Obituary: Charlie Byrd

Steve Voce
Saturday 04 December 1999 01:02

"I'M A Russian Jew," Stan Getz once told me, "and that's the hardest kind." The guitarist Charlie Byrd was to find out just what he meant.

It was Byrd who introduced Getz to Bossa Nova music and together they made the album Jazz Samba, which included the million-selling "Desafinado" amongst its tracks. The album has over subsequent years also sold a million copies. Getz remarked later that "Desafinado" had paid to put his children through university. Although done under their joint leadership in 1962, Getz took all the benefits in royalties and the credit for the subsequent Grammy award to himself. Getz's life changed immediately and he was from that point on paid as a superstar.

"I made the big mistake of doing the date and not talking about any deal," said Byrd. "The next thing I knew I was out. I mean, no artist royalty, none at all. Just leader's scale, plus scale for the arrangements, all of which I wrote. All Stan had to do was come in and play. We had the rhythm section and the idea."

Typically, as the riches from the album accumulated, Getz had never given a second thought to Byrd's position. In fairness to the tenor player it should be noted that the album had been nominated in two Grammy categories - Record of the Year and Best Jazz Solo Performance.

It won the award in the solo category and since Byrd's solo in the LP version had been excised from the hit single, the award inevitably went to Getz. Byrd took the matter to court and after much acrimony was finally awarded $50,000 and a share of future royalties from the album.

Byrd was not a "showbiz" type. A virtuoso, he had had a solid training and studied with the giants of classical playing, including, in 1950, Sophocles Papas and in 1954 in Italy with Andres Segovia himself. He was able to span the gap between jazz and classical playing with a unique ambivalence and towards the end of the Second World War, whilst still a teenager in the US army he was able to play with his idol, the legendary Django Reinhardt, in France.

Byrd was a most effective evangelist for both forms of music, since his recitals were usually divided into classical and jazz sections. In the earlier part of his career he played electric guitar for economic reasons. When he had more control over his affairs he played acoustic guitar and, unlike almost all his jazz contemporaries, rarely connected himself to the mains.

His father was a mandolin player, and Byrd began his studies with him when he was 10. His brother Joe became a professional bassist, whilst his brother Jack also played guitar. Byrd played at dances whilst he studied at Virginia Technical College and went on to join an army band when he was conscripted. On his release he studied theory and composition at the Hartnett Music School in New York. He joined a Dixieland band led by the clarinettist Sol Yaged in 1947 and the following year left to play with Joe Marsala, another clarinettist, and later with the trio led by the pianist Barbara Carroll.

After a period in the band of the pianist Freddie Slack in 1949, Byrd settled in Washington DC and began giving classical recitals there. He gave up jazz for some years but returned to it when he split his recitals in the city into a half devoted to each idiom. He formed his own trio and worked with it from 1957 until 1966 in Washington at the Showboat Lounge.

But he preferred to play in a concert setting:

Any guitarist has got to like concert. In a night-club - no matter where you're playing - there's a certain fight for attention that we don't like to put up with and we must. If you're a guitar player in a noisy room you might as well not be there. Every guitarist has that problem, that din of noise, and dreads it.

During this time it didn't occur to me that I could transform my classical technique into a jazz idiom. Then one day I woke up and thought, I've had experience playing jazz and now I've had years of good, hard study on the classical guitar and my best show might be to combine them - so I did.

Byrd made his first recording under his own name in 1957. It was to be followed by 40 more, some jazz, some classical and some, under pressure from the record companies, of soporific "easy listening". In all he took part in more than 100 albums.

Byrd composed the music for a production of Tennessee Williams's play The Purification and also played the music for several government films during the Fifties. He joined Woody Herman's band in 1959 and was one of a nucleus of Herman musicians who came to Britain that year to form Herman's Anglo-American Big Band for a national tour. On his return to America he composed and played the music for a low-budget film melodrama called Dead to the World (1960).

In 1961 Byrd undertook the State Department-sponsored tour of South America that was to introduce him to the Bossa Nova style. He said,

When we were in Brazil I played with some of the local musicians. We did these songs and I found it easy to improvise jazz to them. The people seemed to like it. Musicians there do not do much improvising.

When we returned and made plans for this LP [Jazz Samba for the Verve label] we looked for some kind of a voice to be a little like the use of the human voice in these songs and still have a jazz feeling. It had to be someone who could play jazz but with sensitivity. Stan was perfect.

"I listened to the records Charlie had brought back," said Getz, "and it felt good. I thought I'd like to play with the rhythm relaxed like that. It was the first time I'd ever played with Charlie and the things he did with the guitar and the music really impressed me. He has such a feeling for melody." The record company, based in New York, came to Washington to record in a church that Byrd felt had outstanding acoustic qualities.

His part in the popularising of Bossa Nova gave Byrd's career a tremendous impetus. He was called to give a special recital at the White House for President Lyndon Johnson in 1965 and appeared at the 1966 Newport Jazz Festival. Still based in Washington, he continued to tour abroad with other jazz musicians.

In 1973 he joined the distinguished players Barney Kessel and Herb Ellis to found Great Guitars and the three men toured and recorded regularly together. He used a unique Spanish guitar for this work that could switch between amplified and acoustic playing without compromising its sound quality.

Byrd appeared in concert with several symphony orchestras and played at more than a thousand college concerts. In 1973 he published a much respected guitar manual, Charlie Byrd's Melodic Method for Guitar. He signed a contract with the Concord label in 1974 and all his subsequent recordings, jazz and classical, were made for the label. In 1976 Ferde Grofe directed Byrd in the Andes - a jazz odyssey, a film record of Byrd's tour that year of Colombia

For the last 20 years of his life he had to battle with cancer and overcame it so that he was able to continue his career with little interruption. He became a partner in a club in Washington called Charlie's Georgetown, where he played from 1980 until 1985. The winner of innumerable jazz polls over the years, he was in 1997 declared to be the first "Maryland Arts Treasure" and this year was honoured as a Knight of the Rio Branco by the Brazilian government. He made his final trio album, with his brother Joe on bass, last September.

Charles Lee Byrd, guitarist: born Chuckatuck, Virginia, 16 September 1925; married (two daughters); died Annapolis, Maryland 2 December 1999.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments