Donald Byrd – from bebop to classroom

Sadly, another of the 20th century jazz greats has recently died. Donald Byrd was one of the best trumpeters to emerge from the hard bop era of the 1950’s and early 1960’s. His career as a musician can be divided into three periods, each with it’s own distinctive style. From the mid 50’s to the mid 60’s he played hard bop. In the second half of the 60’s his music was firmly in the soul jazz arena, until the early 70’s, when, with his newly formed group The Blackbyrds, he was at the forefront of the development of jazz-funk.

Early Byrd

After playing in military bands during his time serving in the US Air Force, Byrd joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in 1955. In 1958 he was signed by Blue Note, and formed a band with saxophonist Pepper Adams, releasing their debut album, Off To The Races, in 1959. He recorded prolifically as both a leader and sideman for Blue Note, building his reputation as a player with clear melodies and a clean tone.

He played trumpet for many jazz legends during this period, including Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, Red Garland, Paul Chambers and John Coltrane, with whom he recorded four albums. Byrd’s 1961 album Free Form featured a 20-year-old Herbie Hancock, the pianist on whose career Byrd is generally considered to have been a big influence.

His 1963 album, A New Perspective, was his first move towards soul jazz, and featured a gospel choir. The album was noted for Cristo Redentor, a spiritual tune that was a huge hit.


At the end of the decade, Byrd became interested in Miles Davis’ move into fusion, and changed his own style of composing and playing. With Larry and Fonce Mizell, Byrd produced a more commercial style of fusion than Miles, using tighter arrangements and with a smooth soul influence. Predictably, many jazz fans hated the new style, but it was well received by the wider audience. This new, slicker sound would become known as jazz-funk, a genre also being explored by former Byrd sideman Herbie Hancock during this period.

In the early 1970’s Byrd started to develop his academic career. He was the first person to teach jazz at Rutgers University in New Jersey and started the jazz studies department at Howard University in Washington DC.

His group, The Blackbyrds, formed in the early 1970’s using several of his best students at Howard University. They had big hits with the albums Street Lady, Stepping Into Tomorrow, Places and Spaces, and the stunning Blackbyrd.

The jazz professor

During the 1980s, Byrd focused on his academic career, receiving a doctorate from Columbia University and working as an artist-in-residence at Delaware State University. He continued to record, and formed another band with his most talented students, 125th St NYC Band. In 1981 their single Love Has Come Around, from the album Love Byrd, produced by Isaac Hayes, was a chart hit.

The 1990’s saw a return in style to straight-ahead jazz, reprising his hard bop and post bop period. He did, however, collaborate with rapper Guru on his 1993 jazz-rap album, Jazzmatazz, Vol 1.

His music was starting to appear on other artists records in the early 90’s. A Tribe Called Quest sampled his work on 1990’s Footprints, Nas on his 1994 hit NY State of Mind. Generally, Byrd has been well sampled by hip-hop artists, his clean, soulful trumpet appears on tunes by J.Dilla, Large Professor, Public Enemy, Jungle Brothers, Ice Cube and many more.

If you would like to explore Donald Byrd’s music, Amazon have a Donald Byrd store, with most of his albums available to download.

Donaldson Toussaint L’Ouverture Byrd II, trumpeter, composer, teacher.
December 9, 1932 – February 4, 2013.

One Reply to “Donald Byrd – from bebop to classroom”

Leave a Reply