Donald Byrd: Musician, Scholar, Philosopher

Archival interview with noted trumpeter and bandleader

Donald Byrd is an enigma rarely giving interviews and rare recordings in past years. He’s a scholar with 2 Masters, a J.D. law degree, a Ph.D., and has taught at The Manhattan School of Music and Howard University. He introduced both Herbie Hancock and Elvin Jones to the Jazz coterie. Selected students from his classes and formed the “Blackbyrds” who went Gold and Platinum with 4 albums.

In 1957, Downbeat Magazine voted him ‘New Trumpeter’ at the age of 21. On the Detroit music scene his fellow contemporaries were Yusef Lateef, Kenny Burrell, Doug Watkins, the Jones Bros. (Elvin, Thad, Hank). Then went to Paris for some years playing and studying music. Came back and contracted with Blue Note Records. He was a member of Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and recorded with Monk, Jimmy Smith, Sonny Rollins, and Jackie McLean. Was a member of Horace Silver’s group on the classic “Six Pieces Of Silver” (‘Senor Blues); Collaborated with Duke Pearson on the album “A New Perspective” with the classic ‘Cristo Redentor”, forever associated with two heroes of the United States:John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.

With his “Fancy Free” recording with Duke Pearson on electric piano for the first time, Donald introduced electronic jazz to Bluenote; established a monumental precedent in the history of Bluenote Records with the million selling “Blackbyrd” selected “Album of the Year” and highest grossing album ever, (at Bluenote) outselling both Lee Morgan’s “Sidewinder” and Horace Silver’s “Song For My Father”.

In the early ‘90’s Donald and US 3 had a top Billboard international Hip Hop song called “Cantaloup” created from his “Cantalope Island” Herbie Hancock collaboration. He’s acted and played trumpet in an award winning Budweiser commercial. His last L.A. performance was with Clare Fischer in the late ‘80’s; we last talked on my jazz program at KPFK about his astounding career with Bluenote and Gold record performance with “Blackbyrd”, and why the dramatic change in his direction of playing.

EDH: We would like to go from the present to the past. Why is Blackbyrd so different from the first album “Off To The Races” and has met with much success? (the latter album was Donald’s first as a leader).

DB: ED, one of the reasons I have changed is that I have tried to keep abreast of the times because Black Music opposed to white western music has a tradition---a contemporary living type of music. 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 what soever. It's possible to actually exhaust just about all the possibilities of a certain type of system, I’ll say of music and the type of music; 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. So that’s the reason why I am constantly evolving, because the music constantly evolves.

ED: Are there any innovators in music at the present time, because right now there aren't too many people creating any new music?

DB: There are; but right now, I think people have said that what I am doing is the most forward thing. It seems to be. And like I said, I was watching Miles , (the reason why)Herbie Hancock and the Weather Report and quite a few others; and what happens is that they have become victim of their own type music. Certain types of superficial prejudices that exist. What I mean by that is musicians can get hung up in things like the Downbeat syndrome or the Playboy syndrome , even the Billboard syndrome(Music trade magazines). They get so hung up on trying to be hip or in lots of instances, trying to be popular. They become a victim of what so called musicologists, pseudo-- musicologist and historians describe, how you become such and such or what. They dictate these things. These people become a victim of it instead of actually going out and trying to create new music, you see. In other words, musicians grow up. An example, some members of my group were recently upset because Joe Henderson wasn't in a certain poll. But that has nothing to do with Henderson’s ability to play saxophone. He is still a great saxophonist. Regardless. A couple of years ago, Sonny Rollins wasn’t in a certain poll, you see. So that doesn’t mean that the man can’t actually play. But these things affect the musicians thinking. Why?

