Jaki Byard: pianist, saxophonist, trombonist,
composer, arranger, bandleader

John A. Byard Jr.: born June 15, 1922 in Worcester, MA; died Feb. 11, 1999 in New York City

  • Jaki Byard was brought up in a musical household, his mother playing piano and his father, baritone horn in a marching band. Besides piano, Jaki also played trumpet, guitar and drums.
  • Gained experience through the Entertainment Club at the Worcester Boys Club and played with local bands 1938-41, and then the Army 1941-46.
  • Toured with Earl Bostic in late ’40s and early ’50s before moving to Boston, where he played trombone with Jimmie Martin’s Boston Beboppers, recorded with Charlie Mariano, played intermission piano and tenor sax with the Herb Pomeroy big band at the Stable, and founded his own big band.
  • Byard left Boston in 1959, joining the Maynard Ferguson Orchestra. In the 1960s, he worked or recorded with a who’s who of jazz: Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, Booker Ervin, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Don Ellis, Sam Rivers, and others.
  • In the 1970s, he taught at the New England Conservatory, and formed the Apollo Stompers, a big band active in both Boston and New York.
  • Recorded duet albums with Earl Hines in the 1970s and Ran Blake in 1980s.
Jaki Byard

Jaki Byard (Photo by Nick Puopolo)

Fred Bouchard on Jaki Byard

Vignettes of Jaki Byard pop in my mind like champagne bubbles.

Mid-phrase, fingers flying, he’d flash you Count Basie’s “basilisk stare” from the keyboard, then break into a goofy grin. Wherever he played — with Mingus, Don Ellis, Rahsaan — Jaki spanned the ages; he could play rings around any piano style from James P. Johnson to Fats Waller to Art Tatum to Don Pullen, and do it in a minute flat. Leading his rag-tag Apollo Stompers on Tuesdays at Michael’s Pub, he’d play the rickety upright as long as he could stand it, then grab his worn tenor and blow breathy marshmallows. His durable charts — the rich “Aluminum Baby” for bassist John Neves in Herb Pomeroy’s band, some for Maynard Ferguson— resonated with history and sparkled with brilliance.

When we sat down for his Blindfold Test (Downbeat, 1981), he insisted that everyone get five stars before I dropped the needle. “They’re all stars! Heck,” he harrumphed,“I’m a star myself!” He certainly was.