Mar 1, 2013

Donaldson Toussaint L'Ouverture Byrd II, known as Donald Byrd, passed away February 4, 2013 at the age of eighty. Byrd was a superb trumpet player whose music spanned a period of some five deacdes. After playing with Lionel Hampton before finishing high school and service in the United States Air Force, Byrd completed his bachelor's degree in music at Wayne State University in 1954 and moved to New York in 1955 to get his master's at the Manhattan School of Music. He joined Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers as a replacement for the iconic Clifford Brown in the mid-fifties and rapidly rose to stature in the jazz community. Byrd, whose father was a Methodist Minister and amateur musician, had a warm, concise and soulful tone to his playing, imbued with the spirit of gospel music.

Byrd began to record prolifically during the fifties, and with a number of the prominet names in jazz at the time including John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Red Garland and Gigi Bryce's Jazz Lab Quintet. One of Byrd's finest groups was that co-led with baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams during the 1958-1961 period. Live and studio dates of this group stand among the classics of that, or any, era. Thereafter Byrd recorded a number of excellent albums for the Blue Note label that ran the gamut from fiery hard-bop to soul-inspired pieces. The popular album “A New Perspective” featured voices and exhibited the influence of the church in his music.

Following a number of popular albums through the 1960s, Byrd recorded Fancy Free in 1969, concurrent with the movement of the music into the jazz fusion bag. Electric Byrd and Ethiopian Nights followed during the early 70s, however, Byrd's music was unique from that being played by the Miles Davis group of that time in that Byrd seemed to favor a more arranged and coherent style of playing, while yet exploring different rhythms, percussive influences and modes. He then moved toward funk and groove-oriented music with mid-seventies albums such as Black Byrd and Street Lady that were best sellers in their time.

In the early 1960s Byrd did groundbreaking work in the education field, introducing jazz courses which were until then virtually unknown at many US Universities and Conservatories. Herbie Hancock, a frequent recording companion, said of Byrd, “He was the first person to let me be a permanent member of an internationally known band. He has always nurtured and encouraged young musicians. He's a born educator, it seems to be in his blood, and he really tried to encourage the development of creativity." Byrd was also influential in urging Hancock to accept Miles Davis's offer to join the quintet, that proved to be a pivotal carrer move for Hancock.

Later in his career, Byrd's albums often featuring members of his classes. He taught at the Hampton Institute, New York University, Howard University, Queens College, Oberlin College, Cornell University, North Carolina Central University and, lastly, Delaware State University at the time of his passing. In addition to his master's from Manhattan School of Music, Byrd had two master's degrees from Columbia University. He received a law degree from Rutgers University in 1976, and his doctorate from Columbia University Teachers College in 1982.

As the thrust of jazz music returned to an acoustic setting, Byrd again recorded some excellent straight ahead albums during the late 1980s and 1990s for the Landmark label, among them "Harlem Blues", "Getting Down To Business" and "A City Called Heaven". We bid a fond farewell to a fine musician and educator who fortunaetely has left an excellent recorded legacy for us to enjoy.

Selected Donald Byrd discography: (Blue Note Records except as indicated):

Off to the Races (1959)

Byrd in Hand (1959)

Fuego (1959)

Byrd in Flight (1960)

At the Half Note Cafe (1960)

Motor City Scene (1960) with Pepper Adams – Bethlehem Records

Chant (1961)

The Cat Walk (1961)

Royal Flush (1961)

Free Form (1961)

Out Of This World (1961) with Pepper Adams – Fresh Sound Records (originally Warwick LP label)

A New Perspective (1963)

Mustang (1966)

Blackjack (1967)

Slow Drag (1967)

The Creeper (1967)

Fancy Free (1969)

Electric Byrd (1969–70)

Ethiopian Knights (1971)

Harlem Blues (1987) – Landmark Records

Getting Down to Business (1989) – Landmark Records

A City Called Heaven (1991) – Landmark Records

(Donald Byrd image: Landmark Records)