Donald Byrd: Trumpeter and bandleader who offended critics with his mixture of jazz and soul


The name of Donald Byrd means different things to different generations of music listeners. For those who prize the mainstream jazz of the 1950s and 1960s, he was a gifted trumpeter and one of the best practitioners of "hard-bop". But he reached a far wider audience in the 1970s, by aligning himself with the soul and funk music of the day, achieving huge sales, especially with the album Black Byrd. He was also possessed of a huge intellectual energy, and pursued an academic career in parallel with his musical one, taking lecturing jobs from the 1960s on.

The son of a Methodist minister, Byrd was christened Donaldson but also had forenames honouring Toussaint L'Ouverture, who two years after the French Revolution led the slave revolt that liberated Haiti from French rule. His home town, Detroit, had a very vibrant jazz scene, which welcomed the teenage Byrd before service in the air force. Simultaneously with his jazz involvement, in 1954 Byrd earned a BA in music from the local Wayne State University.

Moving to pursue his MA in music education at Manhattan School of Music, he was rapidly absorbed into the New York jazz world. During a prolific period for recording, he appeared on studio sessions by John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and others, while working with the groups of Art Blakey and Horace Silver. He then became co-leader of the Jazz Lab with the saxophonist Gigi Gryce and, after touring with his own group in Europe, he was co-leader of a quintet with a former Detroit colleague, Pepper Adams. The Byrd-Adams group's pianists included Duke Pearson (one of the first African Americans to become a record producer) and subsequent superstar Herbie Hancock.

Gryce was one of the earliest jazz musicians to insist on retaining copyrights to the tunes he recorded, and his example rubbed off on Byrd, who not only employed Hancock on his album Free Form (1961) but encouraged the Blue Note company to record the pianist's own music, insisting that Hancock form his own publishing outlet to administer "Watermelon Man" and the rest of his repertoire. Byrd also introduced Hancock to his next employer, Miles Davis.

Byrd himself took a sabbatical from playing, studying composition in Paris for a year, where one of his tutors was the renowned composer and conductor Nadia Boulanger. Following a succès d'estime with his album A New Perspective, which included a choir alongside his jazz sextet, he became actively involved in education, initially at Rutgers University in New Jersey. A few years later he reflected that, in the mid-1950s: "I was being ridiculed for going to school… But, you see, I had looked hard at the other musicians and the whole show-business scene… They were doing with jazz musicians what they usually reserved for rock'n'roll cats: making them overnight successes, then overnight antiques… I thought that I would like to be affiliated with some school or institution. As time went on, I also decided on the subject that I wanted to get involved with in addition to music: it was Black Studies."

He continued recording through the 1960s, often produced by Duke Pearson, and gradually letting the influence of popular soul music infiltrate his jazz approach. While teaching music at Washington's Howard University in the early 1970s, he also studied for a law degree. In 1973 he made his breakthrough album, Black Byrd, for Blue Note. It and its successors were produced by Larry and Fonce (Alphonso) Mizell.

Taking vocals as well as desultory trumpet solos, Byrd at the age of 40 became an overnight success with the African-American audience, but the jazz purists were not amused. Richard Cook, in Blue Note Records: the Biography, wrote that "Next to bands such as the Ohio Players or Kool & the Gang,… musicians like Byrd either sounded like they were slumming it or seemed comically self-conscious about trying to make their jazz-soul music work."

Byrd formed a touring ensemble with some of his students, named the Blackbyrds, and also recorded students from North Carolina Central University (the band N.C.C.U.) and a group called 125th Street NYC, with producer Isaac Hayes on keyboards. But when he returned to the studio in the late 1980s, he played in more conservative jazz surroundings.

Meanwhile, his 1970s hit songs such as "Places and Spaces" and "Stepping Into Tomorrow" had become popular with young white Europeans of the so-called "acid-jazz" generation and with the more aware rappers. Byrd collaborated on the 1993 album Jazzmatazz, by rapper Guru (Keith Elam) and saw numerous hip-hop producers sampling the grooves from his 1970s tracks like "Think Twice", to create new hits by such groups as Main Source and A Tribe Called Quest.

He continued to pursue his academic career and, after taking his PhD from Columbia University's School of Education in 1982, he resumed lecturing on both music and law as it affects the music business. In the 2000s he was Distinguished Artist in Residence at Delaware State University and, in recent years, had apparently struggled with the effects of diabetes. It's ironic that, while few of his hard-bop recordings attained the status of standards, the 1970s tracks that were so popular and so widely sampled all bear composition credits for Larry Mizell. Clearly, Byrd's dedication to teaching was reward enough.

Brian Priestley

Donaldson Toussaint L'Ouverture Byrd II, trumpeter and bandleader: born Detroit 9 December 1932; died Teaneck, New Jersey 4 February 2013.