Guitarist Charlie Byrd, the man who brought the bossa nova to America in the early '60s, is celebrating the first anniversary of his jazz club, Charlie's Georgetown, this week.That's something he's done three times before with clubs that eventually closed down. After 11 years at the original Showboat in Adams-Morgan, and briefer runs in the Maryland suburbs, Byrd insisted last year that he was "involved in my last club, and I think this one might well be."
Byrd, a balding, shorter and bigger-nosed version of Lefty Driesell, is also celebrating 25 years on the Washington music scene, where his comfortable amalgam of light jazz, classical and South American music has been a staple in settings as varied as the White House, All Soul's Church, nightclubs and elementary schools. He plays his namesake club 26 weeks of the year, spending the remaining time on tours and engagements arranged by his longtime partner and business manager, Pete Lambros.
"I don't think it's the nature of the nightclub business to feel comfortable," the soft-spoken Byrd admits. "But we don't approach it in terms of trying to catch a fad. We open a club the way we like it and hope we can interest enough customers -- that's been our philosophy all along. I'm not interested in opening disco clubs or meat markets. I'm interested in offering a club atmosphere to people that like the music I play."
The 56-year-old native of Chuckatuck, in southeastern Virginia, had at one time wanted to be a baseball player but early on found himself drawn to the guitar at informal Saturday afternoon get-togethers at his father's community store. By the age of 12, Byrd was on a local radio show doing "anything I thought I could get away with. My father played the mandolin, so some of what we played was what later came to be called bluegrass," he recalls. "Even then I was interested in popular music -- Benny Goodman, Count Basie . . ."
Byrd, who has over the years practiced musical diplomacy for the State Department on tours to every corner of the world, did his first overseas performing in Europe during World War II, at which time he met the fabled jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. He also studied under Sophocles Pappas and Andrea Segovia, and the dichotomy between jazz and classical styles has never been resolved. "I admit freely and frankly that to diversify yourself that much cannot help but limit any one of the styles," Byrd says. "When I was a kid in New York, I played nothing but jazz. If I had never done anything 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 record, recorded in 1957 in his producer's living room, consisted of 16th-century compositions; although he's not recorded another classical album. Byrd maintains a substantial classical repertoire in his performances. The bossa nova connection came about after a State Department tour of South America. An exuberant Byrd came back with a trunk full of Latin tunes and a head full of ideas. "It was a unique situation," says the man who never drew a similar spice out of the dozens of other countries he visited. "Bossa nova was invented by the Brazilians, but it was already an amalgamation because they liked jazz so much. They had brought in many elements of American music and it made it much easier for us to grasp it and identify with it."
"Jazz Samba," recorded at All Soul's Unitarian Church in 1962 with saxophonist Stan Getz, was a huge success, but Byrd had to go to court when Getz refused to share the royalties. "We're friends, sure," Byrd says now. "It's very hard for musicians to be the closest of friends; we don't spend that much time together. I have great respect for him as one of the greatest saxophone players of all time . . . We get along."
In his long recording career, Byrd has had many odd collaborations, including efforts with labor singer Joe Glazer and the Rev. Malcom ("Are You Running With Me Jesus?") Boyd. There have also been film soundtracks ("Bleep" -- "I think it was retitled several times"), music for Arena Stage's production of Tennessee Williams' "The Purification" and an unsuccessful Broadway musical in the late '60s titled "The Conversion of Patrolman O'Connor." The latter "had such high hopes, but after two or three years of fooling with it, the producers finally decided the story was out of date," Byrd laughs. "It was about the black movement in the United States juxtaposed with the IRA movement in Ireland. If the play was written today, it could be a winner!"
For Byrd, quarter-century highlights include "having the success at the Showboat coincide with the success of my own career -- that's a unique experience in a person's life." He also points to long friendships with WMAL, jazz personality Felix Grant (who "helped me from the beginning. We even did a television program together") and Pete Lambros, who is "a personal manager and beyond that. He has looked after me. Some of us need somebody like that. It's great to have someone taking care of the business who's really for you."
"I'm part of this community and I like to do things with people in this community," Byrd says. He's lived in Annapolis for some time and does a lot of "day sailing" on his 23-foot cabin cruiser, the "B Minor 7 Flat 5." "I don't go out and spend weeks sailing around the Bay the way I would like to if I had more time. I don't take very much time off; I don't need a lot of time off. I like playing."
Is he ready for another 25 years? I'd sure like to think so.