Jaki Byard was my teacher. When he was shot to death in his house in early 1999, New England Conservatory, my esteemed alma mater, solicited reminiscences from those who knew him. The following was my contribution. I post it here so that I, in a small way, might help to keep Jaki’s unjustly under-appreciated memory alive.
Memories of Jaki
Jaki Byard is the reason that I became a jazz pianist. When I was around seventeen, a friend of my folks gave me three records: an Art Tatum and a Miles Davis (pretty safe bets), and, for some reason, a Phil Woods record on which there was this pianist playing like some kind of maniac (I mean that as a compliment). Reading the liner notes, I learned that he (Jaki) taught at New England Conservatory, whereupon a voice in my head said, “You mean you can actually STUDY with someone who plays like THAT? I’ve got to check that out.” And within two years I was doing just that. There are teachers who have strong methodologies, although you might not care for them as artists, or even as people. And there are teachers who may not have strong methodologies, yet , because of their incredible instrumental and musical prowess, you cannot help but to absorb something positive. Then there are those teachers who possess neither great pedagogy nor virtuosity, but who are such wonderful souls that you learn about the attitude, the philosopy, the approach to being a more complete musician; a more complete person. To me, Jaki had all of those fore-mentioned positive attributes. He was quite organized in getting you started with his harmonic and technical concepts, and his critiques, although fairly succinct, could be quite piquant. There is one that lurks in the back of my mind like some sort of silent policeman each time I poise my hands over the keys. He once asked me what I thought I was doing wrong, and, after several futile guesses, he said “It’s your sound. Always try to get a good sound out of the piano.” How simple. Yet, up until then, I thought that if you played cool voicings in your left hand (with some sharp 9ths or flat 13ths), and played lots of diminished and pentatonic licks in your right hand, you were pretty much set. Sound production? That was for horn players and string players. Now, if I catch myself getting an ugly sound, I pull in the reins until I can fix it. As a pianist, of course he was awesome. My lessons featured a lot of two-piano duets, and I remember trading choruses of 12-bar blues with him in every key, thinking, “Here we go. Jaki will now kick Jeremy’s butt in Blues in B.” But it was so much fun. Those of us with “conservatory training” tend to overemphasize the more challenging aspects of music while forgetting that music, at its core, should be enjoyable. A joy to play and a joy to hear. With Jaki, I never saw the joy not there.
Things written about Jaki usually refer to his “encyclopedic knowledge” of jazz piano. I would agree with that. But, to hear him play, it was never like, “I shall now play like Erroll Garner. Next, I will demonstrate the style of McCoy Tyner. And won’t you be impressed as I reference Henry Cowell.” There are pianists who can leave you with that impression. But, with Jaki, it was more like he was fluent in many languages, and, using himself as a filter, he had a wider variety of ways to impart his ideas and gestures. And always with his puckish sense of humor at the ready. There is a record on which he is playing some seriously stomping stride when he screeches to a halt in mid-phrase, pauses a few seconds, then launches into about eight measuires of Chopin before resuming his previous stride extravaganza. Pure genius. I am much more likely to listen to what someone is saying if I am convinced that they don’t take themselves too seriously. I guess that is why Jaki was such a great teacher for me.
Jaki Byard changed my life.
And I know that I’m not the only one.
By Jeremy Kahn
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