Jazz ambassadors

Chris Byars Quartet. Submitted photo.

Chris Byars Quartet brings quintessentially American music to Amp tonight

Suzi Starheim | Staff Writer


Five jazz ambassadors will make their first appearance tonight at Chautauqua Institution.

The Chris Byars Quartet, with special guest Zaid Nasser, will perform for the Amphitheater audience from 8:15 p.m. to 9:45 p.m.

The members of the group include Chris Byars (tenor saxophone), Ari Roland (bass), Stefan Schatz (drums), John Mosca (trombone) and special guest Nasser (alto saxophone).

While Byars said the group’s members have been performing together since 1986, it was in 2007 that they became widely known. The quartet was selected to participate in “The Rhythm Road: American Music Abroad” tour.

“The Rhythm Road” is produced by Jazz at Lincoln Center and the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

The program was launched in 2005, and each year, American quartets that play American music forms such as jazz, blues, bluegrass, Cajun, country, gospel and hip-hop are selected to travel overseas as American music ambassadors.

The goal of “The Rhythm Road” is “to share America’s unique contribution to the world of music and to promote cross-cultural understanding and exchange among nations worldwide,” according to its website.

Tonight’s performers fit into that description because of their authentic tie to American jazz.

“We are all the longtime associates of the New York City jazz scene,” Byars said. “It’s a big town, but when something is important to you, you tend to meet people that it’s important to also.”

The quartet often plays shows at Smalls Jazz Club in New York City.

Over the course of the last four years with “The Rhythm Road” program, the quartet has participated in cultural and musical programs all over the world, spanning more than 40 countries across North Africa, the Middle East, Central Europe and Southeast Asia. Byars said the quartet’s fourth trip begins this November, and the group will be traveling to Western Africa.

In addition to being now four-time “The Rhythm Road” participants, they also have been awarded grants for “American Jazz in Syria” and the “Jazz Futures Bicommunal Workshop.”

Tonight, the members of the quartet will share the music, images and stories from their last four years of traveling to demonstrate to audiences how music can help people all over the world overcome political and social differences.

“For Chautauqua, we’re going to be giving a lot of examples of music from around the world that we’ve adapted to jazz style as a way to become artistically connected to the world,” Byars said. “I know a lot of people are concerned with America’s relations with the rest of the world, and what we’re showing in this concert is the way that we can start to build better trust and cooperation for the challenges that are to come.”

Chautauquan Elaine Machleder has seen the quartet perform many times. She is Schatz’s mother-in-law and said she thinks what this musical group is doing is very beneficial in America and abroad.

“I think jazz is very American and is a way for people to get to know America and have good feelings about America,” Machleder said. “I think there are local jazz musicians in these countries — even though it’s an American art form — and it’s a way for them to connect to America. They probably forge personal relationships with the musicians.”

She remembers a performance this past December  in which the group displayed images of the places they’d been while discussing and playing the music they are so passionate about.

“I thought it would be a perfect show for Chautauqua, because people are interested in foreign affairs and the Middle East,” Machleder said. “I think they really believe in this, what they’re doing.”

While the group has been performing a lot throughout the past four years, Byars said the group travels overseas so much that he wants Americans finally to get a sense of what the quartet does.

“We’ve been really wanting to bring this home to the U.S., because we do so much work overseas,” Byars said. “We really feel like people in the U.S. don’t know what we’re doing, and we’re trying to strengthen this end of the global connection, too. I think American audiences deserve to feel good about jazz, because it’s part of our cultural heritage.”