Pomo Clarinetist Don Byron Unleashes Existential Dred

Clarinetist Don Byron is the bizarro-world version of Wynton Marsalis. So powerful is the force field around Mr. Marsalis, he generates not only worshipers but his own antimatter: jazz peers like Mr. Byron who can’t help but define themselves in opposition to him. Both in their late 30’s, Mr. Byron was still studying at the New England Conservatory of Music when Mr. Marsalis hit it big.

“I was encouraged by Wynton until I heard him talk,” Mr. Byron said. “He basically dissed Stevie Wonder. Then I realized he just wanted to be black music, and after that I couldn’t go there. If he had been a cooler person, I’d probably have been up in his ass trying to get on a gig.”

Mr. Marsalis smashed a few jazz idols on his youthful ride to the artistic directorship of Jazz at Lincoln Center. Now, he takes the long view, more likely to be wounded by the intemperate remarks of others than to make them himself. Mr. Byron, on the other hand, can still be counted on to say-and more to the point, play -anything.

With Mr. Marsalis refining the untidy jazz tradition into a holy trinity of Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk (with a generous helping of himself), Mr. Byron, ensconced in the Knitting Factory-centric world of Downtown music, took the opposite tack. His music celebrates the marginal, the between-the-barstools stuff that sometimes can’t even be called jazz. “It matters very little to God whether or not a piece of music is Jazz, only that it is a compositional act,” Mr. Byron has written in an elegant liner note essay.

Oddly, he’s prospered. His 1993 recording of the Yiddish good-time music he’d played since his conservatory days ( Don Byron Plays the Music of Mickey Katz on Elektra/Nonesuch) made him, to his eventual annoyance, a kind of household name, and helped set off a downtown musical rage for all things Jewish. Bug Music (Nonesuch), his recording of arrangements by Raymond Scott and John Kirby, two black band leaders who straddled the worlds of jazz and classical in the 30’s, was almost inexplicably one of the most visible serious jazz albums of 1996. It’s a queer turn of events when the class freak outpolls the class president (Mr. Marsalis’ lone commercial success this decade being his Peanuts homage, Joe Cool’s Blues ). But of course, Wynton has Lincoln Center. Mr. Byron, not to be outdone if he can help it, has come up with the Brooklyn Academy of Music as the staging ground for his jazz vision. For the third year running, he will present the jazz portion of BAM’s Next Wave Festival.

Mr. Byron’s motive is earthy simplicity itself. “When Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch tell people who is jazz and who isn’t, then I really resent it,” he said. “But really, to me, they should have their shit, and there should just be other shit. I just felt that somebody should be doing something at an institution of that stature that says something else.”

But a good postmodernist like Don Byron is capable of saying many things, and his 1992 debut album, Tuskegee Experiments , suggested most of them: a straight classical piece, a Mickey Katz tune, a spoken-word number with the poet Sadiq. He has also recorded albums such as No-Vibe Zone and Music for Six Musicians that make a clean case for him as a commanding improviser and composer.

Clearly, Mr. Byron has done a world-class demolition job on the (white) romantic notion of jazz as primal expression of the black man’s soul. And he’s given us some underappreciated and generally fun music. But my suspicion is that his instinct for jumbling up cultural expectations makes some of this stuff seem momentarily more interesting than it is. “Some people look at Bug Music like it’s weirder than it is,” he said, “because I’m doing it and I’m supposed to be this avant-garde guy who can’t play changes and doesn’t swing. People say a lot of weird shit.”

Mind you, Mr. Byron disavows any calculation; he just happens to love strange old pieces of music with the purity of a conservatory nerd. It’s a curatorial impulse that both Don Byron and Wynton Marsalis share. Only, in Mr. Bryon’s case, it leads him to the odds and ends of the jazz tradition (even his choice of instrument is faintly antiquarian), whereas Mr. Marsalis is strictly a meat-and-potatoes man. Both musicians enjoy dissing the intellectual tone of the twentysomething neo-boppers who, like many members of their generation, tend to be happy campers in a consumerist pop culture. Wynton would have them develop a deeper knowledge of the jazz greats; Don wants them to kick some ass, politically and musically.

“These young cats in suits have a lot of the information off these 60’s Blue Note albums, but they don’t really have the feeling, and they don’t have any politic to create a feeling of their own,” Mr. Byron said. “A lot of these motherfuckers are just snorting coke and not reading the papers. If I’m irate about the latest Shelby Steele or Dinesh D’Souza book, to me that’s just as important as if we were in 1968.”

This is the in-your-face Byron that BAM audiences are likely to get at the Next Wave Festival. His Existential Dred group mixes a funk beat inspired by the 70’s group Mandril with the poison pen of the poet Sadiq. (Sample lines: “Without our heroes, Shelby Steele would be mowing the master’s grass,/ A lawn jockey waiting for the mailman.”)

The poetry format is a natural one for Don Bryon, who always has a talking point. As a black artist in the almost lily-white world of classically influenced, experimentally minded Downtown jazz, the politics of race are never far from his mind.

Mr. Byron says mockingly that he’s not sure the world needs “postmodern Negroes” but, in truth, he seems grateful for all the company he can get. “I meet cats out there all the time who look like 10-year-younger versions of me,” he said. “A cat came to a gig of mine, a brother with dreadlocks and a Pierre Boulez T-shirt, and I said, ‘That’s my nigger.’ I relate to that. I know what it takes to be black and even know who Pierre Boulez is.” Pomo Clarinetist Don Byron Unleashes Existential Dred