My piano teacher in college was Jaki Byard, and he was a huge influence on me. I’ve covered this subject in detail on my website (http://www.kahnman.com/byard.php). When he was shot to death by a knucklehead who had come his door (yet another story) in 1999, I had only been in touch with him once in the previous 19 years. Yet, even with such limited contact, he was never far from my thoughts. I therefore felt a strong pull to attend his memorial service at St. Peter’s in Manhattan, and made the journey from Chicago in order to be there.
Despite the deep sadness of the occasion, I was immediately glad that I had decided to go. I saw a lot folks for the first time in ages, and there were a lot of moving tributes, both musical and verbal. When it came time for the Apollo Stompers (Jaki’s big band) to play, the original plan had been to leave the piano chair vacant. Logical enough. But, at the last minute, my old pal (and sax/flute maven) Jed Levy asked if I would sit in with them. Extremely surprised and extremely touched, I of course agreed.
The Stomper’s first tune was Jaki’s arrangement of “I May Be Wrong (But I Think You’re Wonderful)”, or, as Groucho Marx called it, “I May Be Wonderful But I Think You’re Wrong.” Since some band members were taking a while to locate their parts, I was instructed to take a chorus by myself as an intro. As I happily plowed my way through the tune and approached the last few bars, it became evident that there were some players who still hadn’t located the music. Someone on the bandstand yelled, “Take another chorus!”. I obliged.
It struck me that this was a deliciously Jaki-like moment: Absurdly spontaneous, loose and anarchic, yet doing the music no disservice whatsoever. I pictured Jaki, chuckling in his high-pitched and staccato style, and instructing me in his Worcester accent, “Take anuthah one.” I think that I played with the band for the rest of their little set; I don’t remember.
Is there a moral to this tale? I don’t know. Maybe this: Never pass up a chance to go to a funeral. You just never know what might go down.