Ellington and Byas, Paris 1969

I found this on Youtube today just before lunch. I’ve been putting together a jazz playlist on Google Music for my stepson, who’s kind of into it; I added some Don Byas because I’ve always liked his mix of old-style tenor sax swing and modern harmonies. His glory years were the 1940s. I wondered whether there’s some late-period Don Byas on Youtube. There sure is:

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Why do I love this? Let me count the ways. First, the Ellington band and Byas were rough contemporaries, but they had no sustained history together. They happen to cross paths in Paris in 1969. Ellington is playing Salle Pleyel, one of the city’s better plush-seat concert halls (it became more than that after a renovation in 2006). Ellington calls Byas out to sit in with the band.

Now, Ellington by this point had basically incarnated the jazz elite for 40 years. Dapper, elegant, urbane, with the best musicians, playing the best music, on the road constantly. This entails certain obligations to some notion of elegance and reserve, you might think. But by this point, near the end of his life, he basically doesn’t give a shit. He calls Byas onstage (“A-flat, A-flat for Byas,” he calls to the band, and they play a major chord as a kind of fanfare), points him toward the tenor players in the sax section (Paul Gonsalves, Harold Ashby doubling on alto and tenor, and Norris Turney) and calls the band’s great tenor showcase, Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue.

Now here’s the thing. Don Byas doesn’t know the tune. He’ll manage; it’s a 12-bar blues. But there’s an arrangement, there are orchestral breaks to kick off the solos, there’s a bunch of cues. Ellington doesn’t tell him any of it.

“What am I supposed to be doing?” Byas asks him.

“I don’t know, man! Make y’self at home,” Ellington shouts as he sits at the piano. He’s counted the tune off and played an intro before Byas has finished borrowing a saxophone (Gonsalves’?) from the band.

Ill at ease, Byas goofs for several choruses, never really finding a groove or a mood, meandering in very oblique ways across the tune’s harmonies. He ends before Ellington is ready for him to stop — Gonsalves, of course, used to play for dozens of choruses on this tune — so Ellington gestures for reinforcements from the band. Turney’s up next, I think sharing some of Byas’s unease, before Harold Ashby finally delivers the kind of whip-cracking solo the audience was expecting.

It all comes to a shambling halt. Byas doesn’t even stop with the band, rambling for a few seconds after everyone else. I could speculate about his state of mind, but I’d only be guessing. Ellington gives him a hug, and Byas chides him a little: “You put me on the spot, man. You put me on the spot.”

It’s all maybe one step up from a disaster, but note (1) Ellington is roaring through pretty much all of it, shouting, goading his players, cackling at bright or rough patches — so much intensity for a man of about 70; (2) though put on the spot, Byas hints at the harmonic ingenuity and deep eccentricity that made him so fearsome; (3) I can’t even imagine how much fun it must have been to play in that band. Elsewhere on Youtube there’s a clip of another ringer sitting in on the same night, the young avant-garde firebrand Archie Shepp. He doesn’t really fit in either; Ellington gives him a huge hug when it’s done. Half the Salle Pleyel crowd must have been over the moon at this sustained spectacle. The other half must have wanted its money back.

I like a lot of jazz that’s more neatly tucked in, too, but there’s something to stir the heart in this near-train wreck in front of 3,000 customers. Both Ellington and Byas would be dead within five years.