OTHER PLACES have claimed guitarist Charlie Byrd as their own--Annapolis, where he lived out his last years, Virginia, where he was born, and even Brazil, where the government made him a knight of the Rio Branco. But Charles Lee Byrd, who died Thursday at the age of 74, was a Washington treasure. At the old Showboat Lounge on 18th Street just off Columbia, he captivated this city in the 1950s with exploration and mastery of jazz, classical, blues, pop, folk and Latin sounds--long before his fascination with bassa nova made him a best-selling artist worldwide.
At the Showboat, absolute quiet was a house rule when Charlie Byrd played. Dinner guests would promptly discover the rewards of laying down their silverware to savor the delicate rhythms of an unamplified guitar played the old-fashioned way, with fingers, not picks.
From there Mr. Byrd went on to other establishments that built their names around him: Byrd's Nest in Silver Spring, Charlie's Georgetown and then for decades at Blues Alley here and the King of France Tavern in the Maryland Inn in Annapolis.
The extraordinary, ever-expanding repertoire of Charlie Byrd was a product of his sensitive ear, musical openness and constant study of--and with--guitarists. His studies with Sophocles Papas, Andres Segovia and other classical masters led him to blend those techniques with jazz, flamenco and other expressions. After a State Department-sponsored tour in Brazil in 1961, Mr. Byrd returned with samba and bassa nova rhythms that led to the best-seller "Jazz Samba" album with saxophonist Stan Getz. Thanks to Mr. Byrd and his longtime friend, Washington radio host Felix Grant, this city was the first in the United States to embrace and spread the sound.
Charlie Byrd had a singular soft spot in his heart for the city. Local groups could snag him easily for benefit performances for D.C. home rule and other community causes. In this city he will be remembered not only as an exceptionally gifted musician but also as a special friend.