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.

Voices
Numbers of complaints about unwanted calls have trebled in just six months
voices
News
people
Arts & Entertainment
Picture of innocence: Ricky Gervais and Karl Pilkington in ‘Derek’
tvReview: The insights of Ricky Gervais's sweet and kind character call to mind Karl Pilkington's faux-naïf podcast observations
Life & Style
Looking familiar: The global biometrics industry is expected to grow to $20bn by 2020
tech
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
News
Higher expectations: European economies are growing but the recovery remains weak
newsThe eurozone crisis has tipped many into despair and extremism - this radically altered landscape calls for a new kind of politics, argues economist Philippe Legrain
Arts & Entertainment
Tangled up in blue: Singer-songwriter Judith Owen
musicAnd how husband Harry Shearer - of Spinal Tap and The Simpsons fame - helped her music flourish
Sport
Karim Benzema celebrates scoring the opening goal
sportReal Madrid 1 Bayern Munich 0: Germans will need their legendary self-belief to rescue Champions League tie in second leg
Arts & Entertainment
Paul Weller: 'I am a big supporter of independent record stores but the greedy touts making a fast buck off genuine fans is disgusting'
music
Arts & Entertainment
William Shakespeare's influence on English culture is still strongly felt today, from his plays on stage to words we use everyday
arts
Sport
Manchester United manager David Moyes has claimed supporters understand the need to look at
sportScot thanks club staff and fans, but gives no specific mention of players
News
Foster and Hedison have reportedly been dating since last summer
peopleStar said to be 'totally in love' with photographer Alexandra Hedison
News
Strange 'quack' noises could be undersea chatter of Minke whales
science
News
weird news... and film it, obviously
Life & Style
Balancing act: City workers at the launch of Cityfathers
lifeThe organisation is the brainchild of Louisa Symington-Mills who set up Citymothers in 2012 - a group boasting more than 3,000 members
Arts & Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Construction Solicitor – Surrey

Excellent Salary Package: Austen Lloyd: This is a rare high level opportunity ...

Construction Solicitor NQ+ Manchester

Very Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: This is an excellent opportunity within...

Corporate Finance

£80000 - £120000 per annum + Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: US QUALI...

Banking / Finance Associate - City

Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: Banking / Finance Associate - We have an exce...

Day In a Page

Migrants in Britain a decade on: The Poles who brought prosperity

Migrants in Britain a decade on

The Poles who brought prosperity
Philippe Legrain: 'The eurozone crisis has tipped many into disillusionment, despair and extremism - we need a European Spring'

Philippe Legrain: 'We need a European Spring'

The eurozone crisis has tipped many into disillusionment, despair and extremism - this radically altered landscape calls for a new kind of politics, argues the economist
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A moment of glory on the Western Front for the soldiers of the Raj

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A moment of glory on the Western Front for the soldiers of the Raj
Judith Owen reveals how husband Harry Shearer - star of This Is Spinal Tap and The Simpsons - helped her music flourish

Judith Owen: 'How my husband helped my music flourish'

Her mother's suicide and father's cancer also informed the singer-songwriter's new album, says Pierre Perrone
The online lifeline: How a housing association's remarkable educational initiative gave hope to tenant battling long-term illness and depression

Online lifeline: Housing association's educational initiative

South Yorkshire Housing Association's free training courses gave hope to tenant battling long-term illness and depression
Face-recognition software: Is this the end of anonymity for all of us?

Face-recognition software: The end of anonymity?

The software is already used for military surveillance, by police to identify suspects - and on Facebook
Train Kick Selfie Guy is set to scoop up to $250,000 thanks to his viral video - so how can you cash in on your candid moments?

Viral videos: Cashing in on candid moments

Train Kick Selfie Guy Jared Frank could receive anything between $30,000 to $250,000 for his misfortune - and that's just his cut of advertising revenue from being viewed on YouTube
The world's fastest elevators - 20 metres per second - are coming soon to China

World's fastest elevators coming soon to China

Whatever next? Simon Usborne finds out from Britain's highest authority on the subject
Cityfathers tackles long-hours culture that causes men to miss out on seeing their children

Cityfathers tackles long-hours culture

The organisation is the brainchild of Louisa Symington-Mills, a chief operating officer who set up Citymothers in 2012 - a group that now boasts more than 3,000 members
Ian Herbert: Manchester United broken so badly they need a big personality to carry out overhaul

United broken so badly they need a big personality to carry out overhaul

The size of the rebuild needed at Old Trafford is a task way beyond Ryan Giggs, says Ian Herbert
Mark Schwarzer: Chelsea keeper aims to seize unlikely final chance

Mark Schwarzer: Chelsea keeper aims to seize unlikely final chance

The 41-year-old calmed his nerves to perform a classic 'Superman act' when he replaced Petr Cech in Madrid. One clean sheet later, he is now determined to become a club hero
Brits who migrate to Costa del Sol more unhappy than those who stay at home

It's not always fun in the sun: Moving abroad does not guarantee happiness

Brits who migrate to Costa del Sol more unhappy than those who stay at home
Migrants in Britain a decade on: They came, they worked, they stayed in Lincolnshire

Migrants in Britain a decade on

They came, they worked, they stayed in Lincolnshire
Chris Addison on swapping politics for pillow talk

Chris Addison on swapping politics for pillow talk

The 'Thick of It' favourite thinks the romcom is an 'awful genre'. So why is he happy with a starring role in Sky Living's new Lake District-set series 'Trying Again'?