I was saddened Monday to learn of the death of jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd at the age of 80. He was an all time jazz great by any standards. I became an avid Byrd listener a decade ago when I discovered the treasure trove of hard bop jazz recordings made by the Blue Note label in the 50’s and 60’s. Byrd was an early member of the pioneer hard bop ensemble Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. I will always owe a debt of gratitude to my former colleague Burt Shapiro for recommending that I explore the recordings of Art Blakey. Virtually every musician who performed with drummer and bandleader Blakey from the 50’s through the 70’s became a superstar as both performer and composer. Even a partial list reads like a litany of jazz royalty: in addition to Donald Byrd, trumpeters Kenny Dorham and Lee Morgan, pianists Horace Silver, Bobby Timmons (composer of the classic “Moanin'”), and Cedar Walton, saxophonists Wayne Shorter, Hank Mobley, and Jackie McLean, and in later years Wynton and Branford Marsalis. Donald Byrd also performed with my two favorite jazz musicians, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane.
But from the early 60’s on, like all Art Blakey alumni, he fronted his own recordings with his own compositions. One early recording called “Royal Flush” was made in September 1961 by the legendary recording engineer Rudy van Gelder (who among his seemingly countless sessions recorded John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”). “Royal Flush” featured one of the first recorded appearances by pianist Herbie Hancock, then 21 years old. In Byrd’s amazing composition “Shangra-La”, the musicians are in constant syncopation, playing offbeats against each other with casual nonchalence. Also on “Royal Flush” we hear baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams, with whom Donald Byrd arguably made his greatest recordings.
The “All Music Guide to Jazz” refers to Byrd’s performances during the 60’s as “the ever maturing style of Donald Byrd”. I have to laugh, having enjoyed many of Byrd’s performances from the 50’s, that these must be “the immature style of Donald Byrd.” But as exciting as he was early on with his flurries of notes and incisive rhythms, it is during these 60’s recordings that he got “inside” the notes, and comfortably and assuredly so. A single sustained note could go through subtle transformations in volume and shading. It was as if he did not need to prove anything and was simply making beautiful music. His technique was awesome.
But Byrd had a completely new career in the 1970’s, when he became one of the pioneers of jazz fusion. Overnight, electric guitars, synthesizers and funk percussion became part of jazz. Many old school purists denigrated this music as a “sell out” and inferior. But fusion created a larger audience for jazz among the younger generation, with many albums crossing over to the pop charts. Herbie Hancock’s “Head Hunters” was a million seller. Listening to this music today, it seems as complex and challenging as traditional jazz, just a different sound. As jazz scholar Gary Giddens recently admitted, he was wrong in the 70’s to give bad reviews to Miles Davis’ fusion recordings. Giddens said, “A forty-five minute modal jam. Some sell out!” I must admit, however, although over the years I have heard the fusion recordings of Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard, and Weather Report, I managed to miss the fusion recordings of Donald Byrd (or at least wasn’t paying attention forty years ago at college when someone was playing “Black Byrd”). His obituaries indicate this is the music for which he is most remembered today, although it is his earlier acoustic music for which I remember him. The “All Music Guide” bears out this dichotomy among Donald Byrd’s fans, saying the music you consider his greatest depends on when you were listening. It could be either his early hard bop Blue Note recordings or his 70’s fusion bestsellers (the biggest in Blue Note’s history, I am told).
And in yet another career, Byrd (who received a doctorate from Columbia University) became one of the first jazz professors in the country (his actual degree was in law). He founded the jazz department at Howard University, and taught at various colleges and universities. One of these schools was the University of Delaware in Newark. Indeed, I found out this week that Donald Byrd lived at least part of the year in Dover, Delaware, and died there. As a child, I paid many visits to Dover. I never met the man, but who knows? Perhaps Donald Byrd was a WBJC listener. Back when WBJC had a jazz segment, he may even have been interviewed here, as were many jazz musicians at that time.
My wife and I have been falling asleep to jazz recordings every night for the past decade (and we usually listen to the whole recording again upon awakening). Considering the vast number of recordings we have with Donald Byrd, we may well have heard him over half the days in the decade. Truly a major presence in our lives. Sadly, I knew this day would come, and that none of the jazz giants from the 50’s and 60’s will live forever. (Although saxophonist Sonny Rollins who is still performing after sixty-four years seems to be giving it a shot!) But what an incredible legacy these American artists have given us, and what an honor to have had them living in our midst.
Art Blakey, Blue Note records, Donald Byrd, hard bop, jazz, jazz education, jazz fusion