Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Byrd, Donald (Donaldson Toussaint LíOuverture)

Trumpeter Donald Byrdís unique sound, a combination of sharp intonation and vibrant tonal clarity, landed him in the center stage of the jazz world when hit Manhattan in 1955. Byrdís tenure as a hard bop sensation was but one phase of a varied musical career that has led him through the uncharted waters of jazz fusion to become a leading figure in jazz education.

Named in part after the black leader of Haiti's independence, Donaldson Toussiant LíOuverture Byrd II was born in Detroit on December 9, 1932. His father was a Methodist minister and amateur musician. Young Donald Byrd learned trumpet within Detroit's public school music education system, which at the time was well developed and highly regarded, where he played alongside tenor saxophonist and flutist Yusef Lateef and baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams.

At 18, Byrd joined the United States Air Force, and played in a variety of military bands during his three-year stint. Discharged in 1955, he went to New York City and made his first bebop appearances as a member of pianist George Wallingtonís Quintet.

By December of that year, Byrd had joined drummer Art Blakeyís Jazz Messengers. Evidence of Byrd's disciplined work ethic is that between his Air Force stint and his early years as an emerging bebop trumpeter, Byrd managed to earn a bachelorís degree at Wayne State University, then received his masterís from the Manhattan School of Music.

When left the Jazz Messengers in 1956, he became one of New York leading jazz trumpeters, gigging with drummer Max Roach, and tenor saxophonists Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane.

Byrd first recorded for Savoy Records as both a leader and a sideman with drummer Kenny Clarke, bandleader and pianist, Hank Jones, composer and tenor saxophonist, Ernie Wilkins and others. His soulful, clear-toned improvisations were featured on several other labels before he was signed to an exclusive contract with Blue Note Records in 1958.

That year he teamed up with his old Motor City friend Pepper Adams and they co-led a band for four years, recording a succession of hard bop hits. The band also introduced several new players, including pianists Duke Pearson and a 20-year-old Herbie Hancock, who recorded a half-dozen Blue Note albums with Byrd in 1961.

During that same period Donald Byrd earned international acclaim, spending several months playing at festivals throughout Western Europe, where he had the good fortune to study music under the renowned theorist, Nadia Boulanger, who had had a profound influence on American composers, including Aaron Copeland, George Gershwin and Quincy Jones.

Energized by this experience, Byrd soon crossed into a new realm of gospel and blues, with the simple melodic and spiritual tunes performed in the 1963 album, A New Perspective, criticized by jazz mainstreamers, but clearly an expression his ability to fuse jazz expression into other musical idioms. His soulful, powerful entrance on the tune "Cristo Redentor" is considered one of his finest performances.

In the mid-1960s, Byrd became head of Howard Universityís jazz studies program, and simultaneously taught at Brooklyn College in New York City and served as composer in residence at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. One of the first leading jazz musicians to also teach in universities, he paved the way for jazz studies as a college curriculum and as a means of recognizing the African-American origins of jazz.

In 1969, with other trumpet players like Freddie Hubbard and Miles Davis producing their own brands of jazz-fusion, Byrd released Fancy Free, with a more commercial lean toward funk-jazz fusion. Later teaming up with pianist and vocalist, Larry Mizell and his vocalist, trumpeter and clavinet-playing brother Fonce, Byrd released Black Byrd in 1972, performing also on flugelhorn. Much hated by jazz critics, the album combined three idioms; jazz, R&B and funk and became Blue Note Records' number-one seller at the time.

A year later, Byrd, now a professor of ethnomusicology at Howard University, invited four of his students to join the Blackbyrds. The group had several hit albums, including Flying Start with the hit single, Walking in Rhythm that landed on the Billboard Chart at number 6, and number 4 on the R & B chart. Eventually, the Blackbyrds earned three gold records and three Grammy award nominations.

As mainstream jazz performers suffered through lean times in respect to popularity and record sales, Byrdís experiments with electric and funk-influenced jazz paid off. After receiving his PhD. in 1982 from the Columbia Teachers College, Dr. Donaldson Byrd relaxed his performing career to focus on advancing university-level jazz education programs.

In the late 198ís he returned to his jazz roots, teaming up with alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett (http://www.jazz.com/encyclopedia/garrett-kenny), tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson, and bassist Rufus Reid on a series of Landmark sessions recorded between 1987 and 1991.

In 2000, the United States' National Endowment for the Arts named Byrd a Jazz Master, the nation's highest honor for jazz musicians. In May 2007, as part of the NEAís Jazz in Our Time concert series, he performed at the Kennedy Center as a special guest of keyboardist Ahmad Jamal.

Byrd lives in Teaneck, New Jersey.

Select Discography

First Flight, Denmark, 1955

Jazz in Paris, Sunnyside, 1958

Early Byrd, Blue Note, 1960-72

Electric Byrd, Blue Note, 1970

Black Byrd, Blue Note, 1974

Getting Down to Business, Landmark, 1989

A City Called Heaven, Landmark, 1961

Contributor: Dave Krikorian