Donald Byrd: Scholar & Musician

Ed Hamilton pays tribute to the late trumpeter, bandleader and educator

Donald passed on Feb. 4th of undisclosed causes according to his nephew Alex Bugnon. Donald Byrd took Kenny Dorham’s place in the Jazz Messengers, recorded with Horace Silver on “Six Pieces of Silver” with Silver’s legendary “Senor Blues,” wrote the largest selling Blue Note album Blackbyrd and introduced the “Blackbyrds” his Howard U students to recording success.

Forty years ago on Christmas Day I opened my KJLH jazz program with Donald Byrd’s “Beast of Burden” from his memorable album Cristo Redentor.

We interviewed twice on my KPFK program in ‘72 and ‘73. After our 2-hour talk, Donald asked if I could give him the tapes for his library he was keeping. I printed this interview a few months back and in it he gave a thorough inner look at his career at Blue Note and into the recording business as he saw it.

We last talked in 1997 in L.A. at Barnsdall Park where he played an outdoor summer jazz concert with Clare Fischer. He looked well, tall and built like a linebacker. Donald had a tremendous appetite for education and had many degrees including a law degree and a Ph.D.. He and Kenny Burrell were the smartest musicians I’d ever met—both university professors. Donald introduced Herbie Hancock to the jazz masses on his album Royal Flush—Herbie’s first Blue Note date.

Around 2007, Donald came to Catalina’s and I called to do an interview and the manager told me “Donald’s gone to San Francisco.” I said was the engagement cut short? He said Catalina the owner did not like what Donald was playing and told him and he took the group to San Francisco. After Blackbyrd, his most successful Blue Note recording, Donald’s playing became more progressive and rhythmic. Donald had not been in L.A. in 30 years.

Michael Cuscuna of Mosaic Records commented on his association with Donald saying, “Donald Byrd was one of the most fascinating people I ever met. He was a person who was perpetually a student, and therefore perpetually a teacher. Over the years, he amassed and achieved so many different degrees. He had a thirst for knowledge, and at the same time he was teaching at two or three universities, all around the country. He was a guy you had to call around 5 cities before you could get a hold of him. So, he was really one of a kind in many ways. He never really confined himself to the jazz business. He was really one of the most beautiful trumpeters in terms of his lyricism in which he approached the instrument. I just thought he was one of the greatest practitioners of the instrument and one of the greatest bandleaders. Donald knew how to take care of business. There was a whole lot of parts of Donald Byrd.”

Garnett Brown who played with Donald and Duke Pearson on several recordings recalled: “It’s my impression that Donald received a lot of wonderful information as far the business of music was concerned. I believed GiGi Gryce was the leader in that regard (starting his own publishing company). So obviously nothing was lost on Donald in terms of that, because he went on to really protect his work as he went about his career. And I think during the course of that, helped other young people just as he had received help. So not only that, he was able to write and create memorable pieces of music. From that standpoint of being a regular guy like he was always—we owe him a lot.”

Kenny Burrell reminisced: “Donald Byrd was one of the best musicians I ever worked with. I grew up with him in Detroit and spent many hours of playing and jamming with him. In terms of his talent, he certainly was underrated. He did take a path toward education at a special time in his career. He went and got his Phd and became Doctor Donald Byrd where he could have stayed with his career and become much more popular. But, I also want to applaud the fact he made a contribution, a major contribution to Jazz education. I appreciate that very much. That's something I am into as well. And so on 2 fronts he made a serious contribution to the world of jazz and education.”

Donald Byrd once told Princess Pannonica de Koenigswarter (Patron to all the jazz musicians) in her book Three Wishes, “I wish for Health, Education, and long-life.” Cristo Redentor his most famous recording used during Martin Luther King’s funeral, will perennially be his legacy. Donaldson Toussaint L’Ouverture Byrd was 80 years old and he gave me motivation to keep on learning. He told me: “Education gives you longer life.”

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Ed Hamilton