They (musicologist) tell them such and such player is the only hip piano player. So everybody wants to be on the hip side, so they run and try to emulate a certain person. They don’t realize that these people are controlling the market. My thing was that saw them moving towards Rock Music because there is nothing wrong with it; and I use the term Rock for the lack of anything better at the moment. But, to me it’s like Stevie Wonder, like James Brown, like Otis Redding. All these people are putting in all their creative artistic endeavors. And just because it sells a great deal doesn’t mean it is actually bad music. So I don’t let people like Leonard Feather, Dan Morganstern, and Ralph Gleason (jazz critics) affect my thinking about my people. You know it’s the same thing with the music; like for instance, Black people didn’t want to play Jazz or be associated with it because it was the Devil’s music; because that’s what the white man had been telling them. Or we have been fractionalized so much by these people in our thinking that we can’t even do what we really should be doing or be about; getting ourselves together musically as well as socially and psychologically.

ED: Are you basically saying that a lot of musicians are trying to play or create to please the critics so that they can be included in the polls?

DB:Right! That’s it precisely. And that these people are the ones who are dictating to them because they think that some medium such as “Down beat” which possibly has a subscription of about 20,000 or even if that many, is the Bible. And what they (Critics ) say is the Gospel. But that’s absurd. It’s fallacious for them to be dictated and controlled. And my thinking is that I’ve been able to see through that. That’s the reason I went out and did “Blackbyrd”, because “Blackbyrd” is indicative from the album cover to the music of where Black People are at today. My music reflects Black People as of this instant. Some people said, ‘Well, I don’t know if its really going ot go down.’ It’s like a monumental thing. It will because it will speak of what was happening in 1973, as being voted the best selling album for 1973 according to Billboard. I mean as far as sales is concerned. I can give you an example. Just to digress. Some woman came up to mean from the Manhattan School of Music the other day and asked me what I was doing and I told her I had just resigned as Chairman of the Jazz Studies Dept. at Howard University, and was out playing my horn again. I told her, ‘incidentally, I was awarded an award for the best selling album. I received a Gold Album’. And she said, ‘Does that mean that it’s the best because that doesn’t actually mean it has to be a great piece of music.’ I said, ‘it is the best because that which sells the best is the best.’ All of a sudden she’s going to put it down because millions of people have bought the album and like the album. That all of a sudden it becomes inferior music. In other words, if I sold five albums, then it would have been a great esoteric work. Well, you see, that’s Bullshit!

ED: How do you feel about “Blackbyrd”; because I followed your music for as many years as I was able to and prior to that. I thought it was a beautiful effort, but I was wondering, since you’ve done so many albums, does “Blackbyrd” winning the best album of the year have a more influential meaning to you than any of the others that you have done in the past---such as “Cristo Redemptor”?

DB: Well, no. It was where I was in ‘73. “Cristo Redemptor” was where I was in 1963. I continue toget requests constantly to play “Cristo Redemptor”. But that was in 1963. That has nothing to do with it. They sort of knocked that; but the thing is you can’t name a jazz album that has consistently sold over that period of time. That album had been used in California when Martin Luther King died--- they played it 24 hours, announcing Martin Luther King’s death. When any Black dignitary or anybody dies or something happensit’s used. I’ve seen drug programs all kinds of programs and behind it you heard the music---’Cristo Redentor’. Or I’ve seen ballets, and behind it you heard the music---’Cristo Redentor’. Ten to eleven years it’s been going consistently.”

ED: Let’s stop for a moment and reflect on those years. What do you think is the difference between the selling output of ‘Cristo Redentor’ in comparison to “Blackbyrd”?

DB: ’Cristo Redentor’ was as many people didn’t know, number 50 on the Pop Charts. In 1963, It went to number 50 out of the top 100 in the country if you go back and look at the Billboard Magazine. . But you see, there wasn’t all that fanfare and all that jive about publicity at that time. It automatically sold by itself without anybody saying anything to promote it.”

ED: Let’s back up now and start from the beginning. Who is Donald Byrd?

