Don Carlos Wesley Byas, better known simply as Don Byas, is one of the greatest saxophonists of all time. He is considered by so many of the greats as a supreme master of the horn. The great saxophonist Sonny Stitt, who was an incredible saxophonist himself had this to say about Don Byas.

“Years ago the game was vicious, cutthroat. Can you imagine Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Chu Berry, Don Byas, and Ben Webster on the same little jam session? And guess who won the fight? That’s what it was–a saxophone duel. Don Byas walked off with everything.” – Sonny Stitt

That really goes a long way towards indicating what an amazing musician Don was.  When the genius of the alto saxophone and Bebop innovator Charlie Parker spoke about hearing Don Byas, he said that “Don was playing everything there was to play.”

From 1942 to 1943 Don played with the Count Basie Band, replacing Lester Young in the tenor saxophone chair.  He made a classic recording with Basie called Harvard Blues.  His solo on that recording is truly a classic.  When Coleman Hawkins formed a sextet to work a gig at the Yacht Club on 52nd St. in 1944, he hired another tenor saxophonist to play next to him.  The master, Coleman Hawkins, decided to hire Don Byas.  Later on, in an interview, he said that he had to work very hard when Don was in the band.

One of the greatest tenor saxophone solos every recorded by Don was on his recording of Cherokee, done in 1945.  As if Cherokee isn’t difficult enough to play on, he took it at an unbelievable fast tempo that is faster than any recording ever done.  The rhythm section is barely able to keep up as Don just glides through his solo with ferocious technical virtuosity and an amazing mastery of the chord changes.  The tempo is so fast that the bassist is forced to play along at half-tempo or two beat style.

The chord changes to Cherokee is tough enough to play as is, but Don adds a II-V sequence descending down in whole steps arriving at the V chord on the fifth bar of the A section.  It is reminiscent of the piano genius Art Tatum.  Don used to say, “I haven’t got any style, I just blow like Art.”  It is said that Art Tatum liked Don’s playing and used to invite him to practice with him.

When I had a conversation with the master pianist Ahmad Jamal, he mentioned this particular recording as one of his favorites.  I recently spoke with the legendary Tenor Saxohonist and composer Benny Golson.  Benny also said that this was one of his favorite recordings and that Don Byas was truly one of the greatest of all the saxophone players of all time.  Benny said that when he was in Paris, playing with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Don Byas and Eli (Lucky) Thompson were at the bar listening to him play.  What an experience that must have been.  I can recall playing with the great drummer Vernel Fournier at the Blue Note in NYC in 1986 and in walked one of my idols, Clifford Jordan.  Playing in front of Clifford was pretty nerve racking, so I can imagine how it felt to be heard by Don and Lucky.

I will never forget the first time I heard this recording of Cherokee.  I just couldn’t believe the virtuosity and harmonic mastery of the instrument.  In addition to the speed and clarity of his execution of ideas, Don had this big, beautiful tone on the tenor.  The bebop vocalist Babs Gonzales said about Don that “he had a tone like a rainbow.”

Here’s a youtube video someone put up with this incredible recording of Don Byas’ Cherokee for Savoy Records in 1945 from the Savoy Jam Party record.  Listen to this and you will appreciate a supreme master of the saxophone and a genius of improvisation, who was also a technician without peer on the horn.


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