By February 9, 2013 0 Comments Read More →

Donald Byrd dead, like jazz, at 80.


Detroit-bred trumpeter Donald Byrd, one of the leading figures in 1950’s jazz, and a prominent participant in pop music and academia in the years after that, has died at the age of 80. The Detroit Free Press ran one of the more lengthy obits yesterday. Read it here.

In contrast to the esteem in which his his early career is held, Byrd eventually became a divisive figure. Following a career arc that in many ways mirrored that of Miles Davis, Byrd left behind the hard bop that made him a revered jazz star by 1960, slowly working his way through a transition to funk-based pop by the early 1970’s. His output as a sideman in the mid-’50’s, first as Clifford Brown’s trumpet chair replacement with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, and later with Horace Silver, established Byrd as one of just a few elite contemporary trumpet voices in the East Coast jazz scene. Talked about in the same conversations as Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard, Byrd pursued a soulful melodic approach through enviable chops and a buttery, fat tone not unlike that of his rivals.

After becoming a leader in 1959, Byrd worked with a group featuring fellow Detroiters Pepper Adams on baritone sax, Doug Watkins on bass, and later Frank Foster on tenor. He was also a frequent collaborator with other Detroit artists, such as guitarist Kenny Burrell and lesser-known players like Allan Barnes (one of our local favorites here). Byrd eventually played and recorded with most of the leading jazz artists of the 1950’s and ’60’s, such as Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Wes Montgomery, Hank Mobley and many, many others.

In the late 1960’s Byrd, like Miles Davis, began experimenting with electric instrumentation and soul, funk and rock arrangements. Even as his sound evolved, he stayed at least marginally connected to his jazz roots, both through personnel like Foster, Harold Land and members of the Jazz Crusaders, and through his sense of adventure. Any controversy generated by his transition into what became called “fusion” paled in comparison to that generated by the release of his 1973 album, “Blackbyrd”. Unlike Davis, who never completely drifted into pop music, despite being deeply influenced by it over the last 25 years of his career, “Blackbyrd” was unabashedly non-jazz in focus, and utterly commercial in intent. So much so that it became the biggest selling album in Blue Note Records’ history.

Our main criticism of this phase of Byrd’s career is that his intent seemed to be wholly commercial, and that rather than attempting a personal take on contemporary pop music, he seemed intent on duplicating it. A review of this work over at All Music differs sharply with ours. Reviewer Steve Huey’s take: “Byrd was branded a sellout and a traitor to his hard bop credentials … What the elitists missed, though, was that ‘Blackbyrd’ was the moment when Byrd’s brand of fusion finally stepped out from under the shadow of his chief influence, Miles Davis, and found a distinctive voice of its own. Never before had a jazz musician embraced the celebratory sound and style of contemporary funk as fully as Byrd did here—not even Davis, whose dark, chaotic jungle-funk stood in sharp contrast to the bright, breezy, danceable music on ‘Blackbyrd’. Byrd gives free rein to producer/arranger/composer Larry Mizell, who crafts a series of tightly focused, melodic pieces often indebted to the lengthier orchestrations of Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield.”

What Huey misses, and what made his fans consider this such as sell-out, is that what he calls Byrd’s “distinctive voice of (his) own” is in fact that of producer Larry Mizell. Byrd, like Davis did on many of his electric albums, seemed to have simply showed up and taken solos on Mizell’s project. No, never before had a jazz musician embraced “bright, breezy, danceable music”, and likening it to that of Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield simply shows how derivative it really was. The fact that it has been sampled endlessly by hip hop artists hardly gives it any more cred than it had then. Mayfield’s music, incidentally, is infinitely more interesting than Byrd’s in this vein, so if you need to dance, go to the source, or head over to “Cafe Reggio” with Iaaac Hayes. Davis, in contrast, while he may have also let the inmates run the asylum, had inmates like Joe Zawinul, Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett and Bennie Maupin. Larry Mizell’s results, not surprisingly, pale in comparison.

Byrd, who had started teaching at Howard University by this time, also formed a band of his students called The Blackbyrds, who went on to some success of their own playing vaguely-jazz tinged funk in a similar style. Byrd himself began concentrating more and more on academics, finding time to supplement his music degree with a law degree and a doctorate, and eventually teaching at Rutgers. His chops diminished, as they do for all trumpeters, but his contributions continued. Regardless of how anyone feels about his musical direction in the 1970’s, his jazz and his teaching career ensure his place in the annals of music history.

Here’s a hand-picked introduction to Byrd’s sound. Click on any image to listen to samples or purchase the music at Amazon. There are two early albums with Byrd as a sideman. One with Kenny Clarke (a classic) and one with Horace Silver. There are three under Byrd’s name from what we consider his most creative period, and finally one from the middle of his foray into fusion. We’ve purposely left out “Blackbyrd”, which you’ll run into sooner or later without our help.


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