JJ 03/61: In My Opinion – Don Byas

Sixty years ago saxophonist Don Byas loved Basie, Ellington and Gillespie but was less keen on Stan Kenton, Eddie 'Lockjaw' Davis, and Buddy Tate's rhythm section. First published in Jazz Journal March 1961

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Don Byas. Photo from Disques Blue Star / JJ Archive

This is one of a series of taped interviews with musicians, who are asked to give a snap opinion on a set of records played to them. Although no previous information is given as to what they are going to hear, they are, during the actual playing, handed the appropriate record sleeve. Thus in no way is their judgment influenced by being unaware of what they are hearing. As far as possible the records played to them are currently available items procurable from any record shop. Don Byas, the tenor player with the big sound, has been living in Europe since he toured there with Duke Ellington and his band in 1950. He now lives in Holland and divides his time between playing “gigs” anywhere in Europe, and fishing, which he does professionally. He is an expert skin diver and a talented linguist. Born Muskogee, Oklahoma, of musical parents, he has been a featured soloist with the bands of Don Redman, Lucky Millinder, Andy Kirk, Eddie Mallory, Lionel Hampton, and Count Basie. – Sinclair Traill

“Bugle Blues”. Count Basie (Blues By Basie). Philips BBL 7190
Why, when was that made? Around 1942 wasn’t it, when I was in the band with Buck? Made out in Hollywood. What a rhythm section! Old Freddie Green sitting there like a sheep dog, looking around to see that nothing is going astray. Fine drummer Jo Jones, but he wasn’t nothing without Freddie Green – Green was the mostest in that section. I was playing a little different in those days. But it followed the Basie pattern. I think I picked up something from Dick Wilson when I was with Andy Kirk. Dick was wonderful, one of the greatest tenor players, and people don’t even know him to-day. It’s a shame, for he had every­thing – his playing was so tasteful. He died too young. It was nice to hear that record again after all this time. It was a great blues band – relaxed, easy to get along with. I thought Buck and I did another with the rhythm only. I don’t exactly remember, but I’m sure we did.

Gonsalves there was great – his style stems from Ben Webster, I think, and maybe he owes a little to me as well. He has improved a whole lot since I last heard him

“Overture-Nutcracker Suite”. Duke Ellington. Phillips BBL 7418
Well that was something! Duke has to be every musician’s favourite, and he’s mine as well. This playing the classics is new for him, but I’m sure there is no one else who could play that music without destroying the classical value of the original composition. Gonsalves there was great – his style stems from Ben Webster, I think, and maybe he owes a little to me as well. He has improved a whole lot since I last heard him: his tone is bigger – he plays like he really wants to. I thought Woodyard’s drumming a little hard there – what’s the word? Unrelenting. Frankly, for the Ellington band I never heard a better drummer than Sonny Greer; he fitted right in there. It was funny, for alone or with another band he was nothing exceptional. But to my mind he fitted in with Duke as has no one else.

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“Meaning of the Blues”. Stan Kenton (Standards in Silhouette). Capitol T 139-4
Well, I don’t care for that. I can’t say I care for Kenton’s music. It was very beautifully arranged, but its jazz value wasn’t really very high. It’s all surface material – no soul, no jazz feeling – and even the standard of the solos isn’t very high. That tenor, no body, no enthusiasm, just a copy of Stan Getz, but not so good. And that uninspired trumpet! I’m afraid Kenton doesn’t mean so much to jazz – he’s just learnt the mechanics of it, but that is all he knows.

“Now You’re Talking My Language”. Chu Berry’s Stompy Stevedores. Philips BBL 7054
There was one of the greatest blues trumpets we ever had, or even ever will have, Lips Page. The arrangement and rhythm sounds a little dated, but the work of Lips and Chu will still be good a hundred years from to-day. They play the blues in a different style to-day, but no one ever got with it better than Lips Page – now this is just any old com­mercial tune, but Lips sings it like it’s blues and makes it good. These were great days. There was Lester, Herschel Evans, Hawk, Ben Webster and myself and we nearly didn’t allow any other tenor player to come to New York! Chu was a little before us and influenced us all (maybe not Hawk) – had he lived I have no doubt he would have been as big as Lester, for you know I think he had more swing than any other tenor player.

Lockjaw is a humorous player alright, but I think he overdoes it at times. I like my music to flow … I didn’t like those rough edges they put on – too near rock ’n’ roll

“Ballin’ The Blues”. Tiny Grimes. Esquire 32-092
I didn’t go for that too much. The rhythm was strong, but it all lacked subtlety. Lockjaw is a humorous player alright, but I think he overdoes it at times. I like my music to flow … I didn’t like those rough edges they put on – too near rock ’n’ roll, or whatever they call it.

“Blues After Dark”. Dizzy Gillespie (Greatest Trumpet of Them All). H.M.V. CLP 1381
I like everything Diz does. That was a fine evaluation of the blues – the arrangement was very colourful and Diz’s playing was … well, splendid. Benny Golson is a great player. Now there’s something- I hear more of me in his playing and nothing of Ben Webster, which is funny. Of course, he is also influenced by Hawk, and sometimes very much by Lucky Thompson. You know I always think of myself in the kinda Ben Webster school, and Lucky too of course, with Hawk leading the other class. Probably nothing in it, but that’s the way it is.

“Teeny Weeny”. Buddy Tate (Cascade Of Quartets Vol. I). Columbia 33SX 1191
I have always liked Buddy Tate’s playing, but the rhythm section there didn’t come up to my expectations. Buddy blew well, but I didn’t care for the backing at all; it seemed very uninspired and lacked fire and punch. Buddy is a great blues man – follows on from Herschel Evans and Chu Berry. Not many musicians can play blues to-day as easy as that, but pity he didn’t pick himself a more stable rhythm section.

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