On several blogs and websites, a man name Alex Bugnon, a nephew of trumpeter Donald Byrd, is quoted as saying that Byrd died on Monday in Dover, Delaware, his home in recent years. According to the reports, Bugnon said that other members of Byrd‘s family were keeping the death of the 80-year-old jazz artist under “an unnecessary shroud of secrecy.”
I have tried to get at least one further confirmation; a coroner’s report, word from an immediate family member in Delaware, a funeral home announcement. The closest I have come is assurance from reporter Mark Stryker of The Detroit Free Press that Bugnon is Byrd’s nephew. Based solely on Bugnon’s claim, The Free Press has gone with the story, as have NBC News, The Guardian and The Huffington Post, among many other outlets. Hoping that they are right, hoping that they are wrong, so has Rifftides.
Byrd was part of a generation of youngsters who exploded out of Detroit in the 1950s to make a major impression in jazz, injecting high levels of musicianship and energy into the New York jazz scene. The Motor City coterie also included baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams, guitarist Kenny Burrell drummer Elvin Jones and pianists Tommy Flanagan and Barry Harris.
While in high school Byrd played with Lionel Hampton and during his Air Force service sat in with Thelonious Monk. His first job with a name group after he moved to New York was in 1955 with pianist George Wallington’s Quintet. The association accelerated Byrd’s career and that of his front line partner, saxophonist Jackie McLean, here with Wallington, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Art Taylor in Oscar Pettiford’s “Bohemia After Dark.”
From Wallington’s band, Byrd moved to Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, then to the Max Roach group. He worked frequently in the 1950s with John Coltrane, Red Garland, Lou Donaldson and Gigi Gryce and in the ‘60s with Sonny Rollins, Hampton, Monk, Coleman Hawkins and others, and led his own quinet. He recorded prolifically. Byrd and his Detroit pal Pepper Adams were close musically and personally and in the late fifties and early sixties shared leadership of a quintet that bore their names. The album cover in this video lists the players. Thad Jones, another of those remarkable Detroiters, wrote the tune.
In his Free Press obituary, Mark Stryker hit the right tone in describing Byrd’s style.
Byrd’s warmly burnished sound, fluent technique and aggressive-yet-graceful swing was rooted in the style of Clifford Brown, but his gangly, rhythmically loose phrasing was a unique calling card right from the get-go. As Byrd matured in the late ’50s and early ’60s, he tempered his hummingbird flourishes with a cooler sensibility and phrasing that recalled Miles Davis.
Byrd was graduated in music from Wayne State University in 1954. He later earned a masters degree from the Manhattan School of Music and a doctorate in music education from Columbia. His academic career paralleled his work as a player and sometimes moved it to the back seat. He served as an instructor at New York’s High School of Music and Art and taught at several universities, among them Rutgers, North Carolina Central and Delaware State. When he was at Howard University in Washington DC in the 1970s he formed, and produced records by, a band called The Blackbyrds that included some of his students. His own earlier Black Byrd album for Blue Note became a hit in the pop soul genre. In many of the stories that appeared today, much is made of rap and hip-hop performers sampling Byrd’s pop music for their own albums, as if that legitimized him.
What legitimized Donald Byrd was his work as a fine post-bop trumpet player, bandleader and composer and his dedication to music education. His installation in 2000 as a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master confirmed the importance of those contributions. So does this:
Donald Byrd, RIP.