Falling Rains of Life: The Jaki Byard Story
When Jaki was murdered in 1999, I covered the story for Worcester Magazine. At the time, I was the A&E Editor of the weekly paper and had interviewed Mr. Byard less than a year before. The shocking news of his death continues to this day, especially in that it is an unsolved homicide.
A month later, I had lunch with Judge Mel Greenberg at the Boulevard Diner, not far from where Jaki grew-up in his hometown of Worcester. His honor startled me by asking me if I ever considered writing Jaki’s biography. I shook him off thinking that it was a book for the New York jazz writers of the day.
Eighteen years went by and I thought if not me, who?
For those who are just being introduced to Mr. Byard, he was a commanding figure in the jazz world. His piano playing embodied the styles of the 20th Century, from “Ragtime to no time” and although he earned his stripes in nightclubs, Mr. Byard was a solid family man who raised three children in a middle-class home in the Jamaica section of Queens, NY.
Here are a few highlights of his career:
As a teenager, Byard started one of the first jazz collectives in New England.
He was known as a “guru” to students and colleagues, who brought modern jazz to the forefront on the local scene while maintaining a deep respect for the music’s roots. As early as the 1950s, Jaki was already building his reputation as a teacher in Boston and according to the Guardian, “has been credited with crucial early input into the city which has since become probably the jazz education capital of the universe.”
As an educator, Byard taught such notable contemporary musicians as Charlie Banacos, Hal Galper, Jason Moran, Marty Ehrlich, Alan Pasqua, Bruce Barth, Andy LaVerne, Ricky Ford, Harold Danko, Brad Mehldau, Larry Goldings, Junko Onishi, Jamie Baum, and Fred Hersch, among many others.
He can be heard on hundreds of recordings with many of the jazz world’s best-known artists -- Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, Dexter Gordon, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones, Ron Carter, Richard Davis, et al.
Byard was not only a renowned pianist, composer, arranger, bandleader, and educator, he taught, played, and recorded on a host of musical instruments, including piano, brass, reeds, guitar, and percussion.
In the late 1960s, he was recruited by Gunther Schuller, then president of New England Conservatory of Music, which eventually helped to give the school the distinction of becoming the first American conservatory to offer a jazz degree.
When both Duke Ellington’s and Thelonious Monk’s health began to fail at the end of their respective lives, Byard was prevailed upon to “sit-in” on piano.
As mentioned, Byard was murdered and his homicide is still unsolved. Rather than an investigation of Jaki’s death, this book is a celebration of his life. It includes a collection of more than 50 photographs -- many of them unpublished, a host testimonials, a nightclub full of anecdotes and stories from fellow musicians and a biography that covers his early life in Worcester to his struggles in Boston, through his Big Apple carving, and ultimate success on the world stage.
The book also includes a jazz discography, a list of compositions and a rundown of his students.
Falling Rains of Life takes its title from one of Jaki’s tunes. It is only available online here. The cost is $12.