He was born in Detroit in 1932. His father was a Methodist minister and amateur musician who encouraged young Donald to pursue both education and the trumpet. Byrd dove into both with vigor, and by the time he graduated high school he had already performed with legendary vibraphonist Lionel Hampton.
In the 1955 he moved to New York City in order to pursue a Masters from the Manhattan School of Music. By the end of the year he had joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers group. He only stayed with the Messengers a handful of months, and went on to play with Max Roach, Sonny Rollins and, of course, John Coltrane... all this in less than two years!
These experiences essentially meant that Byrd had been thoroughly steeped in the bebop tradition. This is significant, as bebop itself was a pivotal moment for jazz; it was a moment where Black musicians were consciously reconnecting their music with a sense of both seriousness and improvisation. Gillespie, Parker, Monk and Roach. These players didn’t view themselves as entertainers but artists.
Some of this spirit must have rubbed off on the young Donald Byrd. As in all genres of music, here have always been those looking to draw a line under jazz’s current state and definitively state that anything beyond those parameters isn’t “pure.” These are the timid souls who want music easily compartmentalized; all the easier it will be to sell or stamp into a never-changing tome of music history.
Byrd wasn’t one of these types. He took the scholarly and historic importance of jazz very seriously; in the mid 60’s as Civil Rights morphed into Black Power he campaigned hard for the colleges at which he taught to bring jazz history into the curriculum. But he also seemed to understand that no music can be relevant unless its own practitioners are willing upset the set-up every now and again.
Stepping back, Byrd’s nuanced and eclectic musical ethos seems to almost perfectly mirror these times. The boom in Black consciousness and the anti-colonial struggles inspired many to turn their attention to Africa, and Byrd became fascinated with West African rhythms and sounds. It was also around this time that funk and soul began to be folded into his songs, putting him into the same league as countless others breaking down the barriers like Miles Davis, Nina Simone and Gil Scott-Heron. Sure, plenty of purists turned their noses up, but nobody can remember their names.
The Black struggle in the United States has at its strongest balanced between knowing your past and envisioning your future -- the notion that in order to get where you want to go, you need to honor the fights your ancestors have put up (indeed, this can probably be said about any struggle for rights or self-determination). If this is true, then Byrd’s pinnacle in the early ‘70s was musical proof positive. The melange of African sounds, soul swagger and funk outrageousness slapped onto a jazz pallet made the end result so much greater than the sum of its parts. And the purists -- those Booker T. Washingtons of the jazz world whose selective amnesia and narrow visions led them to call Byrd all kinds of names -- had to eat their words when 1973’s Black Byrd became the best selling album in the history of Blue Note Records.
In the 80’s and 90’s, Byrd focused mostly on his teaching his love at various colleges. His output slowed, and primarily returned to a more conventional hard bop mode. This didn’t mean he was renouncing his role as an innovator; far from it actually. When Gang Starr’s Guru threw his Jazzmatazz project into the ring, Byrd was one of the many jazz players who joined in with enthusiasm. He was sampled by the likes of Nas, Public Enemy, Pharcyde and Del tha Funkee Homosapien. When asked in 1994 why he was willing to join up with Jazzmatazz, Byrd put it plainly: “I knew that something new was getting ready to jump off.”
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Byrd was extraordinarily cerebral; by the time of his passing he had two Masters degrees to his name, as well as a Ph.D and a law degree. But he always managed to dodge pretense and remain thoroughly organic. You can hear it in his playing. Much like Miles Davis, his trumpet virtuosity didn’t come so much from being able to play innumerable notes in quick succession as much as it did from knowing which notes to play. He was someone who knew how to weave experiences and knowledge into his music in a way that was never wooden and left things open for interpretation.
That said, it was never too difficult to figure out what Byrd was up to during his creative peak. Electric Byrd, Ethiopian Knights, the soundtrack for blaxploitation film Street Lady, the highly underrated Afrofuturism of Stepping Into Tomorrow where the listener is musically exalted to “Design A Nation.” These albums are nothing short of masterpieces.
In these degrees of genius, however, nothing even comes close to the nuanced perfection of Black Byrd. The album cover is decked in the green, black and red of African pride, with a scene at its center that appears to be straight from an early 1900’s juke joint. “Flight-Time,” the first song, opens with the sound of a jetliner taking off before easing into an almost highlife-style trumpet and flute part framed by punctuated electric bass and keys. We get the feeling that we’re almost literally being taken on a trip to the motherland.
Then there’s the title track itself. It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to put your own name in a song or album title. But because there is an effortless confidence flowing through the song, Byrd gets to pull it off with admirable style. The rubbing together of past and future, the tamblas and congas mixing in with the electric trumpets and keyboards, result in the feel of a slow tide rising.
The choral lyrics are minimal and even at first a bit silly. Combined as they are with the swagger and sense of irresistible reckoning though, it sounds almost as if the “black bird shouting” is actually something much more symbolic and collective, the invocation to “get in the groove and move” applicable to much more than just music.
In 2011, in an interview he did with JazzTimes, Byrd reflected on why he recorded Black Byrd: “Black Byrd is indicative, from the album cover to the music, of where Black people are at today.”
So what was he trying to tell us when he made music like this? Why evolve? Why change? Why bring up the state of Black America via the music at all? The answer might be found in the often cited observation of fellow jazz innovator Max Roach. Roach, of course, is one of the fathers of bebop, and he pointed out that what made the sub-genre’s improvisation so revolutionary was its thoroughly democratic ethos -- the possibility for all those involved to have their say and bring something unique to the table. This was something that Byrd appeared to be aware of. In the same 2011 interview, he commented on why he allowed himself to evolve as an artist:
Western music has become too traditionalized that it has killed itself. And the fact of that is it is clearly evident; like when you look at symphonic music and their so called cultural music and so forth, it is so dead it has to be subsidized by the government because there is no participation whatsoever. It's possible to actually exhaust just about all the possibilities of a certain type of system... and that’s what has happened. So Black music has continually evolved and changed because it‘s an all-encompassing music type, by that it draws upon all types of music, and it’s being incorporated into it. Western music is so standardized that you can’t do this, you can’t do that, so what happens is that by the time you have gone through the educational process of learning so called western music, it has completely bleached out any feeling whatsoever. And even in the philosophy of the music, it’s supposed to be up and beyond the people. But Black music isn’t. It has a tradition, but it hasn’t been standardized to the point it completely negates any input.
The Western music world Donald Byrd left behind is one where the room for input and participation from Black artists remains deceptively narrow, despite the rich tradition these artists may represent. On the one hand things are immeasurably more diverse in the musical mainstream than they would have been during Byrd’s heyday. Finding artists of color on the airwaves in the pages of the biggest music rags isn’t hard.
At the same time, the overall structure of the business has become so much more homogenized and controlled. There are a lot fewer stories and struggles related. For lack of a better term, it’s been Westernized. Hopefully, there will be more artists like Donald Byrd looking to decolonize it all in the years to come.
First published at Red Wedge