Donaldson Toussaint L'Ouverture Byrd ll was born in 1932 in Detroit, Michigan in the United States. This talented man, whose weapon of choice was the trumpet, first rose to fame as a member of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers in the 1950's. From there he worked alongside such jazz greats as John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins and Herbie Hancock. In fact further on in time both he and Hancock would take a similar route in their musical careers, which at the time was thought very risky.
Though coming through at the time of the be bop revolution in jazz (where Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker were undoubtedly the kings of swing), what made Byrd so special was the abiltiy to adapt to several musical styles throughtout his career while keeping his distinctive trumpet playing style up front and centre. One case in point was in the early 70's when he experimented with the fusion of jazz with funk. In 1973 he released the groundbreaking set, 'Black Byrd' which would end up being the biggest selling album on Blue Note Records, his record label. This introduction into fusion began a very successful relationship with Larry and Fonce Mizell, two musician brothers who oversaw all his classic 70's recordings, including the influential 'Places & Spaces' LP (containing such gems as 'Change (Makes You Want To Hustle)', which was the first single released, 'Wind Parade', '(Fallin' Like) Dominoes' and of course the sizzling title cut).
Around this period of time, apart from releasing albums, Donald Byrd also took up the role of Professor Of Music at the prestigious (African American) Howard University in Washington D.C. While teaching there he decided to have some of his students form a group and see how they would fare in the 'real' world of music entertainment. They were named The Blackbyrds and this funky unit in the mid 70's enjoyed major success with several hits including 'Walking In Rhythm' (a world wide smash!), 'Rock Creek Park' and 'Soft & Easy', all produced by Professor Byrd. Again this man was unafraid to try new musical formats and again it was finding an audience.
Speaking of an audience brings me to my only memory of seeing this legendary figure in concert. In early 1976 he accompanied The Blackbyrds on their first UK tour. Billed as 'Donald Byrd & The Blackbyrds', they touched down at Hammersmith Odeon to a packed house of funky kids (I'm sure there were some adults there as well) who were ready to hero worship the man and his group, while dancing their asses off amid the sound of funky whistles. The atmopsphere was electric and the show was memorable to me simply for the fact I remember thinking Donald Byrd was probably the coolest performer I had ever seen at that time. The timing for the show was perfect as only a couple of months before, in late '75 Donald Byrd had released the 'Places & Spaces' album and The Blackbyrds had released their 'City Life' album which contained the hottest joint in the clubs at that time, the aforementioned 'Rock Creek Park'! We were all ready to jam to this new shit!!! The actual concert consisted mainly of material from The Blackbyrds, but they did include some songs from Byrd's album. What made the show work so well was Byrd allowed The Blackbyrds to play and shine in their own right, but he stood on stage and whenever he felt the feeling, would slowly bring his trumpet to his head and blow like only he could. Whenever he did this it was always at the perfect point of the song and in reality we were hearing all of these songs remixed live in front of us with his playing. Then he'd slowly bring his instrument down and wait for the next moment to hit us again. In closing about this show I must mention that apparentely on the UK tour Donald had fallen in love with a British beer called 'Worthington E'. So for the encore to get him back out on stage, the compere for the show, dj Robbie Vincent, had the whole auditorium screaming out 'Worthington E!!' It worked, Bryd walked back out on stage with the biggest grin you can imagine. A magical moment.
He continued releasing records in the 80's but never really obtained the high level of success he'd previously achieved, but he had made his mark. Refusing to stay in one spot, jumping from jazz to soul to funk and even hip hop. In his later years some of rap's finest showed their love and respect for Byrd by using his music (sampling) as a backdrop for their rhymes. These include Public Enemy, Pete Rock & CL Smooth, Black Moon, Nas and The Pharcyde. One rapper even went further. When (the now deceased) Guru from the group Gang Starr, put together his Jazzmatazz project (an experimental fusion of hip hop and jazz), he approahed Donald Byrd to play on and appear in the video for the album's first single, the very cool 'Loungin' I can only imagine they are both up there in heaven right now getting ready to start Loungin' Heaven just got that little bit cooler. A true musical legend. R.I.P. Donald Byrd
Guru featuring Donald Byrd - Loungin'
Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth - All The Places