Jaki Byard was a jazz composer and multi-instrumentalist best known for his piano playing, but also a talented trombonist and saxophonist. An important figure in modern jazz, he played in multiple styles including swing, blues, stride, free jazz and R&B, often mixing multiple styles within a single piece. Byard began his career in the late 1940s, playing in the bands of Earl Bostic, Herb Pomeroy and Maynard Ferguson and before joining Charles Mingus in 1960. HIs energy and versatility led him to become on the most sought after pianists for top jazz artists of the 1960s appearing on over 50 recordings as a sideman. As leader, Byard recorded 35 albums that were well received by jazz critics, but never gained much popularity with the general public. He was also a dedicated educator and helped found the Afro-American Music and Jazz Studies Department at the New England Conservatory. In addition to his work at NEC, he taught at the Manhattan School, the Hartford School of Music, Bennington College and others. Jaki Byard was tragically shot and killed n his home in 1999 at the age of 76. The crime remains unsolved.
Jaki Byard was known to accompany himself, playing saxophone with his left hand and piano with his right. In 1966 Jaki Byard won the DownBeat Magazine Poll for "most promising new artist". Jaki Byard was the subject of a 1980 documentary called "Anything for Jazz."
John Arthur "Jaki" Byard Jr. was born in Massachusetts in 1922 and grew up in a musical family. His father played trumpet and trombone while his mother, grandmother and uncles played piano. Byard began playing the piano at age 6 and started lessons a few years later. His mother encouraged his interest in music, giving him money to go see top acts of the day including Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa. By age 16 Byard had begun playing piano professionally. In 1941 he was drafted into the Army and joined the Army band on trombone, since the band already had a pianist. Following his discharge in 1945, he returned to Boston and resumed his musical career playing with other Boston musicians including Sam Rivers, Ray Nance and Earl Bostic.