Remembering Donald Byrd, Jazz Trumpeter Who Spanned Generations
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Trumpeter Donald Byrd played bebop in the 1950s, then funk-fusion and R&B in the' 70s and he wound up at the top of the charts. Byrd died last Monday at a hospital in Dover, Delaware. He was 80.
As NPR's Frannie Kelly tells us, no matter what kind of music he was playing, Donald Byrd was also a lifelong teacher.
FRANNIE KELLY, BYLINE: Donald Byrd's hometown, Detroit, turned out exceptional musicians in the 1940s.
LOU DONALDSON: Oh, there's a million of them: Barry Harris, Tommy Flanagan, Elvin Jones, Hank Jones, Thad Jones, Yusef Lateef.
KELLY: Saxophonist Lou Donaldson met Byrd after they both played in military bands and moved to New York City.
DONALDSON: Byrd came with what we call the Detroit clan and he had that Detroit flavor to his playing. He sounded a bit like Fats Navarro and Clifford Brown.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NICHOLAS PAYTON: He was a very lyrical player, a very economical player.
KELLY: Nicholas Payton is a contemporary jazz trumpeter.
PAYTON: He was one of the real melody-makers at that time; a very introspective, thoughtful player with a very beautiful sound.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
KELLY: And Donald Byrd was still in school. He went on to play with John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk, among others. He got his masters from the Manhattan School of Music and studied in France. He got a doctorate and a law degree. Nicholas Payton says Byrd told him black musicians needed to be in academia.
PAYTON: Someone needs to be able to lay things out in such a way so that we establish and have a voice in those circles. And that was a big part in why he sought out that part of his education and why he had a heavy presence in historically black colleges.
KELLY: Payton says in the early '60s, Byrd was also worried that jazz was losing touch with the black community. In 1963, he released a recording called "Cristo Redentor."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "CRISTO REDENTOR")
MARCUS BELGRAVE: That album put him on the map. It spoke to the black culture, the church, the home, and it spoke to the whole black aesthetic and all those beautiful voices. That became everybody's favorite.
KELLY: That's trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, one of Byrd's contemporaries and friends. He says that Byrd continued to work in education even after he had a hit on his hands. In the mid-'70s, Byrd formed a band out of his students at Howard University, called them the Blackbyrds and asked Howard alumni the Mizell Brothers to work with him. The Mizells had created songs for the Jackson 5. And the Blackbyrds' debut didn't sound like hard bop or "Cristo Redentor."
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THE BLACKBYRDS: (Singing) Listen to horn, carry me on. Listen to the horn, carry me on. Listen to the horn, carry me on...
KELLY: The album hit the R&B chart, the jazz chart and the pop chart. And Donald Byrd became the rare jazz musician to make some real money. In fact, the story goes, when Miles Davis gave him grief for driving a Ford, Byrd replied, that's just the car I take to my plane. Yeah, he was a pilot, too.
And the trumpeter picked up a new generation of listeners. Nicholas Payton says his work with the Blackbyrds was quickly mined by hip-hop musicians.
PAYTON: A lot of his records were a part of the sound that, in the golden era of hip-hop, what a lot of those artists looked to, to sort of model themselves after. It was funky records from the '70s of Dr. Byrd's.
KELLY: Dr. Byrd welcomed hip-hop. In an interview with JazzTimes magazine, he predicted that when he was 80, he'd be hipper and mentally sharper than he was at 40. I'll know more stuff, he said. Thanks to his constant evolution, we do, too.
Frannie Kelley, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOUNGIN'")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What you doing this afternoon?
GURU: (Rapping) Yeah, I'm loungin'. I got my man, Donald Byrd on the horn. I want to give a big shout-out to my little man, Miko. He's two years old, two years old. He's away visiting his grandma but I miss him dearly...
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