Donald Byrd, RIP
by Seth Colter Walls | February 11, 2013
It's difficult to encapsulate the span of a career as long, successful and stylistically varied as trumpeter Donald Byrd's in a single sentence, but here's an honest effort: The man started out by replacing Clifford Brown in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, and lived long enough to collaborate -- successfully! -- with the rapper Guru. Along the way, he cut a half-dozen solid-to-prime LPs' worth of hard bop (with touches of soul-jazz) for Blue Note records in the early '60s, often with Herbie Hancock (and once with a gospel chorus), before becoming interested by the fusion experiments of Miles Davis.
Not long after, with the production assistance of the Mizzel Brothers, Byrd worked an indelible change on the 1970s jazz-meets-pop scene. With a series of groove-based records that were as much well-arranged R&B as they were "jazz" per se, the trumpeter lit upon a sound that may have turned off some purists, but that delighted several generations of those disinclined to play the role of killjoy genre-cop. Black Byrd broke sales record for Blue Note at the time, though Stepping Into Tomorrow and Places and Spaces are even nimbler, surprising constructions -- the latter featuring such dance-floor encomiums as "(Falling Like) Dominoes" and "Change (Makes You Want to Hustle)." The ranks of those influenced by these records have come to include an honor-roll list of hip-hop and soul artists, many of whom have sampled Byrd's works in recent decades (Pete Rock, DJ Jazzy Jeff, various members of the Native Tongues clique, Destiny's Child, Erykah Badu -- you get the idea).
When word of Byrd's death was somewhat murkily confirmed in early February 2013, via a Facebook posting by a relative, the musician's passing was immediately mourned online by post-bop aficionados, progressive big band arrangers and pop producers alike. Through all his periods, he maintained a scrupulously lyrical tone on his horn -- one that often served as a mellow but elegant counterweight to some of his more demonstrative partners, as well as to the radical, conceptual adventurism of the trumpeter's own eclectic spirit. The attached playlist covers all his periods as a leader; appended at the end is a bonus playlist of sorts, featuring tracks by pop artists who have used Byrd samples in some distinctly noticeable fashion.