Jazz and R&B great Donald Byrd died on Monday (February 4) at the age of 80.
Inexplicably, the family had been trying to keep the death from the media and it only leaked on Thursday when Byrd’s nephew, Alex Bugnon, wrote on Facebook “I have no more patience for this unnecessary shroud of secrecy placed over his death by certain members of his immediate family.”
While Byrd had a long history in jazz, he turned to a more R&B sound in the 70’s with the hit album Black Byrd in 1973 and the creation of the group the Blackbyrds who scored hits with Happy Music and Walking in Rhythm.
Byrd was well advanced into music while in high school, playing with the likes of Lionel Hampton. After a stint in the Air Force, he went to school getting a bachelors in music from Wayne State University and a masters from the Manhattan School of Music.
Before graduating from Manhattan, he began playing with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, the first of a long series of groups in which he would participate including bands fronted by John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk and Herbie Hancock.
Byrd recorded for Blue Note Records from 1959 to 1976 and it was there that he got together with the Mizell Brothers to record the landmark album Black Byrd. The 1973 release would go on to be the labels biggest seller in a catalog filled with classics. The album made it to the top of the Jazz chart, number 2 on R&B and number 36 on the Top 200.
Along with being a superb musician, Byrd also spent much of his life teaching at Rutgers, Hampton, New York University and Howard University. It was while teaching at Howard that he took a group of his students and formed the Blackbyrds. The group recorded seven albums between 1973 and 1980 and scored with hits Walking in Rhythm (1975/#4 R&B/#6 Pop/#5 Adult Contemporary) and Happy Music (1976/#3 R&B/#19 Pop).
It was during this time that Byrd also returned to school, getting his law degree in 1976 and going on to teach at North Carolina Central University. In 1982, he received his Ph.D. from Columbia Teachers College and spent most of the rest of his life both performing and teaching.
Byrd’s nephew summed up an amazing life in his Facebook posting, finishing by saying “Let’s remember Donald as a one of a kind pioneer of the trumpet, of the many styles of music he took on, of music education. In sum, Donald was an avid, eternal student of music, until his death. That’s what I try to be, everyday!! Rest in peace, uncle!”
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