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Donald Byrd

(1932 – 2013)

A pioneer jazz educator on African-American college and university campuses, Donald Byrd also was a leading improviser on trumpet. Raised in the home of a Methodist minister and musician, he studied music with the famed teacher Nadia Boulanger in Paris in 1963.

Byrd played in the Air Force band during 1951-52, then relocated to New York. Some of his earliest gigs in New York were with the George Wallington group at Cafe Bohemia. He joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in December 1955. Following his Messengers experience, he worked in a variety of bands with Max Roach, John Coltrane, Red Garland, and Gigi Gryce, refining his playing skills. 

In the early 1960s, he became a bandleader of his own touring quintet. During 1965-66 he was a house arranger for the Norwegian Radio Orchestra. It was also at this time that he became more active as an educator, teaching at New York’s Music & Art High School. He also earned a law degree between teaching appointments.

At Howard University, where he was chairman of the Black Music Department, he brought together a group of talented students to form Donald Byrd & the Blackbyrds, a pop-jazz band that had several huge hit records for the Fantasy label. His recorded innovations included the use of a vocal chorus, which resulted in his popular recording of “Cristo Redemptor,” as well as his engagements of gospel texts.

Byrd is an exemplary figure helping many musicians most notably Herbie Hancock who credits Byrd with showing him how to navigate his deal with Blue Note in a way that allowed him to experiment in the seventies because his royalties were secure.

Byrd also was the founding member of Jazzamatazz with rapper Guru from the group Gangstarr. Jazzamatazz brought together musicians across generations to celebrate the tradition for the hiphop age. Several of Byrds records for Blue Note in the seventies are the new standards for youth educated by hiphop.

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