Music man

MSU Denver got an award-winning jazz virtuoso when Don Byron joined the faculty last fall. Now music students get to learn from a master.

By Tom Wilmes

Publish Date: April 18, 2016

Photo by Mark Woolcott

“Living legend” isn’t a term to be used lightly, but one need only consider the accolades Don Byron has racked up over the years to know that it’s not an exaggeration.

Down Beat Magazine named him its “Jazz Artist of the Year” in 1992. He’s been featured in TIME magazine, SPIN magazine and on National Public Radio. He’s the recipient of numerous honors and recognitions, including the Guggenheim, United States Artist and Rome Prize fellowships, and he was among the first class of Doris Duke Performing Artists. His album “Ivey-Divey” received a Grammy nomination for best instrumental solo album in 2004, and he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2009.

A clarinetist, saxophonist, composer and arranger, Byron is most known for his jazz chops and inventive improvisational playing. He draws influence from a wide number of genres in his performances and recordings, as well as in his musical compositions for ensembles, films, opera and dance.

“Mr. Byron is, without question, the most important jazz musician to teach here in Colorado,” said Jazz Studies Director Ron Miles. “The students, faculty and the Colorado jazz community are all benefitting from his excellence on the bandstand and in the classroom.”

With prior teaching experience at institutions like Harvard, MIT and Columbia University, Byron is enjoying his work at MSU Denver – he joined the faculty of the Jazz and American Improvised Music Program last fall – mentoring students who are passionate about their art and have room to grow in their talent.

“Sometimes it’s not so much fun to teach kids who can already do everything – you don’t really have any input,” said Byron. “Or you might have kids who don’t work at all or are not really serious about becoming professional musicians. That can be really disappointing.

“It’s neither of those things at MSU Denver,” he said. “These kids are serious, they’re open and they listen to their contemporaries. You can go out and hear a lot of them play now. They’re in the game. But at the same time [as a teacher], you know you can really make an impact.”

Born and raised in the Bronx, Byron has long been an influential figure in the New York jazz scene. Byron’s father played bass in calypso bands and his mother is a pianist. Byron studied classical clarinet while also playing and arranging salsa numbers for high school bands on the side. He later studied at the New England Conservatory.

While his music career spans a vast array of projects and interests, a common theme unites his work: a passion for his art and a drive for excellence.

“If there’s a message I have, it’s that whatever you’re doing you have to take it seriously,” said Byron. “Professionally speaking, if you take it seriously and apply real musicianship to a project, then you know it will be good.”

HEAR Don Byron’s music and learn about his influences.