Don’t Fence Me In

“When Mike Tyson hooked up with Robin Givens, most white folks figured, ‘They’re both niggers, that’s cool,'” says New York clarinetist, composer, and bandleader Don Byron. “Black folks saw that and they were like, ‘Damn, what’s up with that? It’s like James Brown hooking up with Lisa Bonet.’ People don’t realize we have class issues. The complexities of our reality are not often transmitted.”

As a black jazz musician who is equally fluent in pop, Latin, classical, and even klezmer music, Byron has had more than a little trouble transmitting the complexity of his own reality. So when New York’s Museum of the Moving Image approached him almost five years ago about writing music for a silent film, he eagerly chose Scar of Shame, a 1927 movie about an interclass marriage with an all-black cast. Despite a certain corny simplicity, Scar of Shame paints a disturbing picture of the effects of internal conflict on an already disadvantaged group. Byron will play his score, plus a few other tunes, at three screenings of the film this weekend at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

The score draws on period music, particularly the voicings of Duke Ellington, to whom Byron paid more explicit tribute on his 1996 Bug Music. The sound track fits neatly alongside other black-history themes Byron’s taken on, including his 1991 solo debut, Tuskegee Experiments. But what makes this or any other appearance by Byron a must-see is the unpredictable path the 39-year-old has taken over the course of his relatively short career. He’s the most exciting jazz clarinetist of the past decade, save maybe the late John Carter.

Byron turned a lot of heads in 1992 when he released an album of music by Mickey Katz, an alumnus of Spike Jones’s band whose wacky, highly dexterous klezmer music met with surprising popular acclaim in the 1950s. Byron’s project, in which he and a superb supporting cast performed with great exuberance and complete authority, made for good copy. Unfortunately, it also saddled him with a reputation as “the black klezmer guy” that’s been hard to shake.

“Ry Cooder can come around and play this and that and get his ass in the world-music section and the rock section,” Byron says. “When Itzhak Perlman made his jazz record, it was filed in both jazz and classical. No one’s going to tell Perlman that his Paganini sounds kind of Jewish, but that’s what’s happening to me. I resent that because when I play a specific kind of music, I play it as seriously as someone who plays that kind of music exclusively.” For instance, the delightful Bug Music, a repertory recording of the early swing of Ellington, Raymond Scott, and John Kirby, has been criticized as “somehow not as serious as [white Sidney Bechet acolyte] Bob Wilber because I don’t do it full-time,” he says.

In fact, it seems the only thing Byron does do full-time is confuse folks who’d prefer to stuff him into one or two tidy categories. His original music is wonderfully multifaceted: Tuskegee Experiments boldly and coherently combines edgy improvisation, postbop rhythms, hard funk grooves, and even a piece by Robert Schumann, while the complex writing on Music for Six Musicians (1995) uses hot Latin beats to drive the superb soloists into new territory. The list of people Byron’s worked with is equally eclectic. He has performed and recorded with the likes of Cassandra Wilson, Anthony Braxton, Hamiet Bluiett, and Ralph Peterson in jazz, and Mandy Patinkin and Living Colour’s Vernon Reid in pop. He’s been commissioned by the Kronos Quartet, written music for dance, arranged the Broadway works of Stephen Sondheim, and performed in Robert Altman’s Kansas City.

Byron says his next album mixes music and poetry; after that, he wants to record works by Stravinsky. And the commitment and versatility of the band he’s using at the MCA this weekend (drummer Pheeroan akLaff, pianist Uri Caine, trumpeter James Zollar, tubaist Bob Stewart, reedist Robert DeBellis, trombonist Josh Roseman, and sampler operator and percussionist Richie Schwarz) have also inspired Byron to consider scoring more silent works: he hopes to write music to the famous “Eugene” episode of the old Ernie Kovacs TV show.

Scar of Shame plays Friday and Saturday at 8 PM and Sunday at 3 PM at the MCA, 220 E. Chicago. For tickets call 312-397-4010.


Though we’re well into 1998, Rolling Stone continues to celebrate its 30th anniversary with a touring exhibit of some 250 of its past covers. The free show makes its Chicago stop Tuesday through Thursday, 10 AM to 6 PM, at Loyola University’s student center, 1125 W. Loyola. Besides the covers, there are several taped interviews to listen to, plus artifacts from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, including Madonna’s Blond Ambition bustier, a pair of Patti Smith’s shoes, and one of Pete Townshend’s many smashed guitars.

The obit in last week’s Entertainment Weekly for Ewart Abner Jr., who died December 27 of complications from pneumonia, observes that he served as president of Motown and as Stevie Wonder’s manager, but fails to mention his role at Chicago’s historic Vee Jay label. As general manager, vice president, and president in the late 50s and early 60s, Abner was a key player in the careers of artists like the Dells, Gene Chandler, Jerry Butler, Jimmy Reed, the Staple Singers, and even the Beatles, whose first U.S. release was on Vee Jay.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Don Byron uncredited photo.