What inspires you to compose/perform music that has political overtones? Don Byron

What inspires you to compose/perform music that has political overtones? Don Byron

Don Byron

I think politics and romance are really the only things that count in my life. I despise “acoustic folk music” as music, but I always liked the “stance” of the folk singers like Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie. When I took the photos for the cover of my first album, Tuskegee Experiments, I told the photographer I didn’t wanna hold my horn and look pissed (which seemed to be the culturally acceptable jazz record cover pic), I wanted to look like a folk singer. From a purely jazz perspective, I was bored with a lot of post-Wynton music and when I was playing a bunch with Ralph Peterson, we consciously decided that a lot of what was missing from the late ’80s “young lions” music was the political subtext of the ’60s. But having a ’60s-like political stance would be dated and corny.

Today our enemies are kinder, gentler, but just as deadly. I must admit, I kinda roll my eyes a bit at the old-time, dashiki-wearing, afro-centric conspiracy theoreticians. Today, the enemy is slicker, so we must be more accurate in our counter-attacks. Back then, your enemy was more of a definable entity: cops with hoses, national guardsmen with tear gas, George Wallace. Now we have the militias. Back in the day people hated more openly, dismissed people of color more openly. Today the moral esthetic forbids that sort of thing but inordinate fear of blacks and Latinos works just as well to create a similar discriminatory atmosphere, but one without the morally troubling aftertow. And there are some people of color enlisted by the enemy (I’ve dissed guys like Roy Innis, Shelby Steele, Dinesh D’Souza, and jazz’s own resident political Oreo, Stanley Crouch; the “you see, that nice darkie agrees with me!” types) to make it more confusing. Back in the day, people that didn’t like negroes just said what they actually thought; now we have to decipher the barely coded messages in the dissing of Donovan McNabb, or the Williams sisters (last year, one of WFAN‘s radio hosts, Sid Rosenberg, said that Venus and Serena looked like animals, not even mannish, which I actually could have lived with. He described their looks as “zoological.” He’s still on the air, by the way). Back in the day, Clarence Thomas was in the Panthers, now he’s Clarence Thomas. Back then we had Orval Faubus, now we have the racism-denying, reverse-racism-claiming, angry white majority.

These people need to be called on their bullshit, and that’s what my musical politics is about, because these are the issues that I deal with every day. I don’t know what I actually achieve politically on a day-to-day basis, but it makes me feel better about being an artist of my time. Can Kenny G say the same? On the other hand, I know that “Tuskegee Experiment” (the song) was heard by a man who’d never heard of the atrocity, researched and wrote an article for GQ that Clinton read (among other things, I’m sure), which lead to his making an official government apology to the victims. That’s not so bad, is it?

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