DB: I was born in 1932 in Detroit Michigan. My father was a Methodist Minister and pastored many churches in Detroit. I went to Cass Technical High School and started playing when I was 10; I playing in jazz bands in intermediate school and high school. I had training in reading music before I was 10. My two sisters are musicians; I played in the Air Force Band in NYC., and left Detroit in 1950, when I was abut 18. I was still in High School working with Lionel Hampton in the late ‘40s. There were quite a few musicians from Detroit who I got tutorledge from:Wardell Gray, Sonny Stitt, Milt Jackson, Howard McGhee---all came out of Detroit. And then I met Miles, Dizzy, Coltrane and Jimmy Heath when I was in High school and worked with them. In 1950, I joined the Air force stationed in NYC. I met and played with Lou Donaldson, Kenny Dorham, Monk, Kenny Clarke and Oscar Pettiford while I was stationed there. And working with TV, I played with people like Nat Cole and so forth. After I got out in 1954, I went back working with Charlie Parker and all these people In 1954, I went back to Detroit and went to Wayne University for a year. But during the time I was in the service I also attended Manhattan School of Music. I came back in 1955 and started off with the Jazz Messengers, Kenny Clarke, again Oscar Pettiford, Monk and everybody around NYC. Then, I took Clifford Brown’s place when he died with Max Roach and Sonny Rollins. I had the Jazz Lab with Gigi Gryce and Benny Golson and a host of other people. I met Quincy Jones; also, Cannonball and I made a record when he first came to NY with Kenny Clarke. About 1957 or 1956, I started out on my own. In ‘58, I started traveling all around the world.

ED: Let’s stop right there. In ‘57, you were voted Downbeat Polls Trumpeter of the year and you were supposed to have beat out Art Farmer. And just previously we were talking about what polls mean to you. At that time, you were 21 years old. What did winning that accolade mean to you then?

DB: It didn’t mean anything, because it showed how dumb the situation was; Kenny Dorham didn’t win it until about a couple of years ago. And hear I had just come to NY, been playing like a year or so, and all of of a sudden, I won as top trumpeter.

ED: Any particular why?

DB: Well, I think it was because I was with the Jazz Messengers and Horace and everybody; there was a lot of money behind that band, and I was a Columbia recording artist, and usually people who record for Columbia win all the polls like Grammys and all these other things. Because it’s a large corporation---they can out vote and out deal any one else. It reminds me of last year when Marvin Gaye’s thing “What’s going On?” was such a dynamic heat, and there was no mention of him or any of the Motown artists at the Grammy Awards.

ED: Do you think there was some Hanky Panky behind that? I really want to say Bullshit. That’s really what it was.

DB: What do you think?

ED: I think it was Bullshit, because it didn’t get any nomination nor mention, whatsoever. They passed over it just like it was any run of the mill album. And it was the most creative endeavor Marvin’s ever done.

DB: You know, everybody had that album, and for him not to even get a mention---that was totally absurd. So, like I said, my winning the awards after being in NY for a year and people like you said like Art Farmer, Kenny Dorham, and all these other people hadn’t made it, had no meaning to me.

ED: In seeing you in many concert dates, I noticed you used Ujima, consisting of young, local L.A. musicians. You have also used the young brothers (musicians) who were formally your students at Howard when you were Chairman of the Jazz Studies Dept. You’re giving them the exposure they need which they probably wouldn’t get until they were older. Why?

DB: Because it’s good. Now is my time to give some exposure. These musicians need help. No one knew of Herbie Hancock when I first got him and brought him to NY. And I used to push his name and promote him and tell people how great he was. One night when I first brought him to NY, I said that here was a young man you’ll all be talking about in the future. And I was serious . And somebody in the audience said, ‘Oh yeah’. I said, OK check him out in about a year. About a year later, everybody was raving about Herbie Hancock. Even things for instance, when I first started using Elvin Jones in NY, in the middle ‘50’s, people use to come and say, ‘how can you play with that drummer?’ I’d say, ‘Man you know I worked with Elvin in Detroit before I played with Art Blakey and Kenny Clarke’ and I said it was hard for me to get use to working with Art Blakey and Kenny Clarke then it is working with Elvin. So they said, ‘his beats all off and all messed up---it’s terrible’. The only person who recognized Elvin at that time was Art Blakey who came one night and flipped---literally. He was laying on the floor (ED:He hadn’t heard him before?)I think he may have, but I don’t think he had heard him like he did that night when he came in there. He came in there---he laid on his back on the floor and was kicking his feet. He came up to me and said ‘If anybody changes the style of drumming, it’s going to be that dude up there. Three years later, when he was working with Coltrane, everybody started saying ‘Elvin Jones, Elvin Jones’. I said, See what I told you.

