Don Byron's Bug Music

Last Friday at the Jazz Standard, I saw clarinetist Don Byron play compositions from his 1996 Bug Music, maybe his greatest album, certainly one of the most exciting jazz albums of that decade. It features music from the ‘30s by John Kirby, Raymond Scott, and Duke Ellington—an era largely neglected by jazz musicians and historians.

Byron says the title “Bug Music” comes from an old episode of The Flintstones, in which Fred, Wilma, and all the other cavemen and women of Bedford are nauseated by the new “Bug Music with them four insects”—a parody at the time of the Beatles. Just as most adults (real and cartoon) initially hated the Beatles, so many still don’t get Raymond Scott (whose music later became famous as the soundtrack for Carl Stallings cartoons) or even very early Ellington. (The lively but rarely covered Duke tunes he plays here are “The Dicty Glide,” “Cotton Club Stomp,” and “Blue Bubbles.”) I vaguely remember an interview in which Byron said he also made the album as a response to the “neo-classical” jazz leaders of the day (especially Wynton Marsalis) who, in the process of turning the Duke into a sacred figure, destroyed all of his fizz. (Marsalis and his Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra have since improved on his score.)

Yet Byron made, and still makes, a compelling case that this music is as intricate, appealing, in some ways primitive, in other ways amazingly sophisticated, as anything deserving our attention. It’s fast, wildly fun, and eye-blinkingly difficult—and Byron and his sextet kept it both airtight and raucously loose: an even harder combination to sustain. His band at the Standard was different from the one on the album, except for pianist Uri Caine (who has no peer at this sort of thing), yet they too were a top-notch crew (Rob DeBellis, reeds; Ralph Alessi, trumpet; Mark Helias, bass; Ben Wittman, drums), and they played with no shortage of vim.

Byron is the most virtuosic and versatile of jazz clarinetists, and the gig was part of a weeklong stay at the Standard—in celebration of his 50th birthday—featuring a different Byron-led band each night. He has rarely played Bug Music in public all these years, and I hope the full house and its rowdy cheers convinced him to do it some more.

Larry(Poor Audiophile)'s picture

The Flintstones lived in Bedrock. Oh well!Thanks for the info on Bug Music! BTW, I still don't care for the Beatles!

Jerry Garman's picture

Rock on, dude! This is a friggin great album. I wouldn't be surprised if I got because of you, so thank you very much. That you can see this stuff live at the Standard makes you a lucky man. My long dead grandmother was a partier and when I hear this music I think of her, and how such shared joy transcends time and makes for something we should all pursue.

pearl's picture

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