Skip navigation

Thursday February 14, 2013

Innovative trumpeter played with the greats

Bandmate of Coltrane, Monk and others brought jazz to the academy as well

Associated Press

Jazz musician Donald Byrd, a leading hard-bop trumpeter of the 1950s who collaborated on dozens of albums with top artists of his time and later enjoyed commercial success with jazz-funk fusion records such as Black Byrd, has died. He was 80.

Mr. Byrd, who was also a pioneer in jazz education, attended high school in Detroit, played in military bands in the Air Force and moved to New York in 1955. The trumpeter, whose given name was Donaldson Toussaint L'Ouverture Byrd II, rose to national prominence when he joined Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers in 1955, filling the seat in the bebop group held by his idol, Clifford Brown.

He soon became one of the most in-demand trumpeters on the New York scene, playing with Max Roach, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk.

In 1958, he signed an exclusive recording contract with the Blue Note label and formed a band with a fellow Detroit native, baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams, making their label debut with the 1959 album Off to the Races. The band became one of the leading exponents of the hard-bop style, which evolved from bebop and blended in elements of R&B, soul and gospel music. A 1961 recording, Free Form, brought attention to 20-year-old pianist Herbie Hancock.

"Donald had this beautiful tone and had a very lyrical sense of playing and a real sense of melody," said Mr. Hancock, who two years later joined Miles Davis's famed quintet and later formed his own Grammy-winning jazz-funk band.

In a telephone interview, Mr. Hancock said Mr. Byrd was a key influence who took him "under his wings" when he was a struggling musician newly arrived in New York, even letting him sleep on a hide-a-bed in his Bronx apartment for several years.

"He was the first person to let me be a permanent member of an internationally known band," Mr. Hancock added. "He has always nurtured and encouraged young musicians. He's a born educator - it seems to be in his blood - and he really tried to encourage the development of creativity."

In the 1960s, Mr. Byrd, who had received his master's degree from the Manhattan School of Music, turned his attention to jazz education. He studied in Paris with composer Nadia Boulanger, became the first person to teach jazz at Rutgers University in New Jersey, and started the jazz studies department at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

He began moving toward a more commercial sound with the funk-jazz fusion album Fancy Free in 1969, taking a path followed by fellow trumpeters Miles Davis and Freddie Hubbard. He teamed up with the Mizell brothers to release Black Byrd in 1973, a blend of jazz, R&B and funk that became Blue Note's highest selling album at the time.

Jazz critics panned Mr. Byrd for deviating from the jazz mainstream, but he was unperturbed.

"I'm creative; I'm not re-creative," he said. "I don't follow what everybody else does."

In 1982, Mr. Byrd, who also had a law degree, received his doctorate from Columbia University and turned again to education.

He didn't have much training in mathematics, but created a groundbreaking curriculum called Music + Math (equals) Art, in which he transformed notes into numbers to simultaneously teach music and math. "I can take any series of numbers and turn it into music, from Bach to bebop, Herbie Hancock to hip-hop," he said.

In 2000, the National Endowment for the Arts recognized Mr. Byrd as a Jazz Master, the United States' highest jazz honour.

He died Feb. 4 in Delaware. No details of his death were available.

Back to top