Don Byas (1913-72) was one of the greatest jazz tenor saxophonists of all time, but because he was in the shadow of Coleman Hawkins (his main inspiration) and Lester Young in the 1930s and ’40s and moved permanently to Europe in 1946, he has always been underrated if not totally overlooked.
Born in Muskogee, Oklahoma to a musical family, Byas started on the viola before switching to clarinet, alto and, by the early 1930s, tenor. He played with many territory bands from the time he was 17, led his own band in college, had early stints with Lionel Hampton, Eddie Barefield and Buck Clayton, and was greatly influenced by Art Tatum who inspired him to learn to play stunning outbursts of notes and to master every chord in every key. Byas worked with the orchestras of Lucky Millinder, Don Redman, Andy Kirk, and Count Basie (as Lester Young’s successor during 1941-43).
After leaving Basie, he had a very busy three-year period that included working on 52nd Street with Dizzy Gillespie’s early bop group and making scores of recordings, sometimes showcased with a quartet. Byas was a forward-looking swing player who was also comfortable playing with New Orleans combos, bop groups, and on dates where he caressed ballads. Byas simply played in his own forceful style, sounding like himself while pushing the music forward a bit.
Mosaic’s latest limited-edition box, Classic Don Byas 1944-1946, is a ten-CD set that includes no less than 50 sessions on which the saxophonist is featured. Even then, it leaves out a dozen other dates from the very busy period that Byas recorded for other labels that Mosaic was unable to lease for the project.
This rather huge release is divided into three. The first three CDs reissue all of the dates that Byas made for the Savoy, National, and Majestic labels. Of those 76 performances, 17 were previously unreleased with all but one (“Danny Boy”) being an alternate take. The mostly small-group swing sessions include stirring solos by the likes of trumpeters Hot Lips Page, Charlie Shavers, Emmett Berry, and Frankie Newton, trombonists Vic Dickenson and Tyree Glenn, pianists Clyde Hart, Teddy Wilson and Pete Johnson, vibraphonist Red Norvo, and bassist Slam Stewart, plus a few vocals by Page, Big Joe Turner and Albinia Jones.
The third batch (which takes up most of four CDs) features Byas’ playing on such labels as Continental, Manor, American Records, Jamboree, HUB, Guild, Comet, H.N. Society, International Series, Arista, Majestic, Super Disc, De Luxe, Pick-Up, and Gotham plus some V-Discs. The 83 performances were all out before but some were not initially released until decades later on collectors’ LPs. Among the many greats featured are trumpeters Shavers, Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Thomas, and Buck Clayton, trombonist Trummy Young, clarinetist Hank D’Amico, tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, altoist Charlie Parker (in a minor role), pianists Johnny Guarnieri, Nat Jaffe, Billy Taylor, and Erroll Garner, guitarist Tiny Grimes, bassists Stewart and Oscar Pettiford, and drummers Cozy Cole and Max Roach plus the big bands of Benny Carter and Don Redman. Byas’ session with Gillespie includes a version of “Salt Peanuts” made before the trumpeter’s famous remake with Charlie Parker.
I have saved the second section for last because it is particularly special. Jazz fan and producer Baron Timme Rosenkrantz considered Don Byas to be one of his favorite musicians. Rosenkrantz made an extensive series of home recordings that were essentially practice sessions and friendly get-togethers featuring notable players. Nearly 3 ½ CDs of this box set are drawn from those private recordings. Of the 34 performances (some of which are pretty lengthy), only 11 were previously released and even those selections were previously pretty scarce. In most of the cases, the recordings are in pretty good shape for the era, and the few that are scratchy are also valuable.
Byas really gets to stretch out on some of the numbers (since he is not confined to short statements on three-minute 78s) and gives plenty of evidence as to why he should be considered as one of the giants. The first two numbers are taken from a radio broadcast from the Three Deuces on 52nd Street in 1944 where Byas, clarinetist Tony Scott and a rhythm section perform two numbers including the earliest-documented version of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Groovin’ High.” Other selections match Byas in intimate setting (sometimes duets) with pianist Jimmy Jones and Sammy Benskin, Slam Stewart, Vic Dickenson, Hot Lips Page, and fellow tenor Lucky Thompson who does a dazzling Coleman Hawkins-style solo on “Body And Soul.” Pianist-composer Thelonious Monk is also heard at the beginning of his career.
Add to that a 40-page booklet with excellent liner notes by Loren Schoenberg and one has an essential acquisition. Since this is a limited-edition box, get this one before it goes out-of-print and appears on eBay at five times its price!
Classic Don Byas Sessions 1944-1946