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Donald Byrd, a trumpeter, composer, educator, and National Endowment for the Arts jazz master who spent several years in Washington as founding director of Howard University’s Jazz Studies program, died at his Delaware home on Feb. 4. He was 80 years old.
After nearly a week of rumors, scads of unconfirmed reports, and a Facebook announcement from his nephew by marriage (which was apparently not sanctioned by the family), the Associated Press confirmed Byrd’s death today.
Born in Detroit in 1932, Byrd became involved with the New York jazz scene after his 1954 discharge from the U.S. Air Force. He made his name as trumpeter for Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers—arguably the primary force of the “hard bop” school that dominated the 1950s. Byrd thus became a central player in that hard-swinging, earthy approach, and an important trumpeter of the era—working with other iconic figures including Horace Silver and John Coltrane, and introducing such future stars as Herbie Hancock (who was also Byrd’s roommate in New York). He remained a key figure in the 1960s as hard bop gave way to soul jazz.
In the fusion era of the ‘70s, he was again in the vanguard, working to incorporate R&B into the mixture of jazz and rock. He had a massive crossover success in 1972 with the Blue Note album Black Byrd, then the label’s biggest-selling release; two years later he formed a band named after the album. The Blackbyrds, composed of Byrd’s best students at Howard, continued a commercial streak for Byrd with the pop hits “Walking in Rhythm,” “Happy Music,” and “Rock Creek Park.” (The band’s original drummer, Keith Killgo, re-formed the band in D.C. in 2012.)
Acclaimed for his clear but piercing tone and warm, detail-oriented playing style, Byrd was nonetheless underappreciated as a musician. He was often overshadowed by contemporaries like Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan; though he composed memorable tunes like “Tanya” (famously recorded by Dexter Gordon, with Byrd as a sideman) and “Cristo Redentor,” and did innovative work with a vocal ensemble on his 1963 album A New Perspective, these accomplishments remain somewhat neglected. Byrd has found great respect in the hip-hop community, however, with his work sampled by artists such as Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest, Nas, Madlib, among many others. D.C. producer and rapper Oddisee borrowed extensively from The Blackbyrds’ “Rock Creek Park” for his 2011 album of the same name.
Byrd’s most important accomplishments, however, were in the arena of jazz education. He took a position as a lecturer at Brooklyn College in the early 1960s, and served as composer-in-residence at New Jersey’s Rutgers University. In the mid-1960s, Byrd was offered the chair of the newly established jazz studies program at Howard University. He moved to D.C. and helped develop what would an extremely prestigious jazz program, remaining at Howard for more than a decade and eventually becoming a professor of ethnomusicology there.
Howard began Byrd’s lifelong reputation for helping to build new jazz programs at historically black colleges and universities. He also helped develop curricula at Hampton Institute (now Hampton University), North Carolina Central University, and Delaware State University. He also earned a Ph.D. in musical education at Columbia University Teachers College (from which he also received a law degree) in 1982, and devoted most of the remainder of his life to jazz education.
However, Byrd did not completely abandon performance; from the late 1980s to the mid-’90s, he made occasional recordings as a leader and regularly worked with the late jazz-based hip-hop artist Guru. He was in D.C. for what may have been his final performance: a 2007 appearance at the Kennedy Center with pianist Ahmad Jamal.
The funeral will be held this week in Detroit. Further details, including cause of death, have not been released.