Donald Byrd, who built a strong musical career on his ability to fuse jazz, funk, R&B and pop, has died of undisclosed causes after a hospitalization. He was 80 years old.
Byrd, a trumpeter, was hailed as “one of the most important jazz trumpet talents in the past few years” by jazz writer Nat Hentoff when his album debuted in 1955. He played and recorded with several of the biggest talents of the day, including John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins and Art Blakey. He was also the first to see Herbie Hancock’s talents, hiring the piano player before anyone else did.
Byrd enjoyed a career as a professor, as well, teaching music studies and leading the jazz band at Howard University in 1968. But he never stopped playing just for himself, despite a growing pool of critics who complained that his style had changed too much.
“I’m creative. I’m not re-creative,” Mr. Byrd said. “I don’t follow what everybody else does. One of the proverbs my father used to say is, ‘If you’re not first, be among the first.’ Everything I’ve done others have tried to copy.”
He also spoke about his critics and their ceaseless hounding upon the fact that he was a sellout as his music moved into the pop genre.
“The jazz people starting eating on me,” Byrd said. “They had a feast on me for 10 years: ‘He’s sold out.’ Everything that’s bad was attributed to Donald Byrd. I weathered it, and then it became commonplace. Then they found a name for it. They started calling it ‘jazz fusion,’ ‘jazz rock.’ ”
Regardless of some popular opinion, Byrd was the recipient of the prestigious title Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2000, and over the years his music has found its way into various songs by newer generations, who still recognize his brilliance.
Image: Michael Ochs archive