As far as fellow saxophonist Mike Cameron is concerned, Oklahoma jazzman Don Byas was the one big-band era sax player who “best synthesized the swing styles and the bebop styles.”
Explains Cameron, “He was an extreme virtuoso as far as getting around bebop [chord] changes, but he did it with that old swing mentality.”
It’s fitting, then, that the Byas tribute show Cameron’s producing for the Jazz Depot Sunday will feature a blend of those two musical styles – swing and bebop. In doing it, Cameron will be joined by three musicians well known to Depot patrons: keyboardist Scott McQuade, drummer Jared Johnson, and saxophonist Tommy Poole. Other reed players, including the University of Tulsa’s Bobby Kitchen, are expected to sit in during the course of the evening.
“Swing will be the primary focus of the concert,” says Cameron. “There’ll be a lot of swing, and I think we’re going to do some of Tommy’s originals, and some of mine. We’ll do the bebop stuff with a little more of a modern approach; Scott gets really creative in that respect.
“We’re going to play some Don Byas compositions; we’ll play some by Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane as well,” he adds. “I think we’re going to do a couple of movements from [Coltrane’s] Love Supreme album. We’ll do one or two from Michael Brecker, and there are some modern saxophone players who write some great stuff – like a guy named Chris Potter. We’ll do one of his, too.”
This emphasis on songs composed by saxophonists is the major difference between last year’s Byas tribute, which took place on the 100th anniversary of his birth, and Sunday’s show. As was the case with the 2012 event, however, Sunday’s concert is intended to draw attention to one of the greatest jazz saxophonists who ever lived.
Carlos Wesley Byas, born in Muskogee on Oct. 21, 1912, started his first band while attending Langston University. He named that early group Don Carlos and His Collegiate Ramblers, giving him the “Don” nickname that stayed with him throughout his career. By that time, he’d already worked with Oklahoma City’s legendary Blue Devils and Kansas City’s Bennie Moten Orchestra, which often appeared on the same stage as the Blue Devils in band “battles” during the ’20s.
Byas spent most of the 1930s in California, playing tenor sax in bands led by Lionel Hampton, Eddie Barefield, and Buck Clayton. Crossing the country to New York at the end of that decade, he worked with Lucky Millinder, Benny Carter, and other noted bandleaders. His most visible gig of the early 1940s came when he replaced Lester Young in the Count Basie Orchestra (which had arisen from the ashes of Benny Moten’s Kansas City group.) He made more waves as a player in the emerging bebop scene, performing with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and leading his own aggregation.
In the late ’40s, Byas settled in Paris, later moving to Amsterdam. Although other jazz greats had played overseas, Byas was, according to historian William W. Savage Jr., “the first of a number of prominent American jazz expatriates.”
Byas returned for the occasional American job, including a 1970 appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival, but he lived overseas for the rest of his life, dying of lung cancer in 1972.
“Saxophonist Don Byas was one of the most influential instrumentalists in the history of American jazz,” said Jason McIntosh, Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame CEO. “This time each year we not only take the time to reflect upon Byas’ musical legacy, but we enjoy introducing new audiences to the music of this Oklahoma-born legend. We appreciate the next generation of great Oklahoma musicians-like Mike Cameron-paying tribute to an Oklahoma icon.”
In addition to providing Cameron with the opportunity to honor one of his favorite jazzmen – as he did last October, when the event debuted at the Jazz Depot – this year’s show also gives him the chance to headline with Poole for what, essentially, is the first time.
“Tommy and I have never done a show together,” says Cameron. “It’s one of those things. If it’s a singer’s gig, for instance, they don’t need more than one saxophone player. We’ve played some big-band shows with Mike Bennett and some other big bands around town, but never in a small group like this, a solo-feature kind of thing.”
Because the concert bumps up against another McQuade gig, the Don Byas Tribute Concert will be presented as one full-length show with no break.
“We’ll start right at five and go until about 6:20,” Cameron says, “so it’s be a solid 80-minute set.”
The Don Byas Tribute Concert is set to begin at 5:00p.m. Sunday, Oct. 20 at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame, located in downtown Tulsa’s Jazz Depot, 111 E. First Street. Tickets can be purchased at the depot, from www.myticketoffice.com, or by calling Bettie Downing at 918-281-8609. General admission is $15, reserved table seating $20. Seniors and Jazz Hall members are admitted for $10, and high school and junior high students for $5.
The show is a part of the Jazz Hall’s 2013 Autumn Concert Series.
The Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fameis a 501(c)(3) non-profit cultural and educational organization, with a mission to inspire creativity and improve the quality of life for all Oklahomans through preservation, education, and performance of jazz, our uniquely American art form.