Though billed as “Bug Music for Juniors,” both the seven-year-old child and the fifty-something-year-old man on either side of me at the Raven Theater smiled and bounced their heads last night as Don Byron launched into “Siberian Sleighride.”
The youngster was thrilled that the cartoons were back up on the movie projector screen in the form of Meatless Flyday, a wacky 1944 Warner Bros. cartoon, and the man was thrilled at hearing one of Raymond Scott’s bounciest compositions revived by Scott’s greatest acolytes.
Holding court on a demonstrative jazz concert, meant mostly for kids, Byron spent equal time explaining chords, syncopation, and why musicians write on piano as he did playing the part-klezmer, part-swing, part-avant-garde jazz that’s his trademark. Watching the New York clarinetist explain jazz to kids, however, was a performance in itself.
“So you can kinda hear it, right?” Byron asked the kids, after playing select passages from both Raymond Scott and John Kirby. “Raymond Scott’s all wild, but John Kirby’s more elegant. He’s like, chillin’ at the club, drinkin’ Cristal. More slick, smooth, and cool. He’s like P. Diddy—you know, the way P. Diddy would hang—draped in nice clothes, clean clothes.”
One by one, Byron introduced the instruments in his sextet, conducting the proceedings like a game show announcer and ending with a drum solo that turned into an off-the-cuff version of “Shaft.” During “Powerhouse,” Scott’s most famous tune, a toddler danced in front of the stage, and Byron played off of its vocal noises during the breaks.
Bugs Bunny and Tom & Jerry cartoons screened in the background, as did old film reels of jazz bands; Byron also spoke at length about the Cotton Club and Duke Ellington, whose “The Mooch” opened up eventually into a free-for-all blowing session—and into the Byron that fans of records like his excellent Ivey-Divey are used to.
After a few solos during “The Mooch,” and after applauding for each one, the seven-year-old next to me turned and said, “We’ve already clapped, like, four times for this song!”
“Do you know why?” I asked.
“Because they’re not reading from music. They’re making it up as they go along.”
“You mean they don’t know what they’re playing? Why do they do that?”
I was stumped. “Because,” I told him. “It’s jazz.”