Don Byron

Don Byron

Grammy-nominated clarinetist, saxophonist, composer, arranger

Visiting Professor 2007-2008

Hosted by the Music and Theater Arts Department

Don Byron is a Grammy-nominated clarinetist, saxophonist, composer, arranger.


Don Byron is a Grammy-nominated clarinetist, saxophonist, composer, arranger, and social critic who redefines every genre of music he plays: classical, salsa, hip-hop, funk, rap, R&B, klezmer music and German lieder, Raymond Scott's "cartoon-jazz," hard rock/metal, and jazz styles from swing and bop to cutting-edge downtown improvisation. Most of Byron's albums have been conceptual, devoted to works of a particular musician and/or style of music. Though rooted in jazz, Byron has been a singular voice in an astounding range of musical contexts, exploring widely divergent traditions while continually striving for what he calls "a sound above genre". 

Born and raised in the Bronx, New York, Byron was exposed to a wide variety of music by his father, who played bass in calypso bands, and his mother, a pianist. His taste was further refined by trips to the symphony and ballet and by many hours spent listening to Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Machito recordings. He formalized his music education by studying classical clarinet with Joe Allard while playing and arranging salsa numbers for high school bands on the side. He later studied with George Russell in the Third Stream Department of the New England Conservatory of Music and, while in Boston, also performed with Latin and jazz ensembles.

His artistic collaborations include performances and recordings with Mario Bauza, the Duke Ellington Orchestra, John Hicks, Tom Cora, Bill Frisell, Vernon Reid, Marc Ribot, Cassandra Wilson, Hamiet Bluiett, Anthony Braxton, Geri Allen, Hal Willner, Marilyn Crispell, Reggie Workman, Craig Harris,  David Murray, Leroy Jenkins, Bobby Previte, Gerry Hemingway, DD Jackson, Douglas Ewart, Brandon Ross,  Ed Neumeister, Tom Pierson, Steve Coleman, Living Colour, Ralph Peterson, Uri Caine, Mandy Patinkin, Steve Lacy, the Kansas City All-Stars, the Bang On A Can All-Stars, Medeski Martin & Wood, Angelique Kidjo, Carole King, Daniel Barenboim, Salif Keita, the Atlanta Symphony, Klangforum Wien, Joe Henry, Paul Auster, Meshell Ndegeocello, Allen Toussaint, and many others.

Byron has taken part in an extraordinarily wide range of projects. From 1996-99, he served as Artistic Director of Jazz at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where he curated a concert series for the Next Wave Festival and premiered his children’s show, "Bug Music for Juniors" (formerly "Tunes and ‘Toons"). From  2000-05, he was Artist-in-Residence at New York’s Symphony Space, where he established is Adventurers Orchestra through another concert series titled "Contrasting Brilliance," featuring his takes on music as diverse as Henry Mancini, Sly Stone, the pioneering hip-hop label Sugar Hill Records, Igor Stravinsky, Raymond Scott, Herb Alpert and Earth, Wind and Fire.

Byron has written arrangements of Stephen Sondheim's Broadway musicals and original scores for the silent film Scar of Shame and a 1961 television episode by comedy pioneer Ernie Kovacs. He wrote and performed music for the dance companies of Donald Byrd, Bebe Miller, Mark Dendy, and Ellen Sinopoli, and was featured in Robert Altman's movie Kansas City and the Paul Auster filmLulu on the Bridge. He has composed the soundtracks for several documentary films, including director Joel Katz's acclaimed Strange Fruit about the history of the anti-lynching song made famous by Billie Holiday, and for Red-Tailed Angels, a film about the Tuskegee Airmen. Other soundtracks are "White," a study of race and child adoption, and "Joe Papp in Five Acts," a tribute to New York's iconic theater impresario. Composing commissions include "Spin," a duet for violin and piano premiered at the Library of Congress; "Red," a big-band suite premiered at the Monterey Jazz Festival; two string quartets - "There Goes the Neighborhood" for Kronos, and "Four Thoughts on Marvin Gaye" for Ethel. 

The album Ivey-Divey received a Grammy nomination for best instrumental solo and was voted Album of the Year 2004 by Jazz Times Magazine. In 2007, Byron was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and a United States Artists Prudential Fellowship. In 2009, he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for composition for his "7 Etudes for Piano" and won The Samuel Baber Rome Prize for Composition, which came with a one-year residency at the American Academy in Rome, where he began work on his first opera. In April 2012, joining the First Class of Doris Duke Artists, Don Byron received the Duke Performing Artist Award.

Also a gifted teacher, Byron has led residencies at the University of California San Diego, the University of Nevada Reno, Harvard University, and Columbia University. From 2005-2009, he was a Visiting Associate Professor at SUNY- Albany, where he taught theory, saxophone, improvisation, and composition.

Byron is well known at MIT. During a visit in March 2005 he performed with poet Paul Auster and the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble in a program titled, "Words and Music and Other Sonic Collaborations". In 2007-08, he was hosted by the Music and Theater Arts Department as a 2007-08 MLK Visiting Professor during which he taught a course on improvisation and coach a rock/funk chamber ensemble, as well as performed with faculty and students. Four years later, he returned to the Institute in a series of three visits as a 2012-13 Visiting Artist through Arts at MIT and the Music and Theater Arts Department. Byron worked closely with students from the Boston Arts Academy to present a gospel concert with his own New Gospel Quintet; the MIT Wind Ensemble, conducted by Fred Harris, premiered a concerto written by Byron with a clarinet solo by Kenan Sahin and Distinguished Professor of Music Evan Ziporyn.



NPR's Fresh Air: Clarinetist and Composer Don Byron

2012 Interview with Terry Gross



CAST 2020-21 Virtual Visiting Artist

Don Byron with MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble, November 2020


MIT Visiting Artists Program 2013

The clip below profiles 2007-08 MLK Visiting Professor Don Byron during his 2012-2013 return to the Institute through the MIT Visiting Artists Program and the Music and Theater Arts Department (Courtesy: Arts at MIT)


MIT Spotlight, 19 Oct 2012


“Joe Btfsplk,” 7 Mar 2008

Donald Byron looks on as Daniel E. Bickerstaff ’10 plays a guitar solo during Byron’s own “Joe Btfsplk.” The Festival Jazz Ensemble presented “Don Byron’s Musical Worlds Part 1” this past Friday, March 7 in Kresge Auditorium. Byron, an MLK Visiting Professor as well as a Grammy-nominated composer and clarinetist, played the saxophone and the clarinet while directing part of the concert, 7 March 2016. Photo: Omari Stephens, The Tech