October 21, 1912 - August 24, 1972
Carlos Wesley “Don” Byas was born in Muskogee, Oklahoma, in 1912 Both of Byas's parents were musical: his mother played the piano and father the clarinet. Byas started his training in classical music, first on the violin, then on the clarinet and finally on the alto saxophone, which he played until the end of the 1920s. Multi-instrumentalist Benny Carter was his idol at this time. He started playing in local orchestras at the age of 17, with the likes of Bennie Moten, Terrence Holder and Walter Page's Blue Devils. At Langston College, Oklahoma, he founded and led his own college band, "Don Carlos and His Collegiate Ramblers", during 1931-32.
Between 1933 and 1941, he worked with a variety of bands in California and later New York, including Buck Clayton, Lionel Hampton, Eddie Barefield, Eddie Mallory, Lucky Millinder, Andy Kirk, and Don Redman. In January 1941, he had his big break when he succeeded Lester Young in Count Basie’s big band.
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".
When he left for Europe in the fall of 1946 with the Don Redman band, Don Byas' reputation was at its peak: the band played in Denmark, Belgium, Switzerland, and Germany, and was the first all-black American orchestra to appear in the French capital since the liberation. Byas had a hit in his romantic approach to "Laura” by David Raksin.
Byas relocated to the Netherlands and married a Dutch woman. He worked extensively in Europe, often with such touring American musicians as Art Blakey, Kenny Clarke, Duke Ellington, Gillespie, Jazz at the Philharmonic, Bud Powell, and Ben Webster. Byas did not return to the U.S. until 1970, appearing at the Newport Jazz Festival.
He died in Amsterdam in 1972 from lung cancer, aged 59.
- The Immortal Charlie Christian (1939-1941 recordings, released, Legacy, 1980)
- Quintessential Billie Holiday Volume 8 (1940 date led by Billie Holiday, Columbia Records)
- "Harvard Blues" (with Count Basie, 1941 on America's #1 Band: The Columbia Years)
- "Sugar Blues" (with Basie, 1942, also on America's #1 Band)
- "Indiana", "I Got Rhythm" and "Laura" (Various Artists, Town Hall Concert, 1945, Commodore Records)
- Midnight at Minton's (1941)
- Savoy Jam Party: The Savoy Sessions (1944-45)
- Don Byas in Paris (1946-49)
- Those Barcelona Days 1947-1948
- Le Grand Don Byas (1952-55)
- The Mary Lou Williams Quartet featuring Don Byas (1954)
- Don Byas with Beryl Booker (1955)
- A Tribute to Cannonball (with Bud Powell, 1961)
- Amalia Rodrigues with Don Byas (1973)
- A Night in Tunisia (1963)
- Walkin' (1963)
- Anthropology (1963)
- Autumn Leaves (live with Stan Tracey, 1965)
- Don Byas Quartet featuring Sir Charles Thompson (1967)
- Ben Webster meets Don Byas (1968)