scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Musical adventurer Don Byron returns to NEC, where his explorations began

Don Byron returns to New England Conservatory, where he was a student in the early 1980s, for a performance at Jordan Hall on Dec. 8.Dave Kaufman

In the realm of pan-genre musical exploration — shorthanded as crossover — there’s probably no practitioner of more breadth and depth than the virtuoso clarinetist and composer Don Byron. To take one example, his 2000 release “A Fine Line: Arias and Lieder” includes works from Ornette Coleman, Robert Schumann, Stevie Wonder, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Chopin, Roy Orbison, and the Four Tops, plus Byron’s own “Basquiat,” an affecting portrait of that visual artist. His Music for Six Musicians projects have mined his deep knowledge of the Afro-Latin and Caribbean traditions, while “Don Byron Plays the Music of Mickey Katz” (1993) is considered a seminal work of the modern revival of secular Jewish music known as klezmer. As a composer, he has written for, among others, the Kronos Quartet and was a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in music for a series of solo piano etudes.

So it’s apt that Byron, 64, is the featured guest artist on a concert program called “Crossing the Boundaries,” presented by his alma mater, New England Conservatory, on Dec. 8. The concert will include works by Duke Ellington, Sam Rivers, Randy Weston and Melba Liston, George Russell, and Ran Blake, and will feature Byron in Russell’s genre-melding piece “A Bird in Igor’s Yard” (1949) and in “Derivations for Solo Clarinet and Band” (1955) by Morton Gould, a composer known for his blending of classical with jazz and pop.


The concert is a collaboration between NEC’s Jazz Studies and Contemporary Musical Arts departments. The latter — formerly known as Contemporary Improvisation and, before that, Third Stream — is celebrating its 50th anniversary. It was Third Stream — created by then-NEC president Gunther Schuller and Blake and named for Schuller’s theoretical combining of jazz and classical “streams” — that drew Byron’s attention at NEC and proved the perfect home for this classically trained jazz clarinetist with an omnivorous hunger for music of all kinds.

After transferring from the Manhattan School of Music in 1980, Byron enjoyed the freedom in NEC’s Third Stream to choose among faculty, which in his case included Russell and clarinet professor Joe Allard. But there was also an openness not just about jazz but all kinds of music.


“Around the first month or two, I played in a gamelan,” Byron recalled. “There was Indian music, there was Brazilian music, a lot of Eastern European music. There was a woman there doing Bulgarian women’s choral music. There was (the late NEC professor) Joe Maneri helping people with Greek music.”

What’s more, Schuller’s own projects, such as the New England Ragtime Ensemble, had established a precedent for the kind of archival work Byron would later undertake with the Mickey Katz record and his effervescent 1996 hit album “Bug Music,” his collection of early Ellington along with pieces from Raymond Scott and the John Kirby Orchestra.

“Don is the perfect example of what we’re trying to do in both departments [Jazz Studies and Contemporary Musical Arts], which is support people who are interested in a wide array of musical styles and perhaps training them to mix genres or create new genres,” says Ken Schaphorst, chair of NEC’s Jazz Studies program. “He’s also a consummate musician.”

As for the Mickey Katz project in particular, CMA co-chair Hankus Netsky, who recruited Byron for his Klezmer Conservatory Band at NEC, says, “Don was arguably the most important figure in the resurgence of klezmer in our generation, since he was the first one to use the klezmer repertoire as a springboard for improvisation.”


Byron has played “A Bird in Igor’s Yard,” one of two pieces on the program by his former NEC teacher Russell, before. But the Gould piece will be a first for him, one that’s been in his sights for a while.

The piece, Byron points out, was included on a Benny Goodman album, “famous among clarinet players,” that included Stravinsky’s “Ebony Concerto,” Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, and Leonard Bernstein’s “Prelude, Fugue and Riffs.”

“The Gould was always my favorite of the pieces on that recording,” says Byron, “because, of all of them, it seemed to predict a little better where jazz language might be going.” He adds, “I always thought George’s piece belonged in that group and compares pretty favorably to all of them.”

It should be thrilling to hear Byron apply his musical insight and virtuoso chops on the Russell and Gould with the NEC Jazz Orchestra (conducted by Schaphorst), as well as on a solo improvisation that is scheduled to open the concert’s second half. Byron long ago established himself as a clarinet master (his “seconds” include tenor and baritone saxophones), well schooled in the tradition, assured in classical repertoire but, even more crucially, redefining the sound and musical content of jazz clarinet, “putting Blackness in it,” as Byron says, on an instrument whose jazz sound had been defined by white swing-era stars like Goodman and Artie Shaw.


Byron’s own compositions have long addressed racism, as on his “Tuskegee Experiments” album (1992) and with titles like “The Importance of Being Sharpton” and (for the Kronos) “There Goes the Neighborhood.” And he has jousted with those in the music industry — including other musicians and journalists — who put him in the “jazz box” because “of course, anything a Black instrumentalist does is jazz.”

At the same time, “Nothing I have done outside of jazz makes my jazz not jazz.”

But there’s already a bigger “box” that can contain what Byron does. “Everything I’ve done is very Third Stream,” he says.

Jon Garelick can be reached at


New England Conservatory Jazz Orchestra with special guest Don Byron. At Jordan Hall, 290 Huntington Ave. Dec. 8, 7:30 p.m. Free. Tickets at