Byron Morris, whose quintet Unity '85 will open the Art Ensemble of Chicago's Fort Dupont concerts Friday and Saturday nights, was introduced in college to the music of the late saxophonist Rashaan Roland Kirk.
"It was beyond human comprehension," Morris says. "I was swept away by the fact that this blind guy could play three saxophones simultaneously, and it wasn't a carnival act.
"I didn't meet him until 1976. He was playing at the Showboat in Silver Spring and a friend of mine got me a seat real close to the stage. This was after Kirk's stroke and he was playing with one hand . . . I'm a saxophonist and I know how difficult it is to play with two hands. He was playing incredible things like 'Giant Steps.' At the end of the show, when the crowd gave him a standing ovation, I just stood up and hugged him and his bodyguard came running out."
Not coincidentally, Kirk would later inspire one of Unity's most memorable recordings. In 1978, the group cut "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," the loping tribute Charles Mingus wrote for Lester Young. Morris said it was the first time someone other than Kirk recorded the words he wrote for the tune. "Joni Mitchell wrote her own words and recorded the same tune," he says, "but I think Rashaan really captured the essence of Lester Young."
In a sense, that song also captured the essence of Byron Morris, for Kirk, Mingus and Young have all helped to shape his music.
Morris was born in Roanoke in 1941, around the time his father, a saxophonist, landed a job in Jay McShann's band playing alongside Charlie Parker.
"I guess I was one of the reasons my father didn't stay with the band," Morris says. "Back then the life of a journeyman jazz player was real precarious. Some of the things he saw the musicians do -- drugs and things -- kind of scared him. He made the right decision, I guess . . . and I had the benefit of his knowledge when I came up."
After graduating from Tuskegee Institute, Morris came to Washington in the late '60s, playing around town at places like Jazzland and the Crow's Toe. He released his first album in 1969, a collaboration with Pittsburgh trumpeter Gerald Wise. The album reflected not only the turbulence of the '60s, says Morris, but the bold sense of experimentation musicians such as John Coltrane were bringing to jazz.
Morris, who plays alto and soprano saxes as well as the flute, later moved to New York, where he met Jay Clayton, the vocalist who would add another dimension to Unity's music and help define the group's sound in the mid-'70s after Morris returned to the Washington area.
"Basically, what we were attempting to do, even before we met Jay, was to incorporate vocals within the ensemble -- have them take on the role of a horn playing harmonic and improvisational lines," Morris explains. "When Jay auditioned she just blew everybody away. It was like she was heaven-sent."
While in New York, Morris also met Mingus. In fact, he almost joined Mingus' band, but the prospect of working for a man who had a reputation for being a tyrannical bandleader helped change his mind. "He could be brutal, but his music was just so lovely," Morris says.
Unfortunately, Mingus never lived to hear Unity's version of "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," though Morris says he received a nice note from Mingus' widow. The tune appeared on Unity's last album "Vibrations, Themes and Serenades."
Morris says Unity hasn't recorded since 1978, but he has formed two other bands. One of them, called Three Saxes for Lester, functions as a stylish salute to Lester Young. It features Morris and area saxophonists "Watergate" Clyde Dickerson and Ron Hollway decked out in pork pie hats and pin-stripe, swing-era suits. The other band is a larger ensemble called The Swinging Saxes.
In the meantime Unity has changed. The latest edition consists of E.J. Allen on trumpet, Paul Bollenbach on guitar, Pepe Gonzalez on bass and Steve Williams on drums. For the first time, the band will feature a guitar instead of a piano. Clayton is no longer with the group, but Morris says Unity will continue to perform some of the tunes she helped make popular.
"We'll be doing some new tunes written by Paul and E.J., and some of my new songs . . . Other than that we'll try to maintain the same Unity spirit -- playing a cross-section of music from Latin to rock fusion to straight-ahead and more esoteric kinds of jazz."