Renowned clarinetist, saxophonist and composer Don Byron, who recently moved to Denver from New York to be a full-time faculty member at Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Department of Music, in the Jazz and American Improvised Music program, is showing his students the value of getting nerdy. “I’m talking about a certain level of curiosity, especially in terms of music that’s come before,” Byron says. “When I was in school, I studied Lalo Schifrin. I studied Henry Mancini, but to do that I had to go out and buy vinyl and read books.
And now I think you can do that without much effort. It doesn’t mean that everybody’s doing that. What I try to encourage people to do is to get nerdy about things.”
Bryon is teaching Jazz Improvisation I and a course titled “Jazz Styles — America’s Music,” as well as leading an ensemble and teaching privately. He was recently talking to one of his students “about the importance of the Muscle Shoals cats, the Stax/Volt cats, the Detroit Funk Brothers and the Wrecking Crew,” he recalls. “From those four ensembles, or whatever you want to call them — about 80 or 90 percent of the music of the ’60s and ’70s went through one of those four groups. The Wrecking Crew, they did everything. They did Lalo Schifrin scores. They did Jackson 5 records. They did the Fifth Dimension. They did the Association. They did Brian Wilson.
“It’s not a lost cause getting into this history,” he continues, “but you have to direct your attention to the things that really matter. So it’s not a lost cause, but you have to get into it. You can’t make someone want to be studious or nerdy about something they don’t want to. So it’s my job to stimulate more nerdiness.”
The Bronx-bred Byron, who studied at the New England Conservatory of Music and has also taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University at Albany-SUNY, knows a few things about being a music geek. While he’s extremely proficient in jazz, Byron is well versed in a number of other genres, too, including classical, hip-hop, R&B, funk and klezmer, and the albums he’s released over the last two decades have been varied as well.
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But while being familiar with a number of different styles is important, there’s more to being a well-rounded musician. “I don’t even think that there are genres that you should know,” Byron says. “You should be able to work at being able to be professional at whatever comes your way. Some of the people I went to school with are making big money doing children’s music, music for films — doing music that they didn’t expect to be doing. So it’s not like there was anything particularly super-unique about klezmer music. I studied Bulgarian music and Romanian music and Italian folk tarantella music. You just have to know how to work on things.”
Although Byron came to Denver specifically to teach music, he says he enjoys living here. He put together a group of local musicians, including one student, for the Don Byron Quartet, which will be playing at Dazzle this weekend; solo, he likes riding his mountain bike in Eldorado Canyon and Golden Gate Canyon State Park. “I love the outdoors, and the nature I’ve gotten into quite a bit,” he explains. “I don’t know how much more I’m going to do if it gets cold. I’ve spent the warm months that I’ve been here at the state parks in the Rockies, riding my mountain bike. I really enjoy that.”
The Don Byron Quartet plays at Dazzle at 7 and 9 p.m. Friday, November 6. Get tickets and find out more at dazzlejazz.com.