Don Byas: Classic Don Byas Sessions 1944-1946

Byas thought himself a swing player, but the sophisticated rhythmic and harmonic invention in his playing pointed towards bebop


Steve Voce was meant to review this Don Byas release, but sadly did not live to do so – his widow Jenny kindly forwarded it to me. Since I fell in love with jazz as a student in the late 70s, I’d admired Steve’s writing in Jazz Journal. The swing/bebop transition was his era, so he would have loved this peerless Mosaic collection. It’s been created with scholarship and love, and is one of the finest from the Mosaic project, whose standards are superlative. Michael Cuscuna was executive producer and the collection was produced for release by Scott Wenzel.

Don Byas (1912-72) was a swing-era musician, several years older than Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk, who were the oldest of the beboppers. Classically trained on violin, clarinet and alto saxophone, he switched to tenor saxophone on moving to the West Coast in the 30s. By 1944, he’d replaced Lester Young with Basie, played with Hampton, Redman, Kirk and Millinder, and sat in with Monk at Minton’s. Like Johnny Griffin, Benny Bailey and Bill Coleman, Byas remained underrated mainly because he moved to Europe.

The tenorist’s early or proto bebop style is a delight. He was strongly influenced by Hawkins and Webster. As New Grove comments, Byas “was bound by rhythmic regularity, but his virtuoso technique and complex harmonies were revered by the beboppers”. Coleman Hawkins was rhythmically foursquare in his earlier work compared to Lester Young, but less so by the 1940s and 50s. But despite Hawkins’ essays in freedom such as Picasso – and the tenorist’s crucial role in the history of jazz – I reckon that Byas surpassed him as a bopper. (In this collection, Hawkins is an ensemble participant but takes no solos.) Byas boasted that “I play tenor sexophone“, and the versions of Body And Soul, modelled on Hawkins, are in this style. The ballad You Go To My Head is another fine example of “sexophone”. It was recorded on 7 September 1946 – the day Byas embarked for Europe, where he lived the rest of his life.

For the tenorist, the greatest pianist of the time seems to have been as big an influence as Hawkins. In Art Taylor’s Notes And Tones, Byas explained that “Art Tatum really turned me on. That’s where my style came from.” In this set, after Byas himself, it’s the pianists who stand out, especially in the heart of the collection – the sessions recorded by “The Baron” Timme Rosencrantz on CDs IV, V and VI. These longer tracks include airchecks, and open with duos by Byas and pianist Jimmy Jones. As New Grove comments, Jones’s soloing is understated, stringing together gentle, harmonically complex chordal passages, as if he were accompanying. Dave Brubeck cited Jones as an influence, commenting that “Harmonically… he was one of the greatest players I ever heard.” On My Ideal, Sweet Lorraine, Sweet And Lovely and Don’t Blame Me, Jones sounds amazingly like Brubeck, though the pupil is the richer stylist. The recordings by the Byas-Jones duo are some of the most magical on a magical collection.

Among other pianists, Johnny Guarnieri– not “Guarneri” – stands out for his crystalline incisiveness. Another fine pianist is Sammy Benskin, who later worked as accompanist to Dinah Washington. Byas produces jukebox funk with blues shouter Joe Turner and boogie-woogie pianist Pete Johnson, and cuts superior sides with Erroll Garner; Thelonious Monk stands out on the bebop tracks. Vocalising bassist Slam Stewart is ubiquitous, and outstays his welcome.

The early bop recordings rival the Rosenkrantz sides in artistic quality and importance. An aircheck from the Three Deuces has characteristic spoken intros by “Symphony Sid” Torin, the voice of the bebop revolution. On Whispering, clarinettist Tony Scott plays the melody while Byas simultaneously plays the contrafact Groovin’ High – before Gillespie recorded it. The result vividly illustrates how, by creating new melodic lines over existing chords, the boppers made standards unrecognisable. Though Scott has a beautifully roughened tone, and later became a fine player, at this point Byas is the more mature and coherent stylist. (Byas was born in 1912, Scott in 1921). From the same broadcast there’s an excellent version of Star Dust, somewhat affected by sound bleeding in from another studio. Also recorded at the Rosenkrantz apartment are long versions of Rose Room, Don’t Blame Me, What Is This Thing Called Love and Body And Soul (again).

There’s great historical importance to many recordings, which show the early evolution of bebop. For instance, a January 1945 session features Dizzy Gillespie, Trummy Young and Clyde Hart – another brilliant pianist, who died of TB later that year. Oscar Pettiford and Shelly Manne are a superb rhythm team. The session features Gillespie’s Good Bait, Salt Peanuts – four months before Gillespie’s classic recording – and Bebop. A superb V-disc of Rosetta features powerful solos from Charlie Shavers and Ernie Caceres. The Clyde Hart sides with blues vocalist Rubberlegs Williams are increasingly hilarious – Charlie Parker had spiked his coffee with Benzedrine.

All tracks have been restored to the best quality that’s humanly possible. I was well advanced on my review before I started reading the superb liner notes by Loren Schoenberg, and it’s a temptation to start writing it again in the light of his magisterial scholarship. These notes complete a release that is a work of art in itself, and Mosaic must be congratulated on an awe-inspiring piece of jazz historical research and VSOP – Very Special Old Phonography.

10 CDs (72.43 + 79.10 + 71.25 + 71.54 + 61.52 + 76.31 + 71.39 + 72.10 +75.45 + 61.11). See the Mosaic website for full tracklist and discography
Personnel includes Vic Dickenson, Tyree Glen, J. C. Higginbotham, Benny Morton, Dicky Wells, Trummy Young (tb); Buck Clayton, Charlie Shavers, Hot Lips Page, Emmett Berry, Joe Newman, Frankie Newton (t); Don Byas, Coleman Hawkins, Gene Sedric, Ben Webster, Eddie Barefield, Flip Phillips (ts); Benny Carter, Russell Procope (as); Erroll Garner, Sammy Price, Clyde Hart, Johnny Guarnieri, Jimmy Jones, Teddy Wilson (p); Slam Stewart, Milt Hinton, Bob Haggart, Eddie Safranski (b); Cozy Cole, Sid Catlett, Specs Powell, J.C. Heard (d). New York, 1944-46.
Mosaic MCD10-277