December 3, 1999

EDITOR’S NOTE: This obituary originally ran on Dec. 3, 1999

Charlie Byrd, the classically trained jazz guitar virtuoso who was a fixture on the Washington music scene for nearly 50 years and who helped introduce bossa nova to the United States, died of cancer yesterday at his home in Annapolis. He was 74.

The more than 100 albums he had recorded since 1957 showcased a versatile talent. He was comfortable with a wide range of music, and critics praised him for his quiet virtuosity and delicate, precise lyricism.

His records included the million-seller “Jazz Samba” in 1962, made with saxophonist Stan Getz and bassist Keter Betts, and the Grammy-nominated “Brazilian Soul” in 1981. His final recording, a still-untitled tribute to Louis Armstrong, is scheduled for release in January by Concord Records.

Byrd also wrote scores for the films “Dead to the World” (1961) and “Bleep” (1970) as well as music for stage productions in the 1970s. Among those were “The Conversion of Patrolman O’Connor,” produced on Broadway, and a production of Tennessee Williams’s “The Purification” at Arena Stage.

His Charlie Byrd Trio had appeared since 1972 at the King of France tavern at the Maryland Inn in Annapolis. For nearly 20 years, the trio consisted chiefly of his brother Joe on bass and Chuck Redd on drums and vibraphone.

Byrd played at the Showboat Lounge in Washington from 1957 to 1967 and then went on to play at two venues named for him, Byrd’s Nest in Silver Spring and Charlie’s Georgetown. He was featured at Blues Alley for the past two decades.

Starting in 1958 and continuing through the the 1980s, Byrd made several international trips as a goodwill ambassador for the State Department, originally as a replacement for Dave Brubeck.

After a tour of Brazil and exposure to its burgeoning bossa nova style of jazz, Byrd helped make it widely popular in this country, spreading the sound along with Getz and the late Washington jazz disc jockey Felix Grant.

“The thing that really made it was that it was the warmness and freshness of it with Stan Getz,” said bassist Betts, who played with Byrd from 1957 to 1964. To Americans, “it was a whole new thing.”

Redd, who plays on the Armstrong album, said Byrd “loved sophisticated popular tunes. He also liked the hypnotic rhythms bossa nova offered. He loved very earthy music” that was “harmonically simple but expressive rhythmically.”

Despite Byrd’s broad musical tastes--friends and family said he was revisiting jazz standards in recent years--he disliked fusing music styles, such as jazz with classical. “It’s a wedding that loses the best of both,” he once said. “It destroys the fire of jazz, which should be hot-blooded and swing hard, and it makes inferior classical music.”

Music infiltrated every part of his life, including his love of the water. He had a cabin cruiser and named it “B. Minor 7 Flat 5,” which his sister-in-law Elana Byrd said was “a tricky guitar chord he liked.”

He later changed the boat’s name to “I’m Hip.”

Charles Lee Byrd was born in Suffolk, Va., and grew up in the Tidewater community of Chuckatuck. He learned guitar as a child from his mandolinist father, who also ran a general store where local musicians gathered. As a youngster, Byrd played on radio shows in a family band.

During World War II, he served in the Army in Europe, first as an infantryman and then in the Special Services division, entertaining troops. He also met the gifted Belgian guitarist Django Reinhardt, an encounter Byrd partly credited with making music his career.

Byrd attended Harnett National Music School in New York and spent the next decade playing with jazz musicians Joe Marsala and Freddie Slack as well as classical guitarists Sophocles Papas and Andres Segovia.

His first record was “Jazz Recital” in 1957, and a succession of others followed, including a collection of 16th-century compositions called “Classical Byrd” in 1958 and 1960. His widest fame came with the Getz album in 1962, recorded at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Washington.

The recording with Getz resulted in a lawsuit filed by Byrd against the saxophonist and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Byrd argued he did not get the royalties to which he was entitled. He later dropped the case against Getz and successfully sued MGM for more than $100,000 in 1967.

James B. Goding, the Washington lawyer who represented Byrd, said yesterday: “He was delighted. He couldn’t get over beating MGM.”

Regularly since 1973, Byrd had played with a trio called Great Guitars, whose members at one point included Barney Kessel and Herb Ellis. In 1987, he helped start another group, the Washington Guitar Quintet, which lasted more than five years.

In 1993, the Community Arts Alliance of Maryland named Byrd the first Maryland Arts Treasure, and in April, the Brazilian government honored him as a Knight of the Rio Branco, usually given to prominent Brazilian citizens.

Byrd also was a principal composer of music for the “Great Chefs” syndicated cooking program, writing music suitable to culinary themes that ranged from New Orleans jazz to Caribbean rhythms.

“I admit freely and frankly that to diversify yourself that much cannot help but limit any one of the styles,” he once said. “When I was a kid in New York, I played nothing but jazz. If I had done nothing else, I probably would have been a better jazz player . . . but I wouldn’t have been a better musician, and I wouldn’t have been happier with myself.”

His first wife, singer Virginia “Ginny” Marie Byrd, died in 1974. A son from that marriage, Jeffrey, died in 1973 after a car accident.

His marriage to Maggie Byrd ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of one year, Rebecca Byrd of Annapolis; a daughter from his first marriage, Carol M. Rose of Charlotte; a daughter from his second marriage, Charlotte E. Byrd of Santa Cruz, Calif.; two brothers, Jack R. Byrd of Suffolk, Va., and Gene H. “Joe” Byrd of Edgewater; and a granddaughter.

Adam Bernstein has spent his career putting the "post" in Washington Post, first as an obituary writer and then as editor. The American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized Bernstein’s ability to exhume “the small details and anecdotes that get at the essence of the person” and to write stories that are “complex yet stylish.”
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