Born: October 21, 1912 | Died: August, 1972 Primary Instrument: Sax, tenor
Don Byas was one of the most respected and recorded tenor players of the 1940’s. In that fruitful period he had few peers in the the area of prolific productivity. Byas was a masterful swing player with his own style, an advanced sense of harmony, and a confidence and adventurousness that found him hanging around the beboppers and asking to play. He held his own and did so while insistently remaining himself: he never picked up the rhythmic phrases, the lightning triplets, which are indigenous to bop. Yet Charlie Parker said of him that Byas was playing everything there was to play.
Born in Muskogee, Oklahoma, in 1912, he played alto as a teenager, subbing in territorial bands like Bennie Moten's and Walter Page's Blue Devils. As a student at Langston College, he led his own band, Don Byas and the Collegiate Ramblers. Between 1933, when he switched to tenor, and 1941, he worked with a variety of bands, first in California and then New York--among them: Buck Clayton, Lionel Hampton, Eddie Barefield, Eddie Mallory, Lucky Millinder, Andy Kirk and Redman. In January '41, he became Lester Young's successor in the Count Basie band and quickly established his abilities, cementing his reputation.
Byas' style evolved in the lush, full-bodied tenor tradition of Coleman Hawkins, but his sound was unmistakably his own, immediately recognizable. A master of technique, he accomplished both tender warmth and the most strident sting. His sense of drama coupled with a brilliant use of dynamics and timbre, a deeply-felt romanticism, and an innate sense of swing made his improvisations unique.
When he left for Europe in the fall of 1946 with the Don Redman band, his reputation was at its peak. Admired by the modernists and the traditional swingers, he was celebrated as a tireless, original and influential saxophonist. His solo on Basie's Harvard Blues had created a stir in 1941 and he followed it with a remarkable series of recordings for small labels. In his romantic approach to Laura, he had something of a hit.
He stayed in Europe, where he was quite the star in France, then the Netherlands, becoming the first in a continuously expanding family of expatriate jazzmen. Although Byas was much in demand by the jazz-appreciative Europeans, he was largely forgotten back home. Few of his records were available here and without personal appearances it is difficult, if not impossible, to sustain a following. He returned to the U.S. once, in the summer of 1970, received little of the money or adulation he might have expected, and returned to Holland where he died in August 1972 of lung cancer. He was 59.