Washington guitarist Charlie Byrd will always be known as the foremost American exponent of bossa nova, the Brazilian craze he and tenor saxophonist Stan Getz launched with their 1962 album "Jazz Samba." Over the next three or four years, bossa nova, with its supple meld of samba rhythms and cool jazz melodies, became a worldwide phenomenon and, wisely, Byrd never abandoned the form in a career than included more than 100 albums.
But bossa nova simply provided the dignified Virginian a forum for a very different fusion, that of jazz and classical guitar, and that is where he carved himself a unique niche in guitar history. Critic Leonard Feather suggested that Byrd was "possibly the most versatile guitarist ever to play jazz."
Byrd, who died yesterday of cancer at age 74 (his illness was first diagnosed 30 years ago), was a longtime Washington institution, particularly after long runs at nightclubs that were virtually synonymous with him--first at the Showboat Lounge on 18th Street, where he cemented an international following in the late '50s, and, in the '70s, with a club that bore his name, Charlie's Georgetown. He played so often at Blues Alley that he might as well have owned a piece of it.
What folks came to cherish was Byrd's facility with many forms--bossa nova, of course, but also pop and jazz standards, blues, folk and classical, as well as the genial, gently swinging ensembles he surrounded himself with, from his longtime Trio and the Great Guitars supergroup with Barney Kessel and Herb Ellis to the Washington Guitar Quintet. No matter what the surroundings, Byrd always displayed a delicate touch, sophisticated harmonies and, sometimes, uncharacteristic fervor--he could ride a rhythm tune in ways that surprised those who thought of him mostly as a great technician and lyrical improviser.
Charlie Byrd was a reflection of myriad and disparate influences. Growing up in Chuckatuck, a small rural town in Virginia's Tidewater region, he was first exposed to blues musicians who stopped in at his father's country store. Byrd's father was an accomplished amateur guitarist and mandolinist, and young Charlie began picking at age 9. He showed an early facility, as well as big ears, absorbing not only blues mannerisms but also the innovative jazz guitar styles of Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt and Les Paul. Byrd first made his presence felt when he joined the Army and ended up in a Special Services band--playing electric guitar.
After the Army, Byrd moved to New York, where he began to investigate the possibilities of melding jazz and classical guitar, something no one else was doing. But it wasn't until he returned to Washington in 1950 that the pieces began to fall into place. He studied with the great Sophocles Papas, who operated the first classical guitar degree program in America, and pursued theory and harmony studies with musicologist Thomas Simmons. By 1954, Byrd had advanced far enough to spend the summer in Italy in a master-class program with Andres Segovia; he also fell under the sway of flamenco (an early album from 1958 included the fusionary "Funky Flamenco").
In time, Byrd began adapting classical techniques to the jazz idiom, including flamenco-like rolls and fast two-finger runs. Where most postwar jazz guitarists favored picks and electric guitars, Byrd bucked that trend by playing jazz with his fingers on nylon strings, which he always insisted allowed for greater subtlety.
One of Byrd's favorite club routines was the "Quiet Set," in which he played unaccompanied and often unamplified, as a classical guitarist would in concert. When he began his long run at the Showboat Lounge, it was this intriguing and decidedly different sound that filled the club with fans as impervious to musical borders as Byrd himself was.
In fact, it was this unique style that caught the attention of the State Department, which in 1961 sponsored a tour of American jazz musicians to Brazil. That's where Byrd fell in love with samba and bossa nova, bringing back suitcases full of albums and memories of encounters with many of that country's great composers and musicians. Technically, Byrd wasn't the first to connect Brazilian music and jazz--Laurindo Almeida, a frequent recording partner in latter years, was. And he wasn't even the first American to record bossa nova--Bud Shank's "Brazilliance" (featuring Almeida) had come out four years earlier.
But Byrd and Getz were the first to popularize bossa nova, and they did so by tapping into the genre's great composers--notably Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luiz Bonfa. The "Jazz Samba" album not only topped the charts and sold millions of copies, but it also produced the breezy melancholy of such enduring classics as "Desafinado," "Meditation" and "One Note Samba."
As Feather wrote, "the combination of Getz's subtly graceful improvisation and Byrd's harmonic and rhythmic ingenuity was not only an artistic success, but also a commercial hit of such magnitude that the entire bossa nova craze in the U.S. may be said to have sprung directly from this one album."
And while much of Charlie Byrd's fame came from that album, the range and depth he displayed over his long career extended far beyond.