Donald Byrd, 80, innovative hard-bop jazz trumpeter
By RANDALL CHASE and KATIE ZEZIMA February 14, 2013 6:00AM
FILE - This March 12, 1990 file photo shows Jazz educator and musician Donald Byrd in New York. Trumpeter, composer and educator Donald Byrd has died. He was 80. (AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler, file)
Updated: March 17, 2013 6:10PM
DOVER, Del. — Jazz musician Donald Byrd, a leading hard-bop trumpeter of the 1950s who collaborated on dozens of albums with top artists of his time and later enjoyed commercial success with hit jazz-funk fusion records such as “Black Byrd,” has died. He was 80.
He died Feb. 4 in Delaware, according to Haley Funeral Directors in the Detroit suburb of Southfield, Mich., which is handling arrangements. It didn’t have details on his death.
Mr. Byrd, who was also a pioneer in jazz education, attended Cass Technical High School in Detroit, played in military bands in the Air Force and moved to New York in 1955. The trumpeter, whose given name was Donaldson Toussaint L’Ouverture Byrd II, rose to national prominence when he joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers later that year, filling the seat in the bebop group held by his idol Clifford Brown.
He soon became one of the most in-demand trumpeters on the New York scene, playing with Max Roach, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk. He also began his recording career by leading sessions for Savoy and other labels.
In 1958, he signed an exclusive recording contract with the Blue Note label and formed a band with a fellow Detroit native, baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams, making their label debut with the 1959 album “Off to the Races.” The band became one of the leading exponents of the hard-bop style, which evolved from bebop and blended in elements of R&B, soul and gospel music. A 1961 recording, “Free Form,” brought attention to then 20-year-old pianist Herbie Hancock.
“Donald had this beautiful tone and had a very lyrical sense of playing and a real sense of melody,” said Hancock, who two years later joined Miles Davis’ famed quintet and later formed his own Grammy-winning jazz-funk band.
In a telephone interview, Hancock said Mr. Byrd was a key influence earlier in his career. He said Mr. Byrd took him “under his wings” when he was a struggling musician newly arrived in New York, even letting him sleep on a hide-a-bed in his Bronx apartment for several years.
“He was the first person to let me be a permanent member of an internationally known band,” Hancock added. “He has always nurtured and encouraged young musicians. He’s a born educator, it seems to be in his blood, and he really tried to encourage the development of creativity.”
Hancock also said Mr. Byrd encouraged him to make his debut album for Blue Note and hooked him up with Mongo Santamaria, who turned Hancock’s tune “Watermelon Man” into a chart-topping hit. He also urged him to accept Davis’ offer to join his quintet.
In the 1960s, Mr. Byrd, who had received his master’s degree from the Manhattan School of Music, turned his attention to jazz education. He studied in Paris with composer Nadia Boulanger, became the first person to teach jazz at Rutgers University in New Jersey, and started the jazz studies department at Howard University in Washington, D.C.
Mr. Byrd began moving toward a more commercial sound with the funk-jazz fusion album “Fancy Free” in 1969, taking a path followed by fellow trumpeters Miles Davis and Freddie Hubbard. He teamed up with the Mizell brothers to release “Black Byrd” in 1973, a blend of jazz, R&B and funk that became Blue Note’s highest selling album at the time.
Jazz critics panned Mr. Byrd for deviating from the jazz mainstream, but he was unperturbed.
“I’m creative; I’m not re-creative,” Mr. Byrd told the Detroit Free Press in a 1999 interview. “I don’t follow what everybody else does.”
Mr. Byrd invited several of his best students at Howard to join a jazz-fusion group called the Blackbyrds that reached a mainstream audience with a sound heavy on R&B and rock influences. The band landed in the Top 10 on the R&B charts with the mid-’70s albums “Street Lady,” “Stepping Into Tomorrow” and “Place and Spaces.”
Hancock said the Blackbyrds “laid the groundwork for the direction” that led him to form his own jazz-funk band, The Headhunters, and eventually record the Grammy-winning instrumental single “Rockit.”
In 1982, Mr. Byrd, who also had a law degree, received his doctorate from New York’s Teachers College, Columbia University, and turned his attention from performing to education. Mr. Byrd, a longtime resident of Teaneck, N.J., was a distinguished scholar at William Paterson University and twice served as an artist-in-residence at Delaware State University.
Mr. Byrd didn’t have much training in mathematics but created a groundbreaking curriculum called Music + Math (equals) Art, in which he transformed notes into numbers to simultaneously teach music and math.
“I can take any series of numbers and turn it into music, from Bach to bebop, Herbie Hancock to hip-hop,” he told The Star-Ledger newspaper of Newark, N.J.
In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, he returned to playing hard-bop on several albums for the Landmark label, which also featured saxophonists Kenny Garrett and Joe Henderson.
He performed on Guru’s 1993 jazz-rap album, “Jazzmatazz, Vol. 1,” and his recordings were sampled on more than 100 hip-hop songs by such performers as Black Moon, Nas, Ludacris and A Tribe Called Quest.
In 2000, the National Endowment for the Arts recognized Mr. Byrd as a Jazz Master, the nation’s highest jazz honor.