ED: Your formal education has taken you to The Manhattan School of Music, (DB:I was in Europe, I studied there at the Fontainebleau School of Music, Columbia University for a Doctorate, and Howard University for two years of Law). You have your Doctorate now. As far as education is concerned, is it over for you now?

DB: I’d like to get my Law Degree. And then, after that, I think I’ll call it quits and devote my time to writing.”

ED: So you can deal with these politics--- weird politics that are happening now?

DB: I’d like to get involved. And then I’d like to spend some years sitting down writing about Black Music and Black history. I had an offer from Random House to write a history of Black Music---and I’d like to do it not only from a musicological standpoint, but from a sociological/psychological /anthropological standpoint. I’d like to make a real thing. What happens is that most people who write about Black Music really don’t know anything about Back Music;for two reasons: one is that they (critics) aren’t Black and the other is that they haven’t really been involved with it nor trained for it. You see it’s always funny because all the textbooks and things I have read about white music and white western music was always written by trained people---musicologists. They wouldn’t even think about having some nondescript character and somebody who doesn’t even know a damn thing about music or something in their writing about that type of music. But the thing is that it seems as though it’s like a holiday or open season for Black Music. Any white person who’s a reject, who can’t do nothing else will always figure ‘Well, hell, I can always do something and be an expert on Blackness’.

ED: Would you say this is where Feather, Gleason, and Hentoff are?

DB: Exactly! How could a man from England who should be writing about William Byrd in the 16th Century or about some English composer come over here and be an expert on on Black Music? He knows nothing about Black Music. You know it’s funny because if you want to know something about Jewish Music or Italian Music you usually ask a Jewish or Italian person. But the thing is like I said, they can be an expert on anything from Soul Food to Soul Music . But that’s a lie. And I think that’s one of the things that you and I and everybody else will have to get to eradicate.

ED: This is basically why I am interviewing mostly all the musicians that I ‘ve done in the past when I was a jazz announcer. I‘m writing about them now so basically the real realms of what they are doing and thinking can be read by Blacks who want to know.

DB: Because if you don’t, then history 100 years from now will be stated the way that they interpreted it. Like Bob Rassner, his thing on Charlie Parker and all these people. There was a woman I don’t know her name--Wilma somebody, who wrote something the other day---that’s absurd. And to think I’d like to state here, that I would like to serve notice on the white writers first of all, they ain’t getting nothing. Because ain’t no Black musician gonna really tell no white person his innermost thoughts. First of all, he probably would offend him. White people just have to realize that when Black People get around them and start talking, it’s a compromise It’s probably just as much a compromise for a Black person to talk to a white person as it is for a white person to talk to a Black person. They both have to give something and who wants to have to give something. If you want to give a true perspective and get an exact accounting of it, you don’t go and get some white person to sit up there and ask you some intimate question. Then he’s probably going to ask all of the wrong questions and probably misinterpret them; he can’t help it because he is just a product of his culture. He’s a victim of his culture. They’re going to come in with some kind of Race thing. How can you set up and tell the oppressor or the cats you are really dealing with how you really feel about him.

ED: It’s like baiting your own hook.

DB: It’s impossible. So then, that’s where the compromise is gonna come in. Then for historical purposes and like being very scientific in my thinking and objective, I know that it is impossible to extract the truth. You’d be interviewing for the next 50 years, the same person trying to get some information from him. It’s absurd.

ED: In your own musical appreciation, who do you dig? Who do you like to listen to when you’re not up on the bandstand gigging yourself?

