Jaki Byard’sWeber piano was at his home in Queens, New York, where the acclaimed Worcester-born jazz composer, arranger, bandleader, educator and musician would often sit down and play.
“It was the one that he had. It was his piano,” recalled his daughter, Diane Byard, who lived with her father in his final years. “One of our best memories of my father was at Christmastime and him playing that piano for us.”
Diane Byard moved a few times after her father’s tragic death in 1999 at 76, and her father’s piano was subsequently donated in 2008 to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, where Jaki Byard had been a faculty member. The gift was a loan to NEC with the understanding that Diane Byard could take possession of the piano again, she said.
But when she inquired about the piano last September, she received some shocking news:
The piano has been missing from NEC since 2010.
“It threw me for a loop. I was never informed,” Diane Byard said during a telephone interview from Virginia, where she now lives. She said she started getting upset when she was told. “I know that doesn’t help anything. That’s why I’m very positive when I talk to the school. But that’s my dad. It’s his piano. It has sentimental value to me.”
She said she had inquired about the piano because her 15-year-old granddaughter is showing proficiency as a pianist and she thought if the instrument was returned she could take lessons on it and appreciate the instrument’s significance to her.
“We are grateful for the gift NEC received from the Byard family and regret that we are unable to locate the piano that was removed from service around 2010,” wrote Ben Sosland, NEC provost and dean of the faculty, in an email last month in response to a reporter’s inquiry about the piano. “Since 2018, NEC has maintained a detailed piano inventory to ensure the ability to account for all pianos,” Sosland added. He enclosed a background on the piano’s history at NEC and the new steps in place for piano inventory.
The background includes: “A receipt confirming the donation was mailed to Diane Byard on February 27, 2008, by Laurie LaMothe, NEC’s executive director of development at the time.
“The Byard piano was assessed as in unplayable condition in 2009 and appears to have been removed from service by the director of piano services between 2009 and 2010.
“Both employees involved in these decisions left NEC many years ago.
“Unfortunately, there is no further record of this piano and therefore we are unable to be more specific about the removal of the piano from service.”
Diane Byard said she spoke with New England Conservatory President Andrea E. Kalyn in October. She doesn’t blame the current administration. Kalyn began her tenure as NEC president in 2019. “She was very nice and not much help because she doesn’t have a clue (what happened to the piano),” she said.
An undated photo shows NEC Jazz faculty member Jaki Byard conducting a rehearsal in Jordan Hall.
Kalyn wrote an email to Diane Byard in December.
“Since we spoke, NEC completed an exhaustive search of its records and files regarding the piano,” Kalyn said.
She gave the same background as Sosland provided: “We can verify that a receipt was mailed to you acknowledging the donation on Feb. 27, 2008, by the executive director of development at the time. Sometime between 2009 and 2010, the director of piano services assessed the piano as in unusable condition … it appears the piano was removed from service around 2010. Unfortunately, we have no further details or records about the instrument, and therefore are unable to be more specific regarding its removal,” Kalyn said.
“That was a very disturbing email from NEC and Miss Kalyn,” Diane Byard said. She still has a number of questions concerning the piano. First, “what happened to it? That’s the question. (The email) Still doesn’t say where it went.”
With her moves after her father’s death, she was unable to keep the instrument herself at the time and first loaned it to one of Jaki Byard’s former students, Morgan Kelsey.
When Kelsey could no longer keep the instrument, it was agreed that the piano would go to NEC, she said.
“I just don’t understand why they say it was ‘unplayable,'” she said. ”This is pretty irresponsible and unprofessional on the school’s part. I should have been made aware by someone, anyone, that they didn’t think, or feel it was good enough to be used there,” she said. “To my knowledge, it was very ‘playable’ when it was sent.”
Furthermore, “if the school got rid of it, wouldn’t there be a record of who came and picked it up? Pretty big instrument to just disappear,” she said.
“It shouldn’t have happened the way it did. I feel disrespected, and if you’re disrespecting me you’re disrespecting his memory.”
She attended a tribute to her father few years ago at NEC in Boston. While she enjoyed and appreciated the concert, no one mentioned the piano to her at that event, she said. She didn’t expect to see the instrument on the stage, and assumed it was in a hall where students practice.
“I was actually at the school tribute. I gave music scores to them. That’s probably something else I shouldn’t have done,” she said.
But she also added that she is grateful for Kalyn’s “efforts to dig into and uncover what she ultimately did find out” in spite of what she called the poor-detailed record keeping of the prior administration.
“So in essence, all I’m really hoping from this is if anybody has any ‘other’ knowledge or information as to where it went, and/or where it was sent? That’s all I really want and need to know,” she said.
NEC put on another concert, “The Music of Jaki Byard,” on March 3, 2022, at Jordan Hall featuring the New England Conservatory Jazz Orchestra in a celebration of Byard’s centennial.
Diane Byard said she was graciously invited but did not attend in person and instead watched a digital broadcast.
“It was a nice broadcast concert. Bittersweet for me though (as only I would know) because he very often said that he’d ‘like to live to be 100’! ”
John Arthur “Jaki” Byard Jr. (1922-1999) grew up in the Laurel-Clayton area of Worcester (now mostly Plumley Village), one of the city’s main two Black neighborhoods at the time.
As David “Chet” Williamson Sneade (former arts and entertainment editor of Worcester Magazine as Chet Williamson) details in his biography “Falling Rains of Life: The Jaki Byard Story,” Byard and some of his friends started one of the first musician-run jazz collectives in the country, the Saxtrum Club, which was first at Glen and Clayton streets in Worcester. The club’s reputation would spread and it would become a frequent stop for top musicians of the day.
Later, his career as a musician included playing with Earl Bostic, Herb Pomeroy and Maynard Ferguson, and a legendary turn with the Charles Mingus band. His composition “Aluminum Baby” was the most requested number performed by Herb Pomeroy’s big band. Other Byard compositions and arrangements included “Spanish Tinge” and “Up Jumps One.” As a pianist and in-demand recording artist, Byard was so well regarded that he was asked to take over piano duties for Duke Ellington when he became too ill to lead his orchestra.
Beginning in the early 1960s he recorded as a soloist. His big band the Apollo Stompers was initially composed of Byard’s students in the mid-’70s. He later put together another band by the same name featuring musicians he knew in New York City.
Byard was a cornerstone of the original Afro-American Music and Jazz Studies Department founded in 1969 at NEC as it became the first American conservatory to offer a jazz degree. Byard also taught at the Hartt School of Music in Hartford, Connecticut, the Manhattan School of Music, the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music and others.
Byard often returned to Worcester to perform. His last concert here, a few months before his death, was in the Just Jazz Series at the former Foothills Theatre in 1998.
His death remains a specter and a mystery. He was murdered in his home in Queens on Feb. 11, 1999, by a gunshot to the head. Byard, who was widowed, had a son, Gerald, and two daughters, Diane and Denise. He shared his home in Queens with his two daughters at the time he was murdered. He was last seen in the home at about 6 p.m. Feb. 11. Around 11:30 p.m., Denise’s son, Emil, returned from a night out with friends to find the front door open and his grandfather’s body on the couch. The case was ruled a homicide and remains unsolved.
Diane Byard said she had been “back and forth” with New York City police detectives but after Covid in 2020 she stopped hearing anything.
“It’s been a long road. I was just like, let it be solved before I exit this world.”
Jaki Byard was “a nice person, a very intelligent man,” his daughter said.
She accompanied him on some of his family trips back to Worcester when she was a child. “I would love to just see the streets where they walked,” she said.
“I still listen to his music and it never leaves my heart.”