Jazz man innovated to remain relevant
DOVER, Del. — Jazz musician Donald Byrd, a leading hard-bop trumpeter of the 1950s who collaborated on dozens of albums with top artists of his time and later enjoyed commercial success with hit jazz-funk fusion records such as “Black Byrd,” has died. He was 80.
He passed away Feb. 4 in Delaware.
Byrd, who was a pioneer in jazz education, attended Cass Technical High School in Detroit, played in military bands in the Air Force and moved to New York in 1955. The trumpeter rose to national prominence when he joined Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers later that year, filling the seat in the bebop group held by his idol Clifford Brown.
He soon played with Max Roach, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk.
In the 1960s, Byrd, who had received his master's degree from the Manhattan School of Music, turned his attention to jazz education. He studied in Paris with composer Nadia Boulanger, became the first person to teach jazz at Rutgers University in New Jersey, and started the jazz studies department of Howard University in Washington.
Byrd began moving toward a more commercial sound with the funk-jazz fusion album “Fancy Free” in 1969, taking a path followed by fellow trumpeters Miles Davis and Freddie Hubbard. He teamed up with the Mizell brothers to release “Black Byrd” in 1973, a blend of jazz, R&B and funk that became Blue Note's highest selling album at the time.
Byrd's group, the Blackbyrds, landed in the Top 10 on R&B charts with the mid-'70s albums “Street Lady,” “Stepping Into Tomorrow” and “Place and Spaces” that reached a mainstream audience with a sound heavy on R&B and rock influences. In 2000, the National Endowment for the Arts recognized Byrd as a Jazz Master, the nation's highest jazz honor.