From my earliest recollections, I have been consumed with this love of creating and participating in the pursuit of music making.
Byron Olson grew up in Maywood, IL, a suburb of Chicago. His childhood memories are a kaleidoscope of singing, dancing, and playing instruments with family. Many of Olson’s relatives, immigrants from Sweden and Finland, were active in the musical community; his uncle Mack was a skilled stride piano player, and his parents both sang in a regionally recognized gospel group. They encouraged their son to embrace performing as well. By the age of two, Olson was singing solos in church. At age five, he started taking accordion lessons, and playing duets with his dad at churches and missions in the Chicago area. He soon decided he wanted to spend his life making music, a decision his father supported.
By the time Olson enrolled in junior high school, he was playing at weddings and social functions with other musicians, many of whom were adults. At the same time, he began listening to jazz piano players, which led to piano and theory lessons.
All throughout high school, Olson’s interest in jazz deepened, and he started playing gigs in nightclubs on weekends—carving out a niche in the Chicago area. Nevertheless, he was still underage, and often wore a fake mustache to appear older to his employers. His disguise wore thin at one point though, when, halfway through playing a set, his mustache started dangling from his face. The club owner laughed and said, “When you get a little older, come back and I’ll give you the job.”
After high school, he continued his formal training at the elite Berklee School of Music in Boston, and later moved back to Chicago to study at Sherwood Music School. He also took lessons with renowned jazz pianist Oscar Peterson. His love for all types of music began to deepen, and he started studying orchestral and film music, impressionism, and 20th century classical music.
Then Hollywood came knocking—in the form of successful singer and pianist Danny Long, a Chi-Town native living in Los Angeles. Long encouraged Olson and his colleagues in the Mitchell Roberts Trio (drummer Bob Mitchell and bassist Chuck Domanico) to move to California. They soon agreed.
ON THE ROAD:
The group began playing together in Los Angeles, but it wasn’t long before they were branching out on their own. Olson played rehearsal piano for various productions. These include working with Donald O’Connor (“Singing in the Rain”) and choreographer David Winters (who sang and danced in “West Side Story”), and many others. He began receiving recognition in the Los Angeles area, and at jazz clubs like The Half Note in NYC and Marty’s Jazz Room in Boston, for his original and sensitive piano playing. His name grew, and he was sought after as an accompanist and conductor/music director for various vocalists, with whom he toured internationally. These artists included teen idol Frankie Avalon, jazz great June Christy, recording artist Johnny Mathis, the legendary Miss Peggy Lee, Trini Lopez, Fran Jeffries and Tommy Leonetti.
While home in California, he also played piano on studio recordings, and began composing and arranging music. To date, he has written recording arrangements for many great artists, including vocalists Johnny Mathis, Placido Domingo, Jack Jones, Dawn Upshaw, Marlena Shaw, Dionne Warwick jazz tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, and jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis. His highly impressionist and visual arrangement of “Everything Must Change” for singer/songwriter Benard Ighner was nominated for a Grammy.
OLSON ON WRITING AN ARRANGEMENT:
To me, arranging and composing are two sides of the same coin. Writing an arrangement is composing. You’re working with a given melody or theme and then creating everything around it. However, that doesn’t restrict you from adding your own musical ideas by creating the introduction, interludes, endings, and rhythmical devices that will enhance the basic theme. When writing for a singer, the lyrics are the central point of suggesting what an arrangement will be about, creating an aesthetic that will enhance the words and melody through musical and orchestral colors. This brings a deeper meaning and visual aspect for the singer and the song. I like to think that I’m painting pictures with sounds. For example in the arrangement “Me and My Shadow” for vocalist Linda Eder, from her album on Angel/EMI “All By Myself,” I tried to create the feeling of mystery—of the shadow following her “down the street,” and “up the stairs”. When composing or arranging, I always have a visual aspect through a title or words which I try to convey to the listener.
Olson’s great passion is the merging of classical and jazz. This led him to write a work for jazz piano and orchestra for pianist Mike Lang, which premiered at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. The premiere of “Nardis” at Carnegie Hall, written for jazz trumpeter Randy Brecker and chamber ensemble “Music Amici,” also led to two groundbreaking albums of his own—which blend classical chamber ensemble and jazz soloists: “Sketches of Miles” and “Sketches of Coltrane” on Angel/EMI records. These are two tribute albums to two great artists, but Olson has made this music very much his own. This music brings a whole new audience of classical and jazz music lovers together through its beauty, excitement, and originality.
Now living in New York, this is what he continues to do today. He has worked in many genres: from writing jingles, to orchestrating movies and theatrical productions, to working in the recording industry with instrumental and vocal artists. He has recorded five of his own albums on the Manhattan/EMI, and Angel/EMI labels. His credits include jazz, choral, chamber and orchestral music.
Olson has conducted and played piano on many recordings. His musical spectrum is vast. He is a highly versatile artist. Currently, he has teamed up with producer John Vanore and French horn virtuoso Adam Unsworth on a project for jazz quintet and chamber orchestra. Byron continues to be a lifelong student of music. He spends every day at the piano working on his craft, listening to music and studying scores. He says:
Just when you think you’ve conquered something, you realize how much you have to learn, and you begin all over again. My goal is to continue writing and recording. The greatest joy I have found throughout my life is creating music, having great musicians play it and being able to share it with all. I am very thankful for this great blessing.