A Beginner’s Guide to Donald Byrd
“I knew damn near everybody,” the late trumpeter and bandleader Donald Byrd joked during a 1987 Pacifica Radio interview, reeling off names like Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis. What’s striking is that, at this point in the interview, he’s still talking about his high school years. When the Detroit-born and bred Byrd passed away in February at the age of 80, it was a reminder that “damn near everybody” was, at some point, touched by the trumpeter, bandleader, producer and teacher. Few artists’ careers so neatly embody the various stylistic turns of postwar music, from jazz to soul to funk to disco and beyond. It’s a tribute to Byrd’s eternally open mind that when the British DJ and jazz hound Gilles Peterson paid tribute to Byrd’s life, he did so with two distinct mixes: “The Acoustic Years” and “The Electric Years.”
And few artists were so comfortable with such constant change — a true rarity in the world of jazz, where form is virtue. While his creativity and dexterity as a trumpeter never quite paralleled the talents of Clifford Brown (who he replaced in Art Blakey’s band) or Miles Davis (a fellow early convert to a more electric, fusion-driven jazz sound), few figures can claim an influence as diverse or longstanding as Byrd’s. He played with Nat King Cole, Eric Dolphy, Monk and Coltrane. He appeared on over a hundred albums as a bandleader and sideman, and his 1973 breakthrough Black Byrd remains one of Blue Note’s all-time best sellers. He was a mentor to Herbie Hancock, giving the young pianist one of his first big breaks, and, as a college professor, his protégés would form bands like Blackbyrds and N.C.C.U. (“Super Trick”). He collaborated with Isaac Hayes on a disco classic (“Love Has Come Around”) and appeared on the first installment of Gang Starr rapper Guru’s Jazzmatazz series.
What follows are some of the defining moments of Byrd’s career, during which he was unafraid to try damn near anything.
Donald Byrd, “Jeannine”
Donald Byrd assembled a great band in the late 1950s, and At the Half Note Cafe captures them in sizzling form. There's a vigor and energy to this live recording that's lacking in some of Byrd's early Blue Note studio sessions. On the joyous "Jeannine," Byrd is economical and restrained, willing as always to give ground to those around him. In this case that includes Pepper Adams's nervy, wild sax and Duke... Pearson's spritely piano.more »
Donald Byrd, “Hush”
By 1961, the 29-year-old Byrd had established himself as a hard-bop cornerstone, recording five studio albums for Blue Note and guesting on many more. Few listeners who dropped the needle on Royal Flush could have guessed they were witnessing the debut of a legend. The breezy, bluesy gem "Chant" introduced the world to Herbie Hancock, who Byrd had mentored throughout the early 1960s. Years later, Hancock would remain grateful for Byrd's belief... in him, as well as this piece of advice from Byrd that the young, struggling pianist wouldn't understand until years later: never give away your publishing rights.more »
Donald Byrd, “French Spice”
By 1962's excellent Free Form, Byrd was beginning to stray from the bop-derived formulas that had long defined mainstream jazz. His band was evolving, thanks to an increasingly confident Hancock, and here they're joined by Wayne Shorter, in one of his last freelance gigs before signing on with Miles Davis. Byrd's role as a connector of ideas is particularly evident here on the moody, abstract title cut, the funky "Pentecostal Feelin'" and... the playful, elegant "French Spice."more »
Donald Byrd, “Christo Redentor”
Byrd was entering a fruitful, adventurous phase of his career by the time of 1963's A New Perspective. But if the album cover suggested a turn toward the modern — Byrd leans against the door of a curvy sports car — his experiments would have to plumb the distant past first. This was one of Byrd's best "spiritual" records, essentially a hard bop record featuring a gospel choir. Fantastic and life-affirming from... start to finish, the choir's textures and exhortations perfectly complement the band's rhythms and effervescent solos. It's highlighted by "Christo Redentor," Byrd's mournful trumpet rising above a chanting din.more »
Donald Byrd, “Fancy Free” and “The Dude”
After cutting a few solid, if straightforward, Blue Note sides in the mid ’60s, Byrd began moving away from acoustic jazz in the later part of that decade. Miles Davis had gone “electric,” and soon others were following suit. For Byrd, it began with Duke Pearson’s electric keys, which radically shaped the texture of 1969′s Fancy Free, lending everything a freer, more felicitous feel. In 1970, he released Electric Byrd and there was no going back. In retrospect, plugging in suited Byrd’s accommodating style. “The Dude” isn’t radically different from some of his more rhythm-driven numbers from the early 1960s, only the groove is front and center. Fusion remains a dirty word among some jazz devotees, but it was more than a tweaking of the jazz sound. It was also a new approach to composition and recording. Electric Byrd‘s “Xibaba,” for example, is an absorbing, almost shapeless piece that finds Byrd and his new band — featuring Brazilians Hermeto Pascoal and Airto Moreira — concerned more with ambience and energy than structure.
