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Black Byrd: The Story of Dr. Donald Byrd PDF Print E-mail
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Wednesday, 13 February 2013 22:15

It was literally impossible for any HBCU (Historically black colleges and universities) college student of the mid and late 1970's not to know who Donald Byrd was. Our musical diet consisted of the usual Funk stuff of the day, but also the Jazz turned Soul-Jazz and Funk artists like Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, the Crusaders, George Benson, Roy Ayers, Harvey Mason, Ramsey Lewis and Donald Byrd. He was popular amongst college students. Perhaps it came from the fact that he spent so much time as a professor in various universities around the country and he knew the likes and dislikes of a young college student especially of the HBCU. Also, the connection might have come from the fact that he had created three to four groups mainly made up of his former students from HBCU’s namely The Blackbyrds. We loved Donald Byrd and he identified with us. Donald Byrd also represented something to a lot of us. He became a bridge between the popular music of the day (R&B, The Funk and Disco) and Jazz. I first saw Donald Byrd perform in 1975 when I was freshman at St. Augustine’s College. He was one of the headliners of a Jazz series located at NC State University that year. The opening act was the Blackbyrds, who also were the rhythm section behind Dr. Byrd.  This had been one of my first live Jazz concert experiences. The other acts in the series were Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, and Herbie Mann and I saw all of them.  This had become a part of my foundation of Jazz appreciation. Jazz had been around me all of my life, but this experience had opened the door much wider to it.

I remember in the winter of 1977 a college friend and myself were sitting in RDU airport waiting for our gates to open. It was a long wait and I remember we were just sitting watching people and just discussing what ever world events were happening at that time. You could not help but notice the tall beautiful woman who was dressed in a fur hat, a long fur coat, boots and expensive looking jewelry walking back and forth between the seat where she and her husband were sitting and the airline check-in counter. I remember Jeff and I agreeing that we could not afford a woman like that. We continued sitting and talking and I noticed that the woman’s husband kept looking in my direction. As a matter of fact every time I turned my head he was staring at us. I then said “Jeff, I don’t know if you noticed, but that guy over there keeps staring at us”. He said “Man, I noticed that too and it’s ticking me off! Let’s go say something to him!” Well we started walking over towards the man and I remember thinking what am I going to say to him when I get in front of him. He had his cap pulled down over his eyes. After I got maybe six feet away from him, I said to Jeff “Hey, that’s Donald Byrd!” He said “Yes! You’re right that is Donald Byrd!”  By that time Dr. Byrd saw that we had recognized him and he had a big smile on his face. Both of us in turn also had big grins on our faces as well. He knew that we were college students and he just wanted to have someone to talk to.  He invited us to sit down with them and he asked us where we went to school. He began to tell us about his Jazz career and Blue Note Records. He talked about Howard University and The Blackbyrds. He talked some about North Carolina Central University and asked us if we had heard the new music from N.C.C.U. That was his new group from North Carolina Central University. I immediately responded “absolutely!” Soon it was time for he and his wife to leave and he said “I only have one of these, but here is a cassette of some of my music”. After they left we both looked at each other and said “Man that was Donald Byrd!”

Dr. Donald Byrd was born Donaldson Toussaint L'Ouverture Byrd II in Detroit in 1932. He played in a military band in the Air Force and then joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers while working on his masters at Manhattan School of Music. He would replace the great trumpet player Clifford Brown in the group. While still an active member of Blakey’s group, he would also record with other Jazz Legends like Jackie McLean, Horace Silver and others. His first solo recording with his own group resulted in the At the Half Note Café album. He co-led this group with baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams.  BY 1961 he recorded the classic Royal Flush album and then the Free Form album in 1962. He would record about 59 albums initially. Some were on Brunswick, Colombia, Savoy, Prestige and Esquire, but the majority were on Blue Note Records.

In 1969 Donald Byrd ventured in the same direction as Miles Davis and experimented with blending Jazz with other musical elements like Rock and R&B. The album was called Fancy Free which became a Jazz-fusion project. Other albums would follow like Electric Byrd and Ethiopian Knights which were in the Jazz Fusion or more modern Acid Jazz style. These would be the prerequisite to the partnership with Donald Byrd and the Mizell brothers. The first product from this collaboration would the 1973 LP Blackbyrd.  It became a hit and soon would be the blueprint for the new sound that Donald Byrd would be known for. The sound was funkier and also included vocals from Fonce and Larry Mizell. The popular Bluenote album contained two hits like Blackbyrd and Flight Time. The follow-up was Street Lady later on that same year with the same Byrd – Mizell formula. It two was a hit. Donald Byrd was now developing a whole new audience with his new sound of funk elements. The hits from this LP were the title track and Lansana's Priestess. That same year Donald Byrd would use the same formula with the Mizell brothers to produce a group of his former students from Howard University. They would take their name from his 1973 LP Blackbyrd and the debut album by the Blackbyrds was released in 1974. Donald Byrd’s franchise continued to be a success with his solo efforts and his Blackbyrds projects. His newest audience was the college aged students from the mid and late 1970’s.

During this period Donald Byrd would release Stepping Into Tomorrow (1975), Places And Spaces (1975), and Caricatures (1976) all with the Mizell brothers. He would produce the soundtrack to the movie Cornbread, Earl and Me in 1975. However, in 1978 he would record Thank You... For F.U.M.L. (Funking Up My Life) for Electra Records which he produced himself. This was a pure funk album. This would be followed by three more funky albums on Electra under the name Donald Byrd & 125th Street, N.Y.C. Two out of the three were produced by Isaac Hayes.

Donald Byrd like Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and others, was important because he created new forms of Jazz mixed with Rock, R&B and Funk. He stood out from these other artists because his musical influence continued to live and grow through groups like the Blackbyrds, The Three Pieces, N.C.C.U. and beyond. When you would hear the Blackbyrds, you thought of Donald Byrd. He was Jazz, he was Funk and he was the Blackbyrd.

Howard Burchette

Last Updated on Friday, 22 February 2013 08:58