In 1969, Gunther Schuller hired pianist/composer/arranger Jaki Byard (1922–1999) as a charter faculty member to create NEC's jazz studies program, then called Afro-American Music. In his more than 15 years at NEC, Byard taught arranging and improvisation and led the Apollo Stompers, a big band composed of NEC students. The Stompers played for years every Wednesday night at Michael’s Pub on Gainsborough Street, in addition to performing on campus. Byard’s unique blend of historical awareness and creativity continue to influence NEC’s jazz curriculum to this day.
Writing in 1972, Doug Ramsey described Byard's pedagogy: "His students … are being inculcated with Byard's respect for the giants of jazz piano. The young people are already accomplished pianists. Jaki's aim is to show them what he has learned in his 42 years at the keyboard … He gives each student a classic ragtime piece to play. He asks him to compose rag in that style and another in the student's own style. And he has them study and emulate the recordings of [Earl] Hines, [Fats] Waller, Art Tatum, James P. Johnson, and Bud Powell, among others … most of the students who come to Byard, although they have been awash in music since they were small children, have never heard these towering figures in American music."
Jaki Byard was born in Worcester, Mass., on June 15, 1922, into a family of musicians. His father played trumpet and trombone in marching bands, and his mother played the piano for the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. His maternal grandmother played the piano for silent movies. Although Byard’s primary instrument was piano, he was also recorded playing drums, celeste, vibraphone, guitar, and both alto and tenor saxophones.
During World War II, Byard was drafted into the U.S. Army, where he met Earl Bostic, with whom he toured after the war. Later, he was a member of the bands of Herb Pomeroy (1952–1955, recording in 1957) and Maynard Ferguson (1959–1962). Byard recorded extensively with Charles Mingus (1962–1964 and 1970), touring Europe with him in 1964.
He contributed to Mingus’s landmark recordings Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963) and Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus (1963). He also made important recordings as a sideman with Eric Dolphy, Booker Ervin, and Sam Rivers. As a leader, he recorded a series of critically acclaimed recordings for the Prestige label during the 1960s: Here’s Jaki (1961), Out Front (1961), Hi-Fly (1962), Freedom Together (1966), Sunshine of My Soul (1967), and The Jaki Byard Experience (1968). Jaki Byard also made numerous recordings for solo piano.