Donald Byrd, jazz trumpeter, dies at 80


Donald Byrd poses for a Blue Note records publicity shot in the early 1970s. (Michael Ochs Archive)
February 11, 2013

Donald Byrd, one of the most prolific and dynamic jazz trumpeters of the 1950s who later achieved commercial success, if not always critical acclaim, by exploring the contours of soul and funk music, died Feb. 4 at a hospital in Delaware. He was 80.

A spokeswoman for Haley Funeral Directors in Southfield, Mich., confirmed the death. No cause was provided. Word about Mr. Byrd’s death began circulating on the Internet last week, but repeated calls to homes where he was known to have lived in New Jersey and Delaware were not returned.

Mr. Byrd emerged from the jazz caldron of Detroit in the mid-1950s and quickly became one of the primary instrumental voices of the hard-bop movement, a swinging blues-based style of jazz built around driving rhythms and tight ensemble work.

With a distinctive tone that balanced crisp intonation with a clean melodic line, he was in constant demand for record dates, including sessions with John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, Jackie McLean and Max Roach. He appeared on 36 recordings in 1957 alone.

When Mr. Byrd’s debut album appeared in 1955, jazz writer Nat Hentoff praised him in DownBeat magazine as “one of the most important jazz trumpet talents in the past few years.”

Ever evolving as a musician and ever inquisitive as a person, Mr. Byrd studied composition in Europe with the acclaimed musical guru Nadia Boulanger in the early 1960s and began teaching at Howard University in 1968. He led the university’s jazz band and developed a program of black music studies at Howard, where he taught until 1975.

As a performer, Mr. Byrd began to branch out from traditional acoustic jazz to explore a new, amplified style of music that drew heavily on the sounds of soul, funk and rhythm-and-blues. He recorded his first album in the new style, “Fancy Free,” in 1969, followed a year later by “Electric Byrd.”

In 1973, he released “Black Byrd,” which soared up the R&B charts and sold more than 1 million copies, at the time the most ever for an album on the Blue Note label. With its throbbing electric bass lines, vocal parts, heavy percussion and other effects, Mr. Byrd’s music found a new generation of fans, but many his older jazz listeners felt alienated.

He drew scathing reviews, including one from The Washington Post in 1975 that complained about “monotonous, over-amplified, disco-style noodling.”

“I’m creative. I’m not re-creative,” Mr. Byrd told the Detroit Free Press in 1999. “I don’t follow what everybody else does. One of the proverbs my father used to say is, ‘If you’re not first, be among the first.’ Everything I’ve done others have tried to copy.”

With five of his students at Howard, Mr. Byrd organized a jazz-funk group, the Blackbyrds, that had a series of Top 20 R&B hits in the 1970s, including “Walking in Rhythm,” “Happy Music” and “Time is Movin’.”

In the 1980s and 1990s, Mr. Byrd experimented with rap music, and his compositions and trumpet solos were incorporated into songs by hip-hop artists Public Enemy, Nas, Guru and Erykah Badu.

Although hip-hop was different in tone and style from the jazz Mr. Byrd had performed in his youth, he considered it part of a long musical continuum.

“It reflects the tenor of the times, which African American music has always done,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 1993. “It is a furtherance of what vocal music coming out of the jazz and African American expression has always been, from Louis Armstrong to Cab Calloway to people like Dizzy [Gillespie] and Eddie Jefferson.”

Donaldson Toussaint L’Ouverture Byrd II was born Dec. 9, 1932, in Detroit, where his father was a Methodist minister.

The younger Byrd served as a musician in the Air Force in the 1950s and attended Detroit’s Wayne State University before moving to New York. In 1955 and 1956, he occupied the trumpet chair in the Jazz Messengers, the influential group led for many years by drummer Art Blakey.

Mr. Byrd made many albums as a leader on the Blue Note label, including several with a fellow Detroit native, baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams. In 1960, Mr. Byrd was the first major jazz performer to hire the young pianist Herbie Hancock, who went on to great acclaim with trumpeter Miles Davis and as a solo performer.

Mr. Byrd had at least four academic degrees, including a master’s degree from the Manhattan School of Music and, according to published reports, a law degree from Howard. Many accounts stated that he received a doctorate in education from Columbia University’s Teachers College in 1982, but that information could not be immediately verified.

Information on survivors could not be confirmed, either. Alex Bugnon, a jazz musician close to Mr. Byrd’s family, wrote in a Facebook entry and confirmed in an e-mail to The Washington Post late last week that Mr. Byrd had died on Feb. 4, but he said he was not authorized by the family to disclose the information.

“I have no more patience for this unnecessary shroud of secrecy placed over his death by certain members of his immediate family,” he wrote in his Facebook entry. In an e-mail to The Post, Bugnon said internal disputes in Mr. Byrd’s family led to “an unfortunate drama that could have been easily avoided.”

Mr. Byrd established jazz studies programs at Howard and North Carolina Central University and taught at many other colleges, including Hampton University in Virginia, Rutgers University in New Jersey, Delaware State University and the University of Delaware. He lived in Dover, Del., for several years.

Mr. Byrd was a noted collector of works by African American artists.

After his forays into jazz fusion and hip-hop, Mr. Byrd attempted to return late in his career to the straight-ahead jazz he had played in his younger years. But time had not been kind to his once-pure tone and fleet improvisational style.

“Sadly, the man barely can unspool a phrase that doesn’t wobble onto wrong pitches and into [unintentionally] distant keys,” Chicago Tribune critic Howard Reich wrote in 1997, “and he often has difficulty sustaining a melodic line that doesn’t crack somewhere near the end.”

Nonetheless, Mr. Byrd was named a Jazz Master in 2000 by the National Endowment for the Arts, the country’s highest honor for jazz musicians. He continued to perform sporadically into his late 70s and was regarded by generations of musicians as a jazz elder.

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.