Donald Byrd passed away on February 4th; he was 80 years old. Donald Byrd was an unstoppable force who always did things his own way and on his own terms. He came from Detroit’s rich talent pool that seemed to be perpetually fermenting and releasing great jazz artists throughout the ’40s and ’50s. When he came to New York in 1955, he quickly rose to the top of the hard bop ranks in clubs and recording sessions during those hectic, prolific times.
He told me on several occasions that he got all that work because word quickly spread that he was that rare individual at the time, a drug-free non-drinker. Everyone wanted to hire him because every gig and every record date needed one straight, responsible musician.
Well, he would have gotten the work anyway just on the merits of his lyrical style and clarion, bell-like trumpet sound. His abilities as a composer and band leader grew to the extent that by 1958 he signed with Blue Note Records and was co-leading his own band with Pepper Adams.
Donald Byrd was a chronic learner and a natural teacher. When he studied in Paris with composer Nadia Boulanger in 1958, he caught the teaching bug. It was also there that he began collecting art - right city, right time! Over the years, Donald amassed an armful of degrees and started teaching at a number of leading universities.
In the early ’70s, when the jazz scene was almost moribund, Donald enlisted two of his students Larry and Fonce Mizell, both staff producer/arrangers at Motown at the time, to produce a new kind of album for him. What they came up with was something that was not any kind of hyphened, hybrid version of jazz; it was pure, fresh-sounding, melodic music. When the first album became an instant hit, the slings and arrows of the jazz establishment reigned down on Professor Byrd. I’m sure my voice was heard among the detractors, although I later released that what Donald and the Mizells were dong wasn’t bastardized bad jazz, - it was a marvelous new brand of music.
By the late ’70s, Donald was immersed in the university life. He was shuttled between three schools spread across the country in which he had a teaching position, a rented house or apartment and a girlfriend. How he kept track of the utility bills let alone the girl friends or curriculum is beyond me.
In the 1990’s when hip-hop’s prolific use of jazz samples was getting notice, Donald didn’t sit home and just deposit all those lovely checks. He went into the studio with Guru for the rapper’s “Jazzmatazz” album and toured the world with him.
Donald was innovative, fearless and stubborn as hell - a man who lived his life totally on his terms.
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