Listening to…..Donald Byrd

In the late sixties, Donald Byrd and a number of other members of the Blue Note repertory had to face up to the unpalatable truth that the jazz landscape was changing and that if they wanted to survive they had to adapt.  Byrd was able to find refuge in the emerging genre of electric jazz-funk and made at least one album (‘Ethiopian Knights’,  Blue Note, 1971) which could lay claim to being a minor classsic of that particular sub-genre before moving on to an increasingly forgettable series of  funky albums.

Donald Byrd in the early 1960’s

Of course, Byrd, like many of his colleagues,  was a victim of the demise of jazz clubs all over the USA.    With the advent of  The Beatles, clubs  saw a chance of cashing in, so many reinvented themselves for a younger rock audience, either with live bands or as discotheques.  So, unless you were part of Norman Granz’s ‘Jazz at the Philharmonic’ set (who had been touring  the world for years and presenting jazz as a kind of museum piece) or someone like Wayne Shorter or John McLaughlin who were crossing over to a rock audience, times were becoming very hard indeed.

And then there was the ‘Miles’ factor, something that dogged every other jazz trumpeter during the 1960’s.  Just as every alto sax player in America struggled  in the wake of Charlie Parker, so it was with trumpet players in the 1960’s.  They were caught on the horns of a dilemma; everyone was listening to Miles, so you had to avoid sounding too much like him.  On the other hand, Miles was what everyone was listening to, so  maybe you had to chase that audience.

What Donald Byrd did was to avoid the Milesian route and try to establish his own voice and his own tone.  He did this initially by serving a stint with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, but first drew attention in 1956 when he cropped up as a virtual co-leader on Kenny Burrell’s ‘All night long’ and ‘All day long’ albums.  He then set up his first working band with baritone sax player Pepper Adams and he and Adams are the dominant voices on the album I”m  listening  to which is ‘The Cat Walk’                         

Donald and his wheels – a typically aspirational Blue Note cover of the early ’60’s

‘The Cat Walk’ was  recorded for Blue Note  in 1961 and released the following year.  Apart from Adams & Byrd, the album also features pianist Duke Pearson, drummer Philly Joe Jones and  Byrd’s regular bassist at the time , Laymon Jackson.

‘The Cat Walk’ is effectively the last of a run of about a half-dozen fine Blue Note albums that Byrd recorded from 1958 onwards.  Whilst no-one was ever going to threaten Miles’ pre-eminence, by 1962, Byrd, like label-mates Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan,  had established himself as a distinctive voice on the scene.  Still, you could only go on making quintet albums like ‘The Cat Walk’ for so long before a sense of frustration kicked in and like Hubbard, Byrd was due his experimental phase – well, this was the 60’s after all.  Hubbard left Blue Note for Atlantic and made albums with blues guitarists and experimental electronics whilst Byrd stayed