June 24, 2024


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Donald Byrd – Virtuoso trumpeter, who honed his craft with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers: Photos, Video

09.12. – Happy Birthday !!! The teaching of jazz in conservatoires may now be commonplace, but for decades the art was informally learned by listening to records and sharing ideas. Many of the giants who shaped jazz as it sounds today learned from each other, and from the pioneers who preceded them. A rare few learned their music formally and informally in about equal measure. One of that handful was the trumpeter Donald Byrd.

Byrd spent much of his life in academic institutions studying everything from composition and music education to law, but his craft as a trumpeter was honed in one of the most famous of all road-going jazz finishing schools – Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Through the ranks of the Messengers, from the mid-1950s to the late 1980s, there passed a procession of stars-to-be, nurtured by the drummer Blakey’s belief that the best young players to hire were the ones with the talent and determination to become bandleaders themselves. Despite a roster of Blakey trumpeters over the years that included Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan and Wynton Marsalis, one of the most celebrated of brass-playing Messengers was the gifted Byrd.

He was born in Detroit, Michigan, where he attended Cass technical high school. Byrd played in a military band while in the US air force, took a music degree at Wayne State University in Michigan and then studied music education at the Manhattan School of Music in New York. He joined the JazzMessengers in the mid-1950s. Byrd’s trumpet predecessors in Blakey’s company had already included the graceful, glossy-toned Brown and the Dizzy Gillespie-influenced Kenny Dorham, but the newcomer with his polished phrasing and luxurious tone was recognised as a technical master equal to both.

Donald Byrd joined the Jazz Messengers in the mid-1950s
 Donald Byrd joined the Jazz Messengers in the mid-1950s. Photograph: David Redfern/Redferns

He was even heralded as the new guiding light in jazz trumpet, and the acclaim intensified after Brown died in a 1956 road accident. Byrd’s talent seemed to encompass some of Brown’s spontaneous, narrative-generating strength and his exquisite tone, as well as Miles Davis’s pacing, and the fire and penetrating attack of the first-wave bebop trumpeters inspired by Gillespie. After that racing start, Byrd eventually prioritised academic work over musical creativity – but until the arrival of the similarly skilled Freddie Hubbardd, and his own withdrawal to the classroom, Byrd was briefly one of modern jazz’s leading young trumpeters.

He was prolifically active in the late 1950s, in demand for sessions on the Savoy, Riverside and Blue Note labels, in the company of Max Roach, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Horace Silver among others. At the end of the decade he was also leading or co-leading his own ensembles, mostly operating in the laconically pyrotechnical, blues-inflected hard-bop style. Byrd regularly worked with the bop pianist George Wallington and with the alto saxophonist and composer Gigi Gryce, and in 1958 he led a quintet including the Belgian saxophonist Bobby Jaspar on a European tour.Advertisement

On his return to the US, Byrd teamed up with the excellent baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams, and the two continued to mine the hard-bop seam with various partners, including the then little-known pianist Herbie Hancock. Byrd sounded as polished as ever, but a shade predictable alongside more individualistic players such as Adams, or Wayne Shorter and Hancock, with both of whom he played on the 1961 album Free Form.

In the early 1960s, Byrd studied composition with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, and though he periodically visited the Blue Note studios for steadily more easy-listening ventures in the 1960s, African-American musical history became his central preoccupation. He took up posts at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey; the Hampton Institute in Virginia; Howard University in Washington; and North Carolina Central University. He was a pioneering force in establishing jazz studies in American colleges and conservatoires (evolving in the process into a leading African-American ethnomusicologist), regularly lectured for the New York outreach organisation jazzmobilee, and developed an education programme he called Music + Math = Art, to link the teaching of music and mathematics. Byrd later became a distinguished artist in residence at Delaware State University, from 1996 to 2001 and then from 2009, founding a $10,000 scholarship fund in his name.

At Howard, Byrd became chairman of the black music department in the 1970s. Dedicating himself to raising the status of black American music and securing equality for black players, he studied law as well as music to broaden the scope of the advice he could offer in his lectures and workshops. Byrd said in the 1970s that he was addressing “the plight of black musicians in academia … Until we get an integrated view of things with respect to black music, nothing is going to happen”. It was this concern, rather than the material success and supposed musical dumbing-down for which he was lambasted, that probably influenced Byrd’s decision to embrace the pop- and soul-influenced end of jazz. He wanted to draw attention to the situation of black music in colleges in the most high-profile way he could, even if the results did nothing to enhance the respect his musicianship had previously commanded.

Forming the Blackbyrds soul and funk band from a pool of his Howard University students, Byrd directed some lucrative if artistically unsteady forays into dancefloor jazz and fusion. His million-selling 1973 album Black Byrd made him a major star again, and brought Blue Note more income than the label had ever generated from any release before. But the follow-ups in 1975 and 1976 became increasingly bland.

In 1987, Byrd returned to jazz, recording for the experienced producer Orrin Keepnewss‘s Landmark label, on a primarily hard-bop repertoire that by the final recording, A City Called Heaven (1991), was also including interpretations of Henry Purcell, and the voice of a mezzo-soprano. Byrd’s old blazing virtuosity was gone but he could still be an affecting player of ballads, and his front-rank partners included the saxophonists Joe Henderson and Kenny Garrett, and the vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson.

Byrd’s legacy is his contribution to music education in a culture that spawned jazz but then neglected it – a role he pursued from the unique vantage point of having been a leading player in the idiom. His work has been sampled by pop and hip-hop artists including Public Enemy and Ice Cube, and many young musicians at work today owe their education, and the widespread acceptance of their art, to his tireless pursuit of stature and respect for jazz.

Byrd married Lorraine Glover in 1955. Donaldson Toussaint L’Ouverture Byrd II, trumpeter and educator, born 9 December 1932; died 4 February 2013.

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