Don Byron
Don Byron: Sitting on the Fence

Don Byron: Sitting on the Fence

The Clarinet

FRANK J. OTERI: That’s actually interesting to me, because in the early days of jazz, the clarinet was a big deal; think of somebody like Johnny Dodds, and even through swing, you know, with Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw and those guys, and then, when bop came along, the clarinet kind of disappeared.

DON BYRON: Well, the Goodman thing is really crucial in where the clarinet went. It’s crucial in the jazz thing. It’s crucial in the classical thing. The Goodman thing is a big thing to American clarinet playing, ’cause he’s the original Wynton guy. He’s the original guy that did that. And the clarinet pedagogy essentially has been fairly tight, giving information to people who might play jazz. The fact that I can play clarinet at the level that I can play it meant that I just moved from teacher to teacher until I knew what I needed to know about sound and technique. But there were lots of people that were not gonna give it up. And part of that is the Goodman thing because here’s a pedagogy that was putting itself together earlier this century, there’s no, you know, until you get to the classical period, there’s no clarinet, there’s no Baroque clarinet, there’s clarino, and you know, stuff that really doesn’t count, I mean, even if you hear some historical recordings of what clarinet virtuosos sounded like at the turn of the century, a lot of these cats couldn’t play now. They couldn’t even play. So, it’s a thing within itself, the classical clarinet pedagogy is a thing, is a work in progress. And then there were the three different schools. Essentially, the French, the German, and I think American clarinet playing is a school that combines the best parts of the French and the German. But the Germans, I mean, you know, they’ve been playing with the reed upside down, you know, with the reed on top, not that long ago. You know, that’s how double lip clarinet evolved, because when the reed was on top, everybody played double lip.

FRANK J. OTERI: So originally with the Brahms clarinet pieces, it was played with the reed on top that way?

DON BYRON: They might have played with the reed on top.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, the Goodman question, in terms of what a popular persona he was, in terms of shaping the public image of what the clarinet was, do you think that had an effect on the clarinet disappearing in jazz, in bop, and more progressive jazz, the free jazz movement in the late ’50’s, early ’60’s? I mean, nobody was playing clarinet.


FRANK J. OTERI: Dolphy played bass clarinet.

DON BYRON: Well, there’s Tony Scott.

FRANK J. OTERI: Tony Scott, right.

DON BYRON: Tony Scott was a bad cat. I mean, for me, he’s the greatest. For me… Tony Scott and Jimmy Hamilton, they’re the greatest. But… A few things happened. Essentially the swing era is a time when the clarinet wasn’t written in. There was a whole slew of bandleaders who were clarinetists. The Ellington thing was the best-integrated use of the clarinet. But when you get outside of the Ellington thing, it’s a double for most of the cats in the band.

FRANK J. OTERI: Right. They play saxophone.

DON BYRON: The clarinet isn’t even a part of the voicings. He’s just over the top. The clarinet players were the most, you know, if you, after Shaw and Goodman, you know, there’s not much more, in terms of that level of exposure. So that would be associated with some cornball stuff, by some cats that were doing be-bop. On the other hand, I heard a tape of Charlie Parker practicing along with some Benny Goodman 78’s. It’s bad, too, it’s like, oooh.

FRANK J. OTERI: And Charlie Parker’s playing clarinet!?

DON BYRON: He’s learning… No, he’s playing saxophone.

FRANK J. OTERI: Oh, he’s playing alto saxophone.

DON BYRON: He’s playing on saxophone, but he’s learning what Benny Goodman played.


DON BYRON: You know, Benny Goodman, he’s a funny guy. And so many of the important works of this century on that instrument were written for him, you know, specifically or vaguely. From all the jazz-influenced stuff to the Bartók Contrasts. I mean, that’s all Benny Goodman music.

FRANK J. OTERI: And then the Copland Concerto.

DON BYRON: Yeah, the Copland Concerto.

FRANK J. OTERI:Stravinsky and Bernstein.

NATHAN MICHEL:The Stravinsky concerto was written for Woody Herman.

FRANK J. OTERI: …That’s right!

DON BYRON: But then, Goodman recorded it. It’s interesting that while the clarinet pedagogy doesn’t directly dis Benny Goodman, everything that he stood for has become the antithesis of academic American clarinet playing: kind of soupy tone, vibrato. I mean, when I came up, you know, just going to conservatories and stuff, you couldn’t play with any vibrato. None. That immediately put any brother in the ‘he’s a jazz musician’ thing. That was just where the pedagogy took it after this guy, you know, did some things just tonal-wise and technical-wise that they didn’t like. So they just took it to that place. And yet, a lot of people who have been through that pedagogy emulate him. Or want to play what he played. You know, “Sing, Sing, Sing” is the highest piece of jazz thing that they could think of doing. So he’s kind of ever present, he’s someone who exists in my life every day in one way or another. And you know, I don’t really like the way he played that much. Not that much. I think he was strong at what he did, but I think Buster Bailey was really the cat who played that style who was really interesting to listen to.

I’ll Chill On The Marley Tapes
from Music for Six Musicians
{Nonesuch 79354}
[31 seconds]
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FRANK J. OTERI: Now talking about how the clarinet works in the context of other instruments, in combination, what do you think is the best combination to have with clarinet? I noticed on your albums that you don’t really have other horns generally featured. I know that Music for Six Musicians features a cornet, and some of the larger bands feature other wind instruments. But you seem to like to play with guitar, piano, bass, drums, you know, not other solo horns.

DON BYRON: I tend to like chords. I’m interested in harmony a lot. On the other hand, you know, now I’m playing a lot more with trumpets. I mean, the Six Musicians thing is not coincidental; it’s my favorite band…

FRANK J. OTERI: I love that record. That’s actually my favorite record of yours.

DON BYRON: It’s a record that could have been made better. It’s just composition, you know, it’s not a playing record. So, these jazz slugs, they didn’t really understand what I was getting at. But, you know, I love a good trumpet player. But somehow, I went from being in school and really hating the guitar to working with all of the great guitar players of my era. I count Vernon, Frisell, Arto, Dave Gilmore, Ribot, one after another. And I feel really privileged to have done that, ’cause they didn’t question anything about whether I could do something for their music, you know. It wasn’t: “I don’t know, the clarinet could be cool, maybe,” and in Frisell’s case, he played clarinet. So there’s lots of times on his records and on mine, where if we’re playing, it’s really hard to tell…

Dodi (as salamu alaikum dodi al-fayed)
from Nu Blaxploitation
{Blue Note 93711}
[16 seconds]
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FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah, it really sounds like 2 horns. But sometimes your clarinet even sounds like an electric guitar, I’m thinking of some of the tracks on Nu Blaxploitation, which Frisell doesn’t play on…

DON BYRON: Well, that also has to do with what I’ve tried to do with lines and playing, just what I’m trying to play, which is to integrate into the instrument more of the things that make a contemporary player effective, and so… Like a few weeks ago, I did this Carole King gig at MSG. I mean, it was unbelievable. But, you know, it was mostly all the Saturday Night/Paul Shaffer-type of cats and for one or two tunes they had some jazz musicians. And I think, you know, all Paul Shaffer knew about me was that I could play some klezmer music. But when he gave me a chance to solo, it was obvious to him that I had learned all the Junior Walker shit that he knows. And so he said, you know, “I had never really heard anybody play that on the clarinet.” And, it’s just like, that’s American, you know, why does what you play on the instrument have to be tied to what everybody else plays, especially when what’s been played on your instrument isn’t even vaguely contemporary, it has no relevance to anything now? So, I’ve just tried to, you know, everything that I’ve learned I learned on the clarinet.

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