Byrdland: Why Donald Byrd Mattered to Jazz, Its Legitimacy, and D.C.
When news of Donald Byrd’s death was finally confirmed by major news outlets on Monday, it had been four days since his nephew by marriage, the jazz pianist Alex Bugnon, had announced his passing on Facebook. Byrd—a trumpeter, composer, educator, and National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master who was the founding director of Howard University’s Jazz Studies program—had died in his Delaware home on Feb. 4.
While obituary desks across the country attempted to confirm the loss, certain corners of Facebook and Twitter blew up with tributes. I was struck by something the tenor saxophonist Jaleel Shaw posted. “Thank you for not only sharing so much amazing music with us through the DECADES,” he wrote, “but also sharing so much knowledge with so many musicians!”
It’s not rare to see a musician praised for “sharing” work or knowledge, but the sentiment has a special meaning when it comes to Donald Byrd, particularly in Washington, where he taught for a number of years.
Born in Detroit in 1932, Byrd—acclaimed for his clear but piercing tone and warm, detail-oriented playing style—made his name as trumpeter in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, arguably the primary force of the hard bop school that dominated the 1950s. Byrd thus became a central player in that hard-swinging, earthy approach, and an important trumpeter of the era. He worked with other iconic figures including Horace Silver, Sonny Rollins, and John Coltrane. He also mentored future star Herbie Hancock and remained a key figure in the 1960s as hard bop gave way to soul jazz, then in the fusion era of the 1970s.
That was the decade of The Blackbyrds. The hit-making jazz-funk band grew out of Byrd’s classes at Howard, comprising his most accomplished students, including D.C. native and drummer Keith Killgo, who re-formed the band last year. Their pop successes included 1975’s “Rock Creek Park,” a remarkably distinctive single—you’ll recognize that synth line anywhere—that became a theme song for the District and has been sampled by everyone from Grandmaster Flash to De La Soul to D.C.’s own Oddisee. Indeed, while Byrd’s musical accomplishments remain somewhat underappreciated in jazz, hip-hop artists have long been fans. Samples featuring his trumpet playing appear in tracks by Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest, Nas, and Madlib—one important answer to the question of whether Byrd’s music endures.
Byrd’s recording credits are enough to merit his status as a first-tier jazz musician—especially in D.C., where hard bop continues to be the foundation of the scene. (In another D.C. connection, Byrd’s longtime association with Blue Note Records meant that he spent a lot of time on the bandstand and in the studio with bassist Butch Warren, one the District’s greatest jazzmen.) But Byrd’s legacy, in D.C. and elsewhere, runs much deeper.
Byrd’s most important accomplishments may have been as a jazz educator. His own undergraduate work at Detroit’s Wayne State University was interrupted when he was drafted to fight in the Korean War; afterward, he revealed his remarkable self-discipline by completing his Wayne State degree even while he was working in New York. He later pulled a similar trick with his master of fine arts degree, which he earned from Manhattan School of Music as his career was peaking. (He later picked up a Ph.D. in music education and a law degree.) In the early 1960s, he turned that discipline toward others’ musical learning: He took a position as a lecturer at Brooklyn College in the early 1960s, and served as composer-in-residence at New Jersey’s Rutgers University.
Meanwhile in D.C., Howard University was facing rebellion in its music department. The school’s curriculum was strictly classical, and jazz was forbidden; students were expelled for playing it in campus practice rooms, and strongly discouraged from performing it off campus. (Jazz legend Benny Golson, now the namesake of an award given at Howard, actually quit the university because of this policy.) Howard finally relented in the face of student protests in the early and mid-’60s, agreeing to create a Jazz Studies program—and recruiting Byrd to be its first director.
Put into a fledgling position that the higher-ups had no love for, Byrd nonetheless built an academic program that would acquire prestige. Alumni stretching from Geri Allen to Wallace Roney to Marc Cary to Christie Dashiell; the Howard University Jazz Ensemble; the vocal group Afro-Blue—these are all, directly or indirectly, parts of Byrd’s legacy.
Byrd was also one of the first major working jazz artists to become a college-level educator in the music, setting a longstanding precedent. “That old saw about how ‘those who don’t, teach?’ Well, all of those guys, and I include myself in there, do, and teach,” says Davey Yarborough, the director of the jazz program at D.C.’s Duke Ellington School of the Arts. “The best educators are the ones that are currently active in their craft; they’re the ones best able to pass it on. And Donald Byrd definitely exemplified that.”
Byrd’s tenure at Howard set another precedent: It established jazz studies as a staple of historically black colleges and universities. Byrd would spend the next 30 years establishing or developing jazz programs at other institutions, including Hampton Institute (now Hampton University), North Carolina Central University, and Delaware State University. Yarborough says the earlier controversy over jazz at Howard was about “jazz being thought legitimate music at institutions of higher education—at African-American institutions of higher education.” By establishing jazz at the foremost of those institutions, Byrd played an important part in that legitimacy.
Beyond the academy, what remains is Byrd’s music. A New Perspective, his innovative 1963 album featuring a jazz band and gospel choir, includes the beautiful “Cristo Redentor” by Duke Pearson. It begins with the choir’s female voices wordlessly articulating the simple minor-key melody in stately form, with the male singers, piano, bass, and vibraphone accompanying. Finally, two minutes in, Byrd’s trumpet takes over the melody with a plaintive wail—reined in, but loose and expressive in a way that the voices are not. He doesn’t improvise—Herbie Hancock does, playing blues licks around him—but Byrd’s ragged, emotional reading of the theme is as telling and personal as any spontaneous solo. If his other accomplishments were washed away tomorrow, that one would sustain him for posterity.
Photo by Francis Wolff/Courtesy Blue Note
Correction: Due to a reporting error, the article originally misidentified the writer of "Cristo Redentor."