Feb 8, 2013
Dr. Donald Byrd, one of the great trumpet players to emerge in the post be-bop era of the 1950’s has died at his home in Delaware. He was 80 years old.
Byrd was born Donaldson Toussaint L'Ouverture Byrd II in Detroit in 1932 and began his career with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers in the 1950s, in a version that included Horace Silver and Hank Mobley. He appeared as a sideman on more than 50 albums over a ten year period beginning in 1955, recording with Sonny Rollins, Wes Montgomery, Stanley Turrentine, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and Sonny Clark. He became one of Blue Note Record’s most significant artists, releasing 9 albums as a leader between 1959 and 1961. His 1963 recording A New Perspective broke new ground by including a full gospel choir, and spawned a hit, “Cristo Redentor”.
While his roots were in bebop, he later became equally renowned for soul and funk, and particularly jazz fusion. His 1973 album Black Byrd became the label's biggest ever seller, and became a template for much of the fusion movement to follow.
He prized education above almost all else, and earned no less than two educational degrees, He received a Ph.D. in college teaching and administration from Columbia in 1971, and went on to become the chair of the Black Music Department of Howard University. A number of his students formed an R&B group called the Blackbyrds in his honor, and Byrd contributed a number of songs for their recordings. The group reached the Top 40 with their single “Walking in Rhythm” in 1975, earning a Grammy nomination.
Long after his commercial peak, Byrd's influence continued to be felt in popular music, as his work was routinely sampled by hip-hop artists, including Public Enemy.
This podcast is a salute to Dr. Byrd, and features music from a few of his memorable releases, including:
Art Blakey – “Infra-Rae” from Art Blakey with the Original Jazz Messengers. The final album from this edition of the Jazz Messengers kicked off with this Hank Mobley tune. The band was Blakey on drums, Doug Watkins on bass, Horace Silver on piano, Mobley on sax and Byrd on trumpet.
Donald Byrd – “Bitty Ditty” from Motor City Scene. Byrd returned to his Detroit roots with this 1960 recording, a version of a Thad Jones tune. The all Motor City session was co-led by baritone saxman Pepper Adams, and included Byrd on trumpet, Tommy Flanagan on piano, Louis Hayes on drums, Paul Chambers on bass, and Kenny Burrell on guitar.
Donald Byrd – “French Spice” from Free Form. One of Byrd’s finest Blue Note releases was this 1961 session with pre-Miles Davis appearances by Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. Butch Warren on bass and Billy Higgins on drums completed the band. It was Byrd who introduced Miles to the young Herbie Hancock, opening the door to their celebrated collaboration.
Donald Byrd – “Flight Time” from Black Byrd. Merging his hard bop and soul-jazz stylings with electric music, Byrd created a seminal fusion release in 1973. Playing electric trumpet like his pal Miles, Byrd joined forces with Fonce Mizell (trumpet and vocals), Allan Curtis Barnes (flute), Roger Glenn (sax), and a slew of young players who would go on to be household names in electric jazz, including Joe Sample, Dean Parks, Chuck Rainey, Wilton Felder and Harvey Mason.
Donald Byrd – “(Fallin’ Like) Dominoes” from Places and Spaces. My favorite electric Byrd release came in 1975, as he created a sound not unlike Earth, Wind & Fire with a tight rhythm section featuring Mason, Rainey, Mayuto Correa and the Mizell brothers. Not only did this top the jazz charts, but it reached number 6 on the R&B charts and the Top 50 on the Pop album charts. Hard to imagine a jazz album doing that today.