Some years ago, while jazz composer-cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum was at his day job at New York’s Creative Capital Foundation, he gazed up at a map of the United States and, remembering the 800-mile bike trip down the East Coast he and a friend had taken when he was 19, wondered: Wouldn’t it be fun to bike through some of those places on tour?
“The bike-tour model gives me a different connection to the reality of the places I’m playing,” Bynum says. “I meet people I’d never meet [otherwise]. And we can have a conversation that opens them up to check out music in a way that you’ll never get from 30 seconds on YouTube. It’s a way to proselytize for the work without having to compromise it.”
Now based in New Haven, Conn., Bynum has lately been living that fantasy, combining his love for jazz with his ardor for biking via his Acoustic Bike Tours, in which he bicycles on back roads from city to city, pocket cornet in his pannier, playing organized gigs with local ensembles and in more impromptu settings. And his onetime employer, Creative Capital, is helping fund the journeys. Bynum’s tour alights in Portland this week, courtesy of the Creative Music Guild and Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble, which has assembled a 12-member band to play music by Bynum and some of the city’s top young jazzers, including Ben Darwish, Thomas Barber and Douglas Detrick, the PJCE director who worked with Bynum running New York’s annual Festival of New Trumpet Music.
Bynum began playing jazz in high school in Boston when he was invited to sit in with a university big band, around the same time he heard Miles Davis’ landmark album In a Silent Way—and acquired the Trek hybrid that he rode until last year on all those long-distance tours. At Wesleyan University, Bynum studied with the great jazz saxophonist Anthony Braxton, whose music he now champions through a foundation that also supports musicians playing in the avant-jazz tradition represented by Braxton and his cohorts in Chicago’s legendary Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.
Bynum’s own virtuosic music extends that AACM tradition of unexpected interactions between composition and improvisation, with Braxton’s emphasis on timbre and musical color, which also explains Bynum’s preference for the cornet over the trumpet. Barely bigger than his cupped hands, the pocket cornet is also easier to tote the 50 miles or so per day he’s riding on this latest tour, which stretches from Vancouver, B.C., to Tijuana, Mexico, with stops in San Francisco, Oakland and other West Coast cities, including a climactic L.A. reunion with Braxton.
As he struggled to whip his nearly 40-year-old body back into long-distance biking shape via daily 30-mile training rides, the affable Bynum says that the tour affords him a way to connect with listeners who otherwise might never stumble across an avant-jazz performance. Solo bike touring offers another advantage not available when taking his sextet on the road: “Low overhead.”
Why not just bring the whole band? “My band loves me,” he laughs, “but they’re like, ‘I’m not getting on a bike!’”
SEE IT: Taylor Ho Bynum plays the Central Hotel, 8608 N Lombard St., with the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble, on Sunday, Sept. 7. 7 pm. $5 for students and seniors, $10 general admission.