DB: The truth is---let me explain two things:one is that I don’t listen and let me explain to you why. One is that I don't listen because I’ve been trained to analyze music. Whereas a lot of people listen as for pleasure ---It’s not pleasure to me---It’s work. Because I got to ask who’s singing, who’s doing this--who’s doing that. What chords are they playing Did they do this. What would I have done in this case. So I can’t really listen to everybody. I’m crazy about Stevie Wonder, crazy about James Brown’s music. I disqualify that between his politics and his music. I like them all and jazz cats of course. I like all of them, because I listen to them. Freddie Hubbard, I think is fantastic. Woody Shaw is a dynamite trumpeter. And of course the well known people---Miles, Dizzy, Clark Terry. I played not too long ago with Roy Eldridge. And like I said, I like them all because they are all fantastic musicians. I don’t think of them in a rank order. I think of them as just great men. Just the same way as western people look upon Bach and Beethoven. I mean there is no order for who's the greatest, who’s number one. Mozart, Grivaldi, Bach, Brahms, or Beethoven or something like that. It’s the same thing I feel. It just so happen that Grivaldi came before Mozart who came after Hayden who came before Beethoven or something like that. So that's the reason. I dig everybody.

ED: In analytical respect, which three albums did you like that you performed in your years with Bluenote?

DB: Each one of them came at a period. And each and everyone of them was a very honest and valid thing. Each one of them is unique in itself because that just shows where I was at that time. When I did “Cristo Redemptor”, that was a religious type thing. “Trying To Get Home” was again somewhat in that bang. Coming up the line ”Ethiopian Knights” was my first attempt toward leaning towards a Rock type thing. “Fancy Free” was in a floating type thing. “Fuego” was in a thing with Jackie McLean and them. But that’s where I was at that time. So I take it like for me to say would be like saying what period of your life did you enjoy? Well, to keep my growth from getting arrested, there was no particular period that was more significant than the other. In other words, when I ws 18, I was 18. When I was 20, I was 20. And like when I become seventy or eighty, I’m gonna be digging seventy or eighty, because there’s something in all of them. I think I’ll be hipper and mentally I’ll be sharper. I’ll know more stuff. I don’t think that for me that it will be a physical thing. In other words like an athlete, that when I become 45 that boxing is over, because I can’t physically deal with it. That’s not going to be any problem, ‘cause I’ll be physically and mentally together at seventy. The only thing is, I’ll be seventy years hipper than I was from the beginning and thirty years hipper whether I want or not. You dig what I’m talking about?

ED: Yes, on that note, I know what you’re talking about.

DB: You know what’s hip is that a lot of people look at getting old as though it were a drag or something. What’s a drag is when you get old and you ain't got nothing---that’s when you’re ugly. Dig? Hey man listen. Like Picasso and Pablo Cassals and them cats are doing it at ninety.

ED: That’s the “Sweet Bird of Youth” still hanging in there.

DB: That’s what I’m talking about. The thing is this. How many people are sad at thirty. Not talking about ninety. There are a lot of Cats who are dealing up to that point. The only thing that stopped was the ‘Reaper’.

ED: Are there any musical endeavors that you are going to explore that you haven’t in the past that you are going to drop pretty soon?

DB: I think I’ll probably get into more electronic music because people keep shying away from that. They keep running away from that. But I understand the reason why they run away. It’s because in traditional type music you only have 12 notes. And if you permeated that, or multiplied twelve times twelve times twelve, you can come up with a limited amount of possibilities. Now when you start fooling around with electronic music, there are certain machines. The first is a synthesizer that I use, had over 200 million possibilities. You will spend a hell of a lot of time trying to get something out of it. When you've got twelve notes, you might come with a million or two million possibilities; but when you start playing in the range of two hundred million, and this was a small one, you start getting into those big ones. Some of the things like Herbie Hancock had in his band. Like that big synthesizer---there is an infinite amount of possibilities.

ED: Your range will be unlimited until your’re able to harness it.

DB: Yes, but I doubt seriously that if anybody in my lifetime will be able to deal with it because it’s just too many possibilities. I’d just like to get into it, because I know it’s going to take a lot of time to control. That’s going to be the main thing. You can control 12 notes or something like that or a chromatic scale and even that can get out of hand. People like John Coltrane have taken it further and further out. But when can get something that has that greater amount of possibilities. When you permeate that two hundred million times two hundred million---it goes on Ad Infinitum.

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