On May 10, 1986, the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra learned a few things about improvisation when they met one of the masters, Jaki Byard.

Photo of Jaki Byard

Jaki Byard

Mark Harvey was a man of many facets. He started playing jazz music in Boston as soon as he arrived in 1969, led the Jazz Coalition from  its inception in 1971, directed the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra since its formation in 1973, and taught jazz studies at MIT from 1980. He was as close to the center of the small world that was Boston jazz in 1986 as a person could be.

Closer still to the center of jazz, not only in Boston but elsewhere, was Jaki Byard, who in the late 1940s and 1950s worked with every modern and progressive musician in Boston, from Sam Rivers to Charlie Mariano to Gig Gryce to Herb Pomeroy. Nat Hentoff called Jaki Byard “a pervasive influence on nearly every young Boston musician who was interested in discovering new jazz routes.” Then had come the years with Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, Booker Ervin, and Roland Kirk. In 1969 he returned to Boston and the New England Conservatory of Music at the invitation of Gunther Schuller.

And now Jaki Byard was going to be the guest performer with Aardvark in concert at the Kresge Auditorium as part of the MIT Faculty Series, and not only that, he was writing new music for the occasion, commissioned by the MIT Council for the Arts. It was Byard Meets the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra!

The concert would include three of Harvey’s own pieces (“Echoes,” “New England Sketches,” and  “Freedom Suite”), a second piece by Byard, “Two-Five-One,” and a Byard medley of solo piano, which Jaki would play immediately after the intermission. And there would be the centerpiece, Jaki’s “Concerto for Piano and Improvisers.” But Byard never delivered the music, and Aardvark could not rehearse it. All they had was the skeletal lead sheet and a bad case of nerves.

What happened in performance, Harvey has written, “was magical. Here was a master improviser and composer who had the courage to spin a lengthy piece out of thin air.” Byard built space for musicians to improvise and respond to each other as he moved through the ensemble, cueing the musicians and communicating dynamics. The conclusion was a collective improvisation played against Byard’s piano. It was a stunning success.

Harvey called this concert his first exposure to large group improvisation, which he gradually integrated into his own composer’s toolbox, and still employs with Aardvark’s music decades later.

No recording of this concert is available. However, Harvey and his NEC teacher Byard shared a love of Duke Ellington’s music, so here is Aardvark in 2007 with “Ellington Remembered.” The bonus is watching artist Bill Commerford, in a front-row seat, as he paints watercolors of the band.