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.