Donald Byrd and Jackie McLean at Byrd’s Off To The Races session, Hackensack NJ, December 21 1958 (photo by Francis Wolff)
Donald Byrd passed away on February 4th; he was 80 years old. Donald Byrd was an unstoppable force who always did things his own way and on his own terms. He came from Detroit’s rich talent pool that seemed to be perpetually fermenting and releasing great jazz artists throughout the ’40s and ’50s. When he came to New York in 1955, he quickly rose to the top of the hard bop ranks in clubs and recording sessions during those hectic, prolific times.
He told me on several occasions that he got all that work because word quickly spread that he was that rare individual at the time, a drug-free non-drinker. Everyone wanted to hire him because every gig and every record date needed one straight, responsible musician.
Well, he would have gotten the work anyway just on the merits of his lyrical style and clarion, bell-like trumpet sound. His abilities as a composer and band leader grew to the extent that by 1958 he signed with Blue Note Records and was co-leading his own band with Pepper Adams.
Donald Byrd was a chronic learner and a natural teacher. When he studied in Paris with composer Nadia Boulanger in 1958, he caught the teaching bug. It was also there that he began collecting art - right city, right time! Over the years, Donald amassed an armful of degrees and started teaching at a number of leading universities.
In the early ’70s, when the jazz scene was almost moribund, Donald enlisted two of his students Larry and Fonce Mizell, both staff producer/arrangers at Motown at the time, to produce a new kind of album for him. What they came up with was something that was not any kind of hyphened, hybrid version of jazz; it was pure, fresh-sounding, melodic music. When the first album became an instant hit, the slings and arrows of the jazz establishment reigned down on Professor Byrd. I’m sure my voice was heard among the detractors, although I later released that what Donald and the Mizells were dong wasn’t bastardized bad jazz, - it was a marvelous new brand of music.
By the late ’70s, Donald was immersed in the university life. He was shuttled between three schools spread across the country in which he had a teaching position, a rented house or apartment and a girlfriend. How he kept track of the utility bills let alone the girl friends or curriculum is beyond me.
In the 1990’s when hip-hop’s prolific use of jazz samples was getting notice, Donald didn’t sit home and just deposit all those lovely checks. He went into the studio with Guru for the rapper’s “Jazzmatazz” album and toured the world with him.
Donald was innovative, fearless and stubborn as hell - a man who lived his life totally on his terms.
Hank Mobley with Donald Byrd and Lee Morgan record framed at the Lee Morgan Shrine in Harlem.
Black Byrd. Note that the colors are red, green and black. It’s not a coincidence.
STOLEN MOMENTS - Red Hot & Cool
One from my personal Donald Byrd vault…
In one iteration of my professional life, I had the good fortune of being part of the crew that shot the live concert for this documentary project. It’s a beautiful film directed in interviews, live music and urban vistas by Earle Sebastian
Friday the 13th - THELONIOUS MONK live at Town Hall 1959
I post this as part of my celebration of Donald Byrd. Specifically Donald Byrd as side man.
I feel fortunate to have consumed enough Jazz literature to provide me a platform from which to view in my own way some of the commentary I see from time to time about Jazz musicians and the works they create.
I recall reading one writer’s take on the whole Monk Live at Town Hall enterprise. It was a critical account and I am a fan, so in fairness to the critic I was probably going to disagree anyway. I have read a few accounts of this adventure over time and the one thing they all have in common was that it was a troublesome enterprise to get off the ground. Monk’s tunes had mostly been presented to the public in the context, to this point, in quartets and quintets, so it took quite a effort on the part of Hall Overton to make it work for a larger ensemble. Overton provided the arrangements for the event, rehearsed the ensemble and had a role in picking the side men.
This particular critic thought it didn’t work out too well in the end. One of the things he pointed to was the presence of Donald Byrd who he described as something akin to a light weight who was lacking in chops befitting someone of Monk’s stature.
I thought to myself “Yikes” when I read this….
I had never listened to this track that critically to that point even though I had listened to it numerous times before, so I went back and gave it a listen again because I wondered if my ears deceived me.
Here’s what I hear in the simplest way I can possibly put it. Donald Byrd comes in at 6:26 mins on this clip and to my ear it is the most alive Monk allows himself to be while comping behind any of the other soloists.
If that critic was correct then Monk would essentially have been providing a safety net to catch a faltering Donald Byrd. That’s not what I hear. I hear Monk pounding approval into those keys with with an “at-a-boy” smile on his face.
I am not jazz scholar or scientist, but I have learned to trust what I hear.
RIP Donald Byrd
DONALD BYRD (by Francis Wolff)
I am really heartened by the fact that a number of the people I follow have had Donald Byrd touch their lives and loves in one way or another. What would otherwise have been a solitary walk in the park of tributes feels like a beautiful celebration. I’ll dance to that.
Thank you all!
Rest in peace Donald Byrd!
The Great Adventures of Satchel Page: I just sat and listened to one of my favorites from Donald Byrd,... »
I just sat and listened to one of my favorites from Donald Byrd, “Cristo Redentor”. I had to shut the door to my office and just reflect. Tears started to build up in my eyes. This man and the music he leaves behind for us…What a tremendous gift!
Stepping Into Tomorrow is my introduction to Blue Note Records. But Byrd is bigger than that. His catalog matches with anyone. The number of musicians he played with rivals anyone. His commitment to music and music education are unmatched. I couldn’t keep my emotions.
I started thinking about my wife and her health issues. Donald lived a long and full life. I hope and pray the same thing for my wife. I’ll just leave it at that. What Miles did for fusion through jazz and rock, Byrd did with R&B and funk.
Never met him. Never heard him live. But it’s there. It’s in me. Wow. What a life…
A New Perspective
I played this loud for my Grandmother when she passed in 2010, and I am playing it again for the artist behind the song, Mr. Donald Byrd. My heart is heavy, but my soul is strong. Thank You Sir for the legacy you left behind.
Ghana - DONALD BYRD
Byrd in Flight got many plays in college. This was it!