In Memoriam: Donald Byrd

donald-byrd-650-430On February 4, 2013, Donaldson Toussaint L’Ouverture Byrd II, better known as Dr. Donald Byrd, died at the age of 80. A musical chameleon, Byrd easily withstood several decades of musical change with a bottomless pit of credits and managed to teach pupils past his prime as a trailblazing recording trumpeter.

Born in Detroit in 1932, Dr. Byrd, as he preferred to be called, successfully balanced his well-developed gift of music and education. One of his first breaks came as a student at Cass Technical High School filling in for “Mad” Lionel Hampton’s big band before a four- year run in the Air Force. Once he moved to the Big Apple in 1955, the Doctor found himself in the midst of a jazz evolution, becoming a major contributor alongside giants that included Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Max Roach, Thelonious Monk, and Eric Dolphy. It was his unique approach to technique and musical honesty that propelled Byrd into the forefront of the hard-bop jazz idiom. By the end of the decade, Byrd managed to perform on dozens of albums, either as sideman or leader. On the educational front, Byrd graduated from Wayne State University with his bachelors; he later garnered five postgraduate degrees, the first being a masters at the Manhattan School of Music.

Many would say that by the 1960s–thanks to many burgeoning commercially popular styles such as rock n roll and R&B–many of the jazz artists would either find themselves abandoning the styles they once had and adapting or finding themselves penniless and fairly obscure. Dr. Byrd, who had been signed with Blue Note Records since 1958, became innovative amidst exploration. Modifying the hard-bop harmonic structures and unabatedly intensifying the rhythm sections of his music, he consecutively churned out the funky “Royal Flush” (1961; introducing a young Herbie Hancock on piano), “Free Form” (1962), and the gospel-tinged “A New Perspective” (1963; featuring a gospel choir, Byrd described it as a “modern hymnal”).

By the 1970s, he found even more success by trading in hard bop for jazz-fusion, proto-disco and R&B, incorporating electronic instruments, teaming up with Larry and Fonce Mizell (who studied under Byrd at Howard University), and breaking through with 1973’s Black Byrd. This fusion album, while met with frowns from jazz purists, quickly became Blue Note’s biggest seller for 29 years (this record was broken by Norah Jones’ smooth jazz Blue Note debut Come Away With Me in 2001), and finally gave a voice to Byrd’s brand of fusion, which was stifled under the widely popular works of Miles Davis.

It’s a must mention that his records from this period, “Street Lady” (1973), “Stepping Into Tomorrow” (1974), and the ever popular “Places and Spaces” (1975), are considered landmarks and among the most sampled records in the history of hip-hop.

During this period, Byrd formed the Blackbyrds, scoring major soul-jazz fusion hits in the 70s such as “Walking in Rhythm,”  ”Rock Creek Park,” and “Mysterious Vibes.” Shortly thereafter, The funk band NCCU, short for New Central Connection Unlimited, was formed, as well as the 125th Street NYC Band with the timeless disco/garage classic “Love Has Come Around,” which was released in 1981. These three bands were comprised of Dr. Byrd’s students from some of his courses at the different colleges where he taught music, including Rutgers University, the Hampton Institute, New York University, Queens College, Oberlin College, Howard University, Cornell University, North Carolina Central University and Delaware State University.

While the cause of death has not been revealed, famed jazz pianist and nephew of Dr. Byrd, Alex Bugnon, broke the unfortunate news to the world via Facebook after rumors circulated over his uncle’s death. He stated, ”Let’s remember Donald as a one-of-a-kind pioneer of the trumpet, of the many styles of music he took on, of music education. In sum, Donald was an avid, eternal student of music until his death. That’s what I try to be, everyday!!”

From the legions of jazz aficionados, artists, beat makers, and the like, we may mourn the huge loss of one of the world’s most accomplished pioneers in all of music, but Dr. Donald Byrd will live on through those who will never forget his impact and true lyricism which shone from record side to record side.

–Nick Puzo

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