RIP: Donald Byrd

Posted February 8, 2013 by J Matthew Cobb in Features

Legendary hard bop and jazz fusion jazz musician dies at the age of 80

Word quickly hit social media websites early Thursday morning that legendary trumpeter and band director Donald Byrd passed. Although many news outlets failed to cover the story due to the lack of public information, Alex Bugnon, a jazz keyboardist and Byrd’s nephew, confirmed the rumor was true on his Facebook page. A Wikipedia entry listed that Byrd passed away on February 4, 2012 at his home in Teaneck, New Jersey. Byrd was eighty years old.

Music-related sites including Amoeba Music, Complex and Okayplayer did pick up on the story, but were too afraid to confirm the news without some kind of statement from his family or something from the Associated Press.

Music blog Flea Market Funk openly questioned the validity of the rumor mill: “I didn’t want to believe this today. Word spread over the internet of one of my favorite trumpet players…Dr. Donald Byrd passed earlier this week. Some wrong information started over on a Prince forum board, only to be retracted by the magazine a little while later had me confused it was a hoax. Kon was questioning it. [DJ] Gilles Peterson was questioning it. As the flood of tribute videos of some of my favorite Donald Byrd tunes poured in, it started to sink in.”

Byrd’s career kicked off when he began his affiliation with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. He later started crafting his own albums which focused heavily on hard pop. He became bored of the avant-garde jazz style, and started to experiment with the world of soul, proto-funk and even soul music through the course of the 1960’s and ’70’s when he moved from Savoy to Blue Note. One of his greatest assignments, A New Perspective (1964)utilized the power of a gospel choir. From that session, “Cristo Redentor” – penned by Blue Note musician Duke Pearson – was born, becoming one of Byrd’s proudest crossover jazz hits. The album cover became just as iconic as the music on the inside of the record.

Byrd took on yet another musical direction when he enlisted a pair of Afro-Brazilian percussionists for his 1971 album, Kofi. Like most of his fellow contemporaries (i.e. Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock), Byrd began entertaining jazz fusion towards the mid-Seventies. The classic Black Byrd was born, revealing a new grade of jazz-funk. This slick, studio-produced album, which also featured his first collaboration with the Mizell brothers, sold over a million copies, and defined the origins of acid jazz. Byrd started up the jazz-funk band The Blackbyrds, inspired by the Black Byrd album, which recorded the Top 40 hits “Walking in Rhythm” and “Happy Music.”

As socially conscious  hip-hop began their pilgrimage through the vaults of jazz classics (thanks to sampling), Byrd’s music became highly relevant. His 1975 song, “Think Twice,” was used as a heavy sample on A Tribe Called Quest’s “Footprints,”  Main Source’s “Looking at the Front Door,” Armand Van Helden house classic “Flowerz,” and was later revived by Dwele and the late J Dilla. Byrd even performed on Guru’s Jazzmatazz project. According to, Byrd’s work has been sampled 215 times.

No word yet on the cause of death. Funeral arrangements have not been announced.

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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