Remembering Donald Byrd

Donald Byrd

In the mid-seventies, I was between two musical worlds; the no-nonsense, bebop jazz swing that men my dad’s age loved – which I also adored in bits and pieces – and the infinite indigo varieties of soul, R&B, funk and disco that was the sepia soundtrack of my teenage generation at the time. I needed somebody to come along give me a bridge to my father’s music, with the musical DNA that I could still get with.

That’s when Donaldson Toussaint L'Ouverture Byrd II, AKA Dr. Donald Byrd, came into my soundworld. And I have never been the same.

The Detroit-born trumpeter, composer, bandleader and educator, who died this week at the age of 80, was a forward-thinking artist who applied a sophisticated jazz aesthetic to the Black popular sounds of the day: and made music that served as a syncopated passport to the earlier, more complex art of Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, with the-on-the-one arrangements of the Philly International, CTI and Motown styles.

Most folks remember their first kiss, or the day they got their driver’s license. I remember that rainy day in 1973 when I first heard Byrd’s legendary Blue Note LP, Black Byrd. The hypnotic bassline of the album’s title cut, along with the tight vocals, punchy hornlines and Afro-funk, guitar lines layered with Byrd’s Art Blakey Jazz Messenger-forged trumpet/flugelhorn solos, and his raspy voice, sounded like a hip, Blaxploitation soundtrack. It opened up undiscovered regions of my mind. And I started to appreciate the jazz séances my dad and his boys would go into when they heard these sounds.

From Black Byrd, to his other stellar, Mizell Brothers-produced Blue Note LPs, Street Lady, Places and Spaces, Stepping Into Tomorrow, and Caricatures, Byrd kept raising his game, and blowing my young mind with hits like “Change, “Dominoes”,  “Flight Time, ” “Think Twice” and “Dance Band.” His place in music would have been secure if he stopped there. But he didn’t. Byrd – who studied with the towering classical teacher Nadia Boulanger in Paris, one of Quincy Jones' instructors– became the first jazz professor at Howard University in the early seventies, where he forged his most prized pupils into the superband called The Blackbyrds, who gave us the jam-of-ages, “Rock Creek Park.”  Byrd also taught at North Carolina Central University and created an equally bad band of brothers called N.C.C.U., whose cut “Super Trick,” can still get them on the dance floor.

Byrd, who received music and law degrees from Columbia University and the Manhattan School of Music, dropped his jazz science at a number of colleges, including Delaware State University. He and Isaac Hayes created a quiet storm favorite, “Feel Like Loving You Today.” And his beats from his Blue Note recordings laid the foundation for hip-hop, as evidenced by “Loungin,’” Byrd’s collab with GURU that had heads bobbing from the Metropole to the Motor City.

As I sit writing these words, I can hear his composition “Onward ‘Till Morning,” in my headphones. It’s a joyous, anthemic, soaring piece with a beautiful alto sax solo by Gary Bartz. And I’ll bet my last money that’s what the good Doctor is playing as he jams with the angels in Heaven.