Don Byas was a masterful swing player with his own style, an advanced sense of harmony, and a confidence and adventurousness that was unmistakably his own, immediately recognizable. His sense of drama coupled with a brilliant use of dynamics and timbre, a deeply-felt romanticism – accomplished both the tenderest warmth and the most strident sting. He never picked up the rhythmic phrases, the lightning triplets, that are indigenous to bop. Yet Charlie Parker said of him that Byas was playing everything there was to play.
Byas’ style evolved in the lush, rococo, full-bodied tenor tradition of Coleman Hawkins, but his sound was unmistakably his own, immediately recognizable. A master of technique, he accomplished both the tenderest warmth and the most strident sting. His sense of drama coupled with a brilliant use of dynamics and timbre, a deeply-felt romanticism–which on occasion dripped into sentimentality, his worst pitfall–and an unsurpassable sense of swing made his improvisations unique.
One of the greatest of all tenor players, Don Byas’ decision to move permanently to Europe in 1946 resulted in him being vastly underrated in jazz history books. His knowledge of chords rivalled Coleman Hawkins, and, due to their similarity in tones, Byas can be considered an extension of the elder tenor.
Whenever American players were touring in Europe, they would ask for Byas, who had opportunities to perform with Duke Ellington, Bud Powell, Kenny Clarke, Dizzy Gillespie, Jazz at the Philharmonic (including a recorded tenor battle with Hawkins and Stan Getz), Art Blakey, and (on a 1968 recording) Ben Webster. Byas also recorded often in the 1950s, but was largely forgotten in the U.S. by the time of his death.
Despite his bebop associations, Byas always remained deeply rooted in the sounds of swing. He started out by emulating Coleman Hawkins, but Byas always cited Art Tatum as his greater influence: “I haven’t got any style, I just blow like Art”.
“Years ago the game was vicious, cut-throat. 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