MY MOTHER used to give me 75 cents to go see the bands that were playing dances at Quinsigamond Lake: 10 cents for the streetcar each way, 50 cents to get into the dance, 5 cents for a Coke-I would walk to the dance so that I could drink five Cokes. I'd stand in front of the band all night and listen. Fats Waller, Lucky Millinder, Chick Webb with Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman with Charlie Christian-I saw one of the first performances of the Benny Goodman Quartet with Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton and Gene Krupa. That could be about 1936. And I tuning in on the radio to the broadcasts of big bands from hotels, 11:30 p.m. to 2 a.m.: Ellington, Basie, "Fatha" Hines, Jimmie Lunceford, Benny Carter. Those were the things that inspired me-I guess it stuck with me."
Pianist, composer, band leader and educator Jaki Byard was sitting over coffee at the dining-room table in his home in Queens, a Camel in one hand, a pencil in the other, doodling on a yellow pad, occasionally jotting a note. A baby grand filled one end of the small living room; photographs and other memorabilia were here and there: Byard and Ellington together in the early '70s, Byard with Charles Mingus and Eric Dolphy in Oslo in the early '60s, and with Stan Kenton later in that decade; a certificate of appreciation from the Rotary Club of Japan, for whom he performed in 1971, the first jazz musician to do so; his 1973 Duke Ellington Fellowship Award from Harvard University; a plaque citing honorary citizenship of the city of New Orleans. His grandson Euil, in the kitchen, kept the TV low.
On Tuesday, Jaki Byard brings his big band, the Apollo Stompers, into Blues Alley for a three-nighter. Friday, he'll send the Stompers back to New York, retaining only his drummer, J.R. Mitchell, and bassist, Ed Schuller (Gunther's son), and work that evening and Saturday in a trio context (Byard will perform in piano and tenor and alto saxophones in the smaller group, piano with the band). Sunday evening, he will be at the Left Bank Jazz Society in Baltimore, again with the full band.
There are, in fact, two versions of the Apollo Stompers, one made up of New York musicians, and one of students at the New England Conservatory of Music where Byard has taught since 1969. The Boston orchestra first came into being as an adjunct of his professorial role and eventually landed a weekly gig at Michael's on Wednesday nights. But one band wasn't enough for Jaki Byard.
"I was running up and down the road between Boston and New York and I said why not get a band together in New York, too?" And he did.
Several years ago Byard had the experience of combining the two bands in concert at the New England Conservatory, one on each side of the stage.
"I called it the Stereophonic Ensemble. The effect was very interesting because I could bring that band down and this one up and you could hear the difference-just like listening to a stereophonic performance. That was one of my dreams."
Although Jaki Byard came up during the big-band era, his pianistic vocabulary displays a fluency with the entire history of the music from ragtime, blues and stride through swing and bop to cool and free. He views its development as an evolutionary process, a continuum from its earliest days.
Piano was Byard's first instrument (he began lessons at the age of 6) and it remains his principal one, at the age of 56. Of the instruments he mastered along the way, he still performs on alto and tenor saxophones, but no longer plays trumpet, trombone, guitar, bass or drums professionally. He still teaches these and for compositional purposes knows the nomenclature of all the instruments in the orchestra.
Orchestral design, for Jaki Byard, means "all the possibilities of music: organized sounds, improvisation, freedom." Some of his musicians have been with "free" players such as Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor; and "all of a sudden," he says, "they have to play free, all just go crazy and there's nothing I can do about it until finally, after five or six minutes, I put my foot down and become the dictator: 'Either stop this chaos or . . .'" He laughs at the thought of it. Does he anticipate something of this sort occuring on the bandstand at Blues Alley" "Oh, inevitably. It's a situation that's there. I say they're gettin' off, let 'em go. Afterward, everybody seems happy about it." He pauses, conviction in his voice: "But someone has to control that type of freedom, there has to be a common denominator, even in a smaller group of, say, five or six musicians. To me any organization is controlled by a certain person, so in a sense it's a contradiction to say that they have complete freedom in music, although some groups today do have that philosophy they just get on the stand and start playing and that's it.
"Everyone in the band is featured," Byard insists and declines to single out individual musicians for their solo work. He does mention trumpeter Roger Parrot as a member of his first Apollo Stompers in the '50s and several others who have been with him for three or four years: trombonist Gary Valente, saxophonist Bob Torrence, and drummer Mitchell. His daughters, Denise and Diane, and Carmen Barnes provide vocals, and Tina Pratt is tap dancer for both bands.
In addition to performing the contemporary compositions of Jaki Byard at Blues Alley, the 17-piece band will render Eubie Blake, Fats Waller, Ellington and Mingus medleys and dedication pieces to trumpeters Gillespie, Woody Shaw, Clifford Brown and Lee Morgan, and saxophonists Sonny Rollins, Eric Dolphy, and Parker. The vocalists will sing ballads, scat and do spirituals and gospels. "Take the A Train" will feature tap dance.
"My grandmother used to play piano in a silent movie house. In fact, the piano I first studied on had been given to her by them when the talkies come in. My mother played, my father played, my uncles played-that was the thing then; instead of the hi-fi set, people played music; if you didn't play you had a player piano or a crystal set." CAPTION: Picture, Byard: Pianist, composer, educator.