Dynamic jazz trumpeter blazed his own trail

Matt Schudel / The Washington Post /

Donald Byrd, one of the most prolific and dynamic jazz trumpeters of the 1950s, died Feb. 4 in a hospital in Delaware. He was 80.

After the ’50s, Byrd achieved commercial success, if not always critical acclaim, by exploring the contours of soul and funk music.

A spokeswoman for Haley Funeral Directors in Southfield, Mich., confirmed the death. No cause was provided.

Byrd emerged from the jazz cauldron of Detroit in the mid-1950s and quickly became one of the primary instrumental voices of the hard-bop movement, a swinging blues-based style of jazz built around driving rhythms and tight ensemble work.

With a distinctive tone that balanced crisp intonation with a clean melodic line, he was in constant demand for record dates, including sessions with John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, Jackie McLean and Max Roach. He appeared on 36 recordings in 1957 alone.

When Byrd’s debut album appeared in 1955, jazz writer Nat Hentoff praised him in DownBeat magazine as “one of the most important jazz trumpet talents in the past few years.”

Ever evolving as a musician, Byrd studied composition in Europe with the acclaimed musical guru Nadia Boulanger in the early 1960s and began teaching at Howard University in 1968. He led the university’s jazz band and developed a program of black music studies at Howard, where he taught until 1975.

As a performer, Byrd began to branch out from traditional acoustic jazz to explore a new, amplified style of music that drew heavily on the sounds of soul, funk and rhythm-and-blues. He recorded his first album in the new style, “Fancy Free,” in 1969, followed a year later by “Electric Byrd.”

In 1973, he released “Black Byrd,” which soared up the R&B charts and sold more than 1 million copies, at the time the most ever for an album on the Blue Note label. With its throbbing electric bass lines, vocal parts, heavy percussion and other effects, Byrd’s music found a new generation of fans, but many of his older jazz listeners felt alienated.

He drew scathing reviews, including one from The Washington Post in 1975 that complained about “monotonous, over-amplified, disco-style noodling.”

“I’m creative. I’m not re-creative,” Byrd told the Detroit Free Press in 1999. “I don’t follow what everybody else does.”

With five of his students at Howard, Byrd organized a jazz-funk group, the Blackbyrds, that had a series of Top 20 R&B hits in the 1970s, including “Walking in Rhythm,” “Happy Music” and “Time is Movin’.”

In the 1980s and 1990s, Byrd experimented with rap music, and his compositions and trumpet solos were incorporated into songs by hip-hop artists Public Enemy, Nas, Guru and Erykah Badu.

Although hip-hop was different in tone and style from the jazz Byrd had performed in his youth, he considered it part of a long musical continuum.

“It reflects the tenor of the times, which African-American music has always done,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 1993. “It is a furtherance of what vocal music coming out of the jazz and African-American expression has always been, from Louis Armstrong to Cab Calloway to people like Dizzy Gillespie and Eddie Jefferson.”

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