in Klezmer music wasn't jazz to people. But it wasn't!
GC: Don't you think that part of the nature of jazz is kind of to absorb a bunch of different things?