Last Monday, at the age of 80, composer, trumpeter and teacher, Donaldson Toussaint L’Ouverture Byrd II passed away leaving us a mountain of recordings that add up to a impressively diverse and lasting legacy. As a musician who transcended generations he’ll be much missed by both the hard bop cognoscenti and a hip hop generation schooled on his samples. As I sat down to write this modest tribute I dropped ‘Christo Redentor’ from ‘New Perspective’ onto the turntable to get the vibe but right now I’m sitting here nodding out to the remix of ‘The Emperor’ from the 1971 ‘Ethiopian Night’ album. Fifteen minutes of glorious post Bitches Brew funk. The man was nothing but prolific and between those two tunes there exists a unique journey.
Donald Byrd: Off To The Races
Dr.Donald Byrd’s jazz career commenced in 1955. Following a stint in the armed forces and his notching up a Masters at The Manhattan School Of Music he joined the crucible that was Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. It was a springboard that linked him up with the label that pretty much help define the era – Alfred Lion’s Blue Note Records – and between 1959 and 1976 he cut 24 albums for them as a leader.
As a horn player he played with all the greats and above is a lovely shot of him onstage with the mighty Sonny Rollins taken by iconic rock photographer Jim Marshall. While he more than earned his place in the lexicon of master musicians that make up the modern jazz elite it was his working relationship with Larry and Fonce Mizell that lifted him out of the world of contemporary jazz and onto dancefloors across the world. The early Seventies was, for me, a golden era of soul and funk that took the music of Black America to new heights. Think ‘What’s Going On’, Isaac Hayes’ ‘Theme from Shaft’, Parliament ‘Chocolate City’…. James Brown, Bill Withers, Donny Hathaway, Al Green…Betty Wright’s ‘Clean Up Woman’…
It’s hard to think of an 80s/90s UK jazz dance session that didn’t feature a Donald Byrd tune – ‘Mustang’ to ‘Dominoes’. Similarly, the evolution of hip hop is peppered with Donald Byrd samples and following the impact of Giant Step’s Red Hot sessions in New York, in the mid Nineties, the coming together of Guru and Donald Byrd in Jazzmataazz presented a unique meeting of minds.
It was one Toussaint L’ouverture who led the slave revolt that liberated Haiti in the 1790’s to create the first independent black state in the Caribbean and Donald Byrd lived up to his middle names by tirelessly working as an educator. In the the 80s, he introduced the world to his best students – The Blackbyrds – and he was “an avid and eternal student of music” and teacher until his life finally ebbed away.
OK. All you gotta do now is dig out the vinyl and enjoy what the man left behind.
Donaldson Toussaint L’Ouverture Byrd II- December 9, 1932 – February 4, 2013.