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Jeremy Pelt Remembers Donald Byrd

12.9.32 – 2.4.13

Donald Byrd
Donald Byrd (photo: John Abbott)
Richie OKon with Herbie Hancock and Donald Byrd
Richie OKon with Herbie Hancock and Donald Byrd at the Blue Note in New York City (photo: Steve Berman)
Donald Byrd
Donald Byrd (photo: Phil Bray)

I can’t recall the exact moment when I first heard Donald Byrd, or even how old I was, but I do remember the feeling that ran through my body. See, I’ve always associated my favorite trumpeters with a specific characteristic: for example, the virility in Freddie Hubbard’s sound, the innocence in Chet Baker’s sound, the athleticism in Booker Little’s approach, or the raw architecture of Thad Jones’ ideas. For me, Donald Byrd was the first of his immediate peers to really transcend the trumpet and turn it into a human voice, just as Miles had done in his generation, and Clark Terry, Joe Wilder and Joe Newman did in their generation. That’s something that I’ve always wanted for my own playing.

I’ve been fortunate enough through the years to be asked by several universities and jazz programs to give lectures, and one of the things I always try to include is a listening session of some of my favorite trumpeters. The one recording I always play is Donald’s beautiful solo on “Theme From Mr. Lucky,” from the reissue of At the Half Note Cafe Vol. 2, recorded in 1960. It’s what I’ve long regarded as belonging to a very elite handful of beautiful opening statements. From that statement he builds one of the most conversational solos on record. Hell, that solo was so bad he recorded it verbatim on the studio recording of the same song the following year! Some might accuse him of a lack of improvisation, or stealing his own stuff, but after all it was his to begin with and, lest we forget, he came out of the tail end of an era when hit solos still existed (i.e., Lee Morgan’s opening and closing statement to “Moanin'”). Another recording that is very near and dear to me is his 1957 ballad recording of “Indian Summer,” from his beautiful orchestral record September Afternoon (with arrangements by Clare Fischer). On this recording, his warmth of tone is very inviting, and he would approximate the same feeling on many recordings to follow.

The fact that Donald Byrd was very present on the New York jazz scene caused him to influence my career personally. (That commitment to the jazz community is evidenced by his packed discography-well over 20 album credits in 1957 alone!) I somewhat modeled that aspect of my career after Byrd’s, because I’ve always thought that being present on the scene was an important step in my development.

Well, Donald is no longer with us. In his last years he became somewhat of a recluse, but I had a few occasions to chat with him, and one of my most cherished memories is from 2003. I was playing with one of Donald’s hometown buddies, Louis Hayes, at the Upper West Side venue Smoke. We were playing the music of Cannonball Adderley, and Donald was in attendance, unbeknownst to me. After the set, I met him and got a chance to sit there and listen to him, Louis Hayes and Eddie Henderson tell anecdote after anecdote-most of which I can’t share-about my heroes. Those who knew Donald can attest to how much he liked to talk! We were there until at least 3 in the morning. I finally had to go and he said, “Keep doing what you’re doing, because I think you’re playing something really hip!”

I’ll never forget that encouragement, and I’ll never, ever forget Donald Byrd.

Originally Published