Who influenced you?
In the beginning, it was “Hawk” [Coleman Hawkins]. That sound always stayed with me and never got away. In fact, I think I have a bigger sound now than he had. Apart from that, I dug what he was playing. Art Tatum really turned me on. That’s where my style came from … style… I haven’t any style. I just blow, like Art. He didn’t have any style, he just played the piano, and that’s the way I play. We were real close, and he loved me. He used to sit down and talk to me and one day he said, “Don, don’t ever worry about what you’re going to play or where the ideas are going to come from. Just remember there is no such thing as a wrong note.” He said, “What makes a note wrong is when you don’t know where to go after that one. As long as you know how to get to the next note, there’s no such thing as a wrong note. You hit any note you want and it fits in any chord.” And that’s right! There is no such thing as hitting a wrong note. It’s just that when you hit that wrong note, you’ve got to know how to make it right.
That’s when the doors started opening for me music wise. From that time I started practicing and remembering that and all of a sudden I said, “That’s where it is.” There’s no way you can hit a wrong note, as long as you know where to go afterwards. You just keep weaving and there’s no way in the world you can get lost. You hit one. If it’s not right, you hit another. If that’s not right you hit another one, so you just keep hitting. Now who’s going to say you’re wrong? You show me anybody who can prove you’re wrong. As long as you keep going you’re all right, but don’t stop unless you know you’re at a station. If you’re at a station then you stop, take a breath and make it to the next station. Tatum turned me onto that. He was a genius. I had been with Tatum for two years on the West Coast. I came to New York in 1935, and we hung out together every night. It was during that time that he taught me all those things. I came to New York with Eddie Mallory’s band. Mallory’s wife, Ethel Waters, opened up in the Cotton Club, Duke Ellington was playing with his band and so was Eddie Mallory, two big bands.
There was nobody playing what I was playing because I played all that stuff from Tatum. That F-sharp, B-natural, E, A, D, G, C, F, like in rhythm, instead of playing rhythm chords. Everybody was saying what is that? Where did this cat come from? Who is he? There weren’t any horn players following piano players at that time, so I was ahead of everybody.
“Bird” [Charlie Parker] got a lot of things from me. I met Bird when he was about fourteen in Kansas City, so I’ve been knowing him for a long time. Even after Bird got to New York with Jay McShann, we were still real tight, and he used to always come and get me when he wanted to go and jam, which was damn near every night. He would say: “Come on, Don, we’re going to play ’Cherokee’”. That was his favorite tune. What people don’t know is that Bird got a lot of stuff from me, although he was influenced more by “Pres” [Lester Young]. Pres was really his boy. There was another cat, Buster Smith, and somebody else, I forget his name, but those are the cats who influenced Bird. They were all around Kansas City at that time. That was in the early thirties. Bird was a little cat, fourteen years old and blowing! He hadn’t developed then. He didn’t really start blowing till he got to New York; then he stretched out. That man could blow! You listen to the music now and you ask yourself what people are talking about when they compare somebody with Bird? Even “Trane” [John Coltrane] was influenced by him, although he went much further, but Bird was his idol.
Trane was tight. Every time he came to Europe, the first place he would go to, he would ask, “Where is Don Byas?” Always went where I was playing, never said hello. He’d just come in, sneak in. I don’t know how this cat did it. He would sit in the club all night and never move. I wouldn’t know he was there. I’d say to myself, “That looks like Trane sitting back there.” So when the set was over, I would go and ask, “How long have you been here?” He’d say, “I just came in.” Trane was something else. You would never know he was in the joint.
Have you ever felt any kind of protest in music?
I’m protesting. If you listen you will notice I’m always trying to make my sound stronger and more brutal than ever. I shake the walls in joints I play in. I’m always trying to sound brutal without losing the beauty, in order to impress people and wake them up. That’s protest, of course it is. I’ve always felt like that. The point is how long will people keep me waiting before they come in. I’m wondering if things will finally come my way before I pop off. Actually right now there aren’t that many cats left that are blowing—me and “Griff” [Johnny Griffin], who else is there? There are a lot of young cats, but I don’t even know them. I’m talking about the ones on the top. My form of protest is to play as hard and strong as I can. In other words, you did this and you did that, so now take this!
Do you feel unrewarded for the contribution you made to our music?
Yes, in a way, but I can’t say I’m angry, because I split at the top of my success, so actually a lot of it is my fault. I can’t get mad at anybody but I can get mad in my music. When I play, I can allow myself to get mad. I split twenty-five years ago. This cat [Calvin Massey, present at the time of the interview] asked me the night before I left, “When are you coming back?’ I said, “When they build a bridge!”
You were one of the first musicians to settle in Europe?
I was the first. I came with Don Redman, after the war. I had a beautiful success and made a lot of money. I’ve just stopped making money during the last three or four years. Things got low. So many cats have come over and are still coming that things have dropped down. There isn’t the demand there was before, so that makes it a little rough. I’m not squawkin’. It’s just that I’m going to try some different things and see if I can’t put a little firecracker under. [Don Byas was expecting to go to Africa with Archie Shepp.] I think it would be nice to change things around a little bit for a while.
I’ve been going in a straight line for so long, it’s not going to hurt me to do that. That tape recorder is on! Yeah you’ve got to be a cross-eyed motherfucker to make it in life.
Paris, November 11, 1969