Dr. Donald Byrd is that type of jazz/popular music figure we do not give enough credit to and that often goes a little overlooked. We often get romanticized portraits of great artists who were felled at early ages by their habits or demons, such as Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, etc. Donald Byrd was a well educated, rennaisaince man who lived a full life on and off the bandstand. In retrospect, and in light of his passing two weeks ago, I’ve been thinking more about Dr. Byrd and why he should be more of an example, even if he is not acclaimed as an “icon”, for both fans of popular music and those who wish to be involved in the creation and playing of it.
It’s been noted several times that in jazz, the trumpet player has often set the bar and been seen as the leader of the music. This goes back all the way to New Orleans and the early days of Buddy Bolden, through King Oliver and Louis Armstrong, progressing on up through Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. Donald Byrd came up in the hard bop era of the 1950s along with players such as Lee Morgan, Stanley Turrentine, Freddie Hubbard, Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, and basically, most of the great, standard bearing players who would be considered older statesmen today. These musicians to me are like the bridges, they connect us to the days of early jazz and be bop, came of age in the 1950s school of “hard bop” which was a very important music in terms of the efforts it took to make jazz assescible, by including the influences of the roots African American musics, like gospel and rhythm and blues. It is probably through hard bop that the jazz influence was kept alive in R&B, Rock & Roll and pop.
Dr. Byrds stature as an important connector in the world of jazz and music as a whole, from the “hard bop” era he came into prominence and beyond, is exemplefied by his turn toward jazz fusion in the late ’60s and 1970s. While Miles Davis is acclaimed for his turn toward fusion in “Bitches Brew”, it has always been my view that groups such as the Jazz Crusaders, Lou Donaldson, Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff etc laid the grounds for “fusion” and jazz funk before Miles walked down that road. There was a movement in the 1960s to improvise and swing over Blues and Rhythm & Blues songs in a way that would get the average working man and womans toes tapping and fingers popping down at the local bar. For me, this is the birthplace of jazz fusion, that urge to reconnect jazz to the regular listener of music who is not coming from as much of an “intellectual” perspective on the music.
Donald Byrd was a luminary in this area. His albums “Fancy Free” and “Blackbyrd” were landmarks in jazz, melding R&B rhythms with pretty melodies and free floating improvisation and finding a place on the pop charts. At times I wonder if it were not for Donald Byrd, Herbie Hancock, Grover Washington, George Benson, The Crusaders, and Dr. Donald Byrd, if a certain generation of baby boomers would have any understanding or knowledge of jazz music at all. Many of these artists were trained in the most florid styles of jazz soloing and had experience in the more abstract forms of jazz songwriting and composing and were still able to connect with their roots in the people’s music: blues, gospel, African and Latin rhythms, and the earlier swinging, dance band forms of jazz. It was a historical meeting point that enabled them to produce music that had high technical refinement even while the forms might have been constrained to popular listening or dancing demands.
The other aspect of Dr. Byrd that I appreciate greatly is his great commitment to education, both in terms of his own personal education, and as an educator. Dr. Byrd held several advanced degrees, including degrees in music, law, and education. His commitment toeducating future generations is probably best exemplified in his ’70s soul-funk-jazz group, the Blackbyrds. There are many boomers I run with for whom the name Donald Byrd is synonymous with “Blackbyrds.” If I ask them if they’re into Donald Byrd they say, “oh yeah, Donald Byrd and the Blackbyrds?” I had the privilege of seeing Kevin Toney and the Blackbyrds last year and Kevin Toney stressed the import and uniqueness of Donald Byrd as a musical figure and included a lengthy set of Donald Byrd songs in his set, including “Change (Makes You Wanna Hustle)” and “(Fallin like) Dominoes.”
Ultimately Donald Byrd, through his playing, his ability to reach listeners outside of the core jazz fan base, and especially his educational efforts and work with young musicians such as the Blackbyrds, more than fulfilled the notion of trumpet players as leaders in jazz. Although I’m sure a Wynton Marsalis might scoff at an album such as “Thank You For Funking Up My Life”, I see him as attempting to breach areas Dr. Byrd was well traveled in, such as music education. This year I plan to immerse myself in Dr. Byrds music, both the music of his ’70s jazz funk high water period, but especially his hard bop playing in the 1960s.
But the final tribute to Dr. Byrds eternal coolness and relevance might just be his middle name. Dr. Byrd’s full name was acually Donaldson Toussaint L’Overture Byrd II. Yes, Donald Byrd was named in part after the hero of the Haitian Revolution, one of my favorite figures in history, Toussaint L’Overture. A great name for a musician who turned out to be a great man in his own right!