Jazz Profiles from NPR
Jaki Byard
Produced by Sonja Williams

Jaki Byard  

His playing was rich, masterful and above all, versatile, covering everything from stride and ragtime to bebop and free jazz. Pianist, saxophonist, composer, arranger, and teacher Jaki Byard had a career that followed the music -- along the way he became a master of every style of jazz.

Listen to pianist Dr. Billy Taylor, trumpeter Herb Pomeroy, and bassist Ron Carter attest to Jaki's musical prowess

John Arthur Byard, Jr. was born June 15, 1922 in Worcester, Massachusetts. His mother was a pianist in local movie houses and his father played trumpet. Jaki began taking piano lessons after he had started grammar school.

Listen to Jaki recall how he started playing music

As Jaki got older, his mother encouraged him to attend concerts of the various jazz bands travelling through Worcester. With his father, Jaki often listened to the popular big bands on the family radio.

Listen to Jaki recall some of his favorite big bands as a kid

In 1941, Byard moved from Worcester to Boston, but was soon drafted into the Army. There he met fellow drummer Kenny Clarke and pianist Ernie Washington, who encouraged him to join the Army band. The band didn't need a pianist, however, so Byard picked up the trombone. After the Army, Byard moved back to Boston to study music on his own, focusing on the styles of his two favorite pianists at the time -- Bud Powell and Erroll Garner.

Listen to Jaki explain what music he studied after leaving the Army

During the late 1940s and early '50s, Byard's talent as a pianist were in-demand. He also began teaching, helping pave the way for other musicians such as trumpeter Herb Pomeroy who credits Byard as being "the force behind younger musicians in Boston learning about the changes in music."

Listen to trumpeter Herb Pomeroy describe Byard's gifts as an educator

In 1955, Jaki became tenor saxophonist -- as well as a composer and arranger -- for Pomeroy's band. After a couple of years with the group he returned to playing solo piano and in 1958 recorded his first solo album, Blues for Smoke.

Listen to Jaki explain why he chose to perform solo

I like everything I do. Everything that I document, I like it. I like what's been played, and I like what's going to be played.
-- Jaki Byard  

Charles Mingus  

In 1959, Jaki moved to New York, playing in trumpeter Maynard Ferguson's band before joining forces with Charles Mingus. Mingus (left) pushed Byard rhythmically and harmonically into uncharted territory; Byard learned how to deal with Mingus' notoriously difficult personality.

Listen to Byard give an example of how he dealt with Mingus

After his stint with Mingus, Jaki worked with reed master Eric Dolphy. He also began writing and arranging for his own records, enlisting musicians like bassist Ron Carter, violinist Ray Nance, guitarist George Benson, and saxophonist Rahsaan Roland Kirk, among others.

Listen to bassist Ron Carter describe Byard's music

In Kirk, Jaki found a kindred spirit would could match his technical ability, deep knowledge of and passion for music, and quirky sense of humor. Jaki played on Kirk's 1965 album Rip, Rig, and Panic, considered by many to be one of the Kirk's best recordings.

Listen to bassist Ralph Hamperian and Jaki talk about his rapport with Rahsaan Roland Kirk

In 1969, Byard joined the faculty at the New England Conservatory, which marked the beginning of his formal teaching career. Later in life, he taught private lessons in New York and Boston, and joined the faculty at the University of Hartford and Manhattan School of Music.

Listen to alto saxophonist Jackie McLean and Jaki talk about his career as an educator

Byard wasn't just a brilliant educator, he was an eager, life-long student. He received one of his greatest hands-on lessons during the late 1960s, when he had to sit-in for an ailing Duke Ellington for the Ellington band. It was partially Ellington who inspired Byard to form his own big band, The Apollo Stompers, in the mid-1970s.

Listen to Jaki and Hamperian reveal the origins of the Apollo Stompers

After seven decades of performing, writing, recording and teaching, Byard created a powerful musical legacy that touched many listeners and learners. Well into his seventies, he was still one of the best solo pianists in jazz. In February 1999, he was found dead in his home from a gunshot wound and the jazz world lost one of its most original voices.

Listen to Jaki's 75th birthday wish to himself


View the Jaki Byard show playlist


Listen to the NPR Baisc Jazz Record Library entry for Rahsaan Roland Kirk's Rip, Rig and Panic (EmArcy 1965)

More InfoBrowse the NPR Jazz Web site -- NPRJazz.org