Donald Byrd, “Black Byrd”
Electric Byrd and 1971's Ethiopian Knights had formalized Byrd's turn toward the funkier, fusion sound then sweeping the jazz community. It was 1973's Black Byrd that turned jazz's civil war into a popular phenomenon. Thanks largely to production from Larry and Fonce Mizell — a member of the Corporation, Motown's hit-making production squad — Black Byrd didn't sound like anything else around. "Black Byrd" was a groove, but one you could sing... along to. While Miles was flirting with avant-garde classical composition and psychedelic chaos, Byrd and the Mizells were turning toward radio-friendly rhythm and blues. To the horror of traditionalists, Black Byrd — with its attention-grabbing synths, funky percussion and vocals — was one of Blue Note's best-selling albums of the decade.more »
Blackbyrds, “Blackbyrds’ Theme”
Byrd held a series of university teaching posts throughout the 1970s, and at least two bands formed out of his classes: North Carolina Central University's N.C.C.U. (which later became his backing band in the late 1970s) and Howard University's Blackbyrds. Byrd and the Mizells produced the first few Blackbyrds records, but they were never just a Byrd vanity project. They always seemed like a very creative funk band with jazz chops, especially... on their trio of classic early albums — 1974's self-titled debut ("Funky Junkie," "Summer Love"), Flying Start ("Walking in Rhythm," "Blackbyrds' Theme") and 1975's City Life (featuring the B-boy classic "Rock Creek Park").more »
Donald Byrd, “Think Twice” and “Wind Parade”
The partnership between Byrd and the Mizells peaked on these two albums from the mid ’70s, Stepping into Tomorrow and Places and Spaces. It was on tracks like the sensual “Think Twice” or the genial funk of “Dominoes” that they began distinguishing their sound as more than just jazz with R&B characteristics. The compositions are sophisticated and atmospheric, as indebted to the instrumental interplay of Byrd’s past as to the technology of their present. There’s an open, spacey feel to the albums, a sign of Byrd and the Mizells’ growing confidence within this new jazz idiom. Occasionally, the songs from this era are also ridiculously catchy, as on the adventurous, frequently sampled classic “Wind Parade.”
Donald Byrd and 125th St. N.Y.C., “Love Has Come Around”
By 1981, Byrd could safely claim some kind of connection to every significant jazz musician of the previous 30 years. The only thing left, obviously, was to record an album with soul man Isaac Hayes. Backed by 125th St, N.Y.C. (previously known as N.C.C.U.), Love Byrd is a fairly snoozy effort highlighted by an unlikely gem: "Love Has Come Around," a dancefloor scorcher (and playlist staple of legendary DJ Larry Levan).
Black Moon, “Buck em Down (remix)” and Guru and Donald Byrd, “Loungin’”
Hip-hop and dance music made jazz relevant to kids in the early ’90s. Not everyone cared for the repurposing of their old sounds, but Byrd embraced it. After all, Byrd’s jazz-funk had been divisive in the ’70s, but decades later it was these intrepid works that producers like DJ Premier of Gang Starr or the Beatminerz gravitated toward. Byrd was sampled countless times, but I’ve always loved how the Beatminerz’s Evil Dee rearranged “Wind Parade” for Black Moon’s “Buck ‘em Down” remix, lending the steely original a bit of grace. For Guru, Gang Starr’s other half, his Jazzmatazz series was essentially a way to give back. “Donald Byrd — word/ On the track, quite exact,” Guru hails, and Byrd matches the rapper’s gruff monotone with some playful, old school riffing.
J Dilla, “Think Twice”
Jay Dee made a name for himself as one-third of A Tribe Called Quest's beat-making faction (the Ummah). Thanks to his work on Common's critically acclaimed Like Water for Chocolate and Q-Tip's post-Quest endeavor Amplified, Dee has also established himself as a hip-hop super-producer. While Dee's stock continues to rise (working with Janet Jackson, Erykah Badu, and Macy Gray), his underground projects have been less fruitful. Reason being, when it comes to... enlisting new MCs to collaborate with, Dee has yet to locate a lyricist capable of augmenting his sublime production. This fact became apparent during Dee's short-lived stint as a member of Slum Village, and the trend continues with his first solo outing, Welcome 2 Detroit. Here, Dee continues to showcase a diverse assortment of sensuous melodies and booming funk samples. The Detroit-bred MCs who Dee chooses to highlight -- Phat Kat on "Rico Suave Bossa Nova" and Beej on "Beej-N-Dem, Pt. 2" prove to be very mediocre lyricists. Yet Dee did manage to round up a few hometown prospects, as Frank N Dank liven up "Pause" and Elzhi rips a few furious verses on "Come Get It." Though Dee flips a few clumsy bars as well, Welcome 2 Detroit really takes off when he sticks solely to an instrumental script, retouching trumpeter Donald Byrd's "Think Twice" and transforming Kraftwerk's indelible "Trans-Europe Express" into the strippers'-anthem-in-waiting "B.B.E. (Big Booty Express)."more »