Don Byas Day

October 21, 1912 – August 24, 1972

A birthday tribute to a great tenor-saxophonist

Tenor-saxophonist Carlos Wesley “Don” Byas was born October 21, 1912 in Muskogee, Oklahoma.

The son of musicians (his mother played piano while his father was a clarinetist), Byas at first studied classical violin before taking up the clarinet, the alto-sax and, finally in the late 1920s, tenor-sax.

He gained early experience starting from the age of 17, playing in Kansas City with Bennie Moten, Terrence Holder, Walter Page, and his own band, Don Carlos and his Collegiate Ramblers.

After attending Langston College in Oklahoma, Byas freelanced in the Los Angeles area including with Bert Johnson’s Sharps and Flats, Lionel Hampton and Buck Clayton.

In 1937 Byas moved to New York where he worked with Ethel Waters, the Don Redman Orchestra, Lucky Millinder, Andy Kirk, Edgar Hayes, and Benny Carter, also recording with Billie Holiday and Pete Johnson.

Byas, who was strongly influenced by Coleman Hawkins but was more harmonically advanced, succeeded Lester Young with the Count Basie Orchestra during 1941-43 where he shared the tenor solo space with Buddy Tate and became well-known.

A regular at Minton’s Playhouse in the early 1940s, Byas was very busy during 1944-45, recording frequently (including a series of his own records), working on 52nd Street with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, having a hit with his recording of “Laura,” and participating on a Gillespie session that included the original version of “Salt Peanuts.”

While he considered Art Tatum to be his main influence (even more than Hawkins), Byas was a master with his own sound, equally skilled on uptempo romps (including a pair of classic duets with bassist Slam Stewart at a recorded 1944 concert) and ballads.

After touring Europe with Don Redman’s orchestra in Sept. 1946, Byas decided to stay overseas, settling in Paris and later on the Netherlands.

While he was quite active on the Continent and made his fair share of recordings, Don Byas became largely unknown in the U.S. (which he only visited once, in 1970), leading to him being underrated in jazz history books.

He passed away in 1972 from lung cancer when he was only 59.

Here is Don Byas in 1958 jamming on “Perdido.”

Personnel:

Don Byas, tenor
Teddy Buckner, trumpet
Claude Gousset, trombone
Michel de Villers, baritone
Sammy Price, piano
Arvell Shaw, bass
J.C. Heard, drums

-Scott Yanow