Carlos Wesley “Don” Byas
(October 21, 1912 – August 24, 1972) was an American jazz tenor saxophonist, most associated with Bebop. He played with Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Art Blakey, and Dizzy Gillespie, among others, and also led his own band. He lived in Europe for the last 26 years of his life.
Don Byas was born in Muskogee, Oklahoma. Both of Byas’ parents were musicians. His mother played the piano, and his father, the clarinet. Byas started his training in classical music, learning to play violin, clarinet and alto saxophone, which he played until the end of the 1920s. Benny Carter, who played many instruments, was his idol at this time. He started playing in local orchestras at the age of 17, with Bennie Moten, Terrence Holder and Walter Page. He founded and led his own college band, “Don Carlos and His Collegiate Ramblers”, during 1931-32, at Langston College, Oklahoma.
Byas switched to the tenor saxophone after he moved to the West Coast and played with several Los Angeles bands. In 1933, he took part in a West coast tour of Bert Johnson’s Sharps and Flats. He worked in Lionel Hampton’s band at the Paradise Club in 1935 along with the reed player and arranger Eddie Barefield and trombonist Tyree Glenn. He also played with Eddie Barefield, Buck Clayton, Lorenzo Flennoy and Charlie Echols.
In 1937, Byas moved to New York to work with the Eddie Mallory band, accompanying Mallory’s wife, the singer Ethel Waters, on tour, and at the Cotton Club. He had a brief stint with arranger Don Redman’s band in 1938 and later in 1939-1940. He recorded his first solo record in May 1939: “Is This to Be My Souvenir” with Timme Rosenkrantz and his Barrelhouse Barons for Victor. He played with the bands of such leaders as Lucky Millinder, Andy Kirk, Edgar Hayes and Benny Carter. He spent about a year in Andy Kirk’s band, recording with him between March 1939 and January 1940, including a short solo on “You Set Me on Fire”. In September 1940, he had an eight bar solo on “Practice Makes Perfect”, recorded by Billie Holiday. He participated in sessions with the pianist Pete Johnson, trumpeter Hot Lips Page, and singer Big Joe Turner. In 1941 at Minton’s Playhouse he played with Charlie Christian, Thelonious Monk and Kenny Clarke in after hours sessions.
In early 1941, after a short stay with Paul Bascomb, he had his big break when Count Basie chose him to succeed the post of Lester Young in his big band.
In September 1946 Byas went to Europe to tour with Don Redman’s big band in Denmark, Belgium, Switzerland, and Germany. They were the first all-black American orchestra to appear in the French capital since the liberation. Don Byas remained in Europe. After playing in Belgium and Spain, he finally settled in Paris, and was able to record almost immediately.
While still in Geneva he recorded “Laura” and “How High the Moon”. In December 1946 he recorded for the first time in France, with Redman, Tyree Glenn and Peanuts Holland. He recorded for the Swing and Blue Star labels in 1947, working with Eddie Barclay. In 1947 and 1948 Byas lived in Barcelona, where he moved to enjoy the lower cost of living and the thriving atmosphere. The pianist Tete Montoliu sneaked into the Copacabana Club in Barcelona to hear the great saxophone player. Byas was at the top of his form in these years, performing with Bernard Hilda’s orchestra (August 1947), Francisco Sanchez Ortega, and Luis Rovira.
He played with Bill Coleman in early 1949; touring that autumn with Buck Clayton. From 1948 onwards, Byas became a familiar figure not only around the Saint-Germain-des-Prés in Paris, but also on the Riviera, where he could be seen in Saint-Tropez sporting a mask, tuba, flippers and an underwater spear-gun. The tenor found work, could record regularly and had many friends. They adored not only his musical talent but his skills at the pool table, as a sportsman (fishing and diving) and a chef who cooked Cajun and Creole food.
Byas played in the Andy Kirk band in 1939-40 and later in 1944. They recorded together on Vogue in 1953. Byas also recorded with Beryl Booker in the same year.
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. He also recorded with fado singer Amália Rodrigues during his time in Europe. Byas did not return to the U.S. until 1970, appearing at the Newport Jazz Festival.
Byas died in Amsterdam in 1972 from lung cancer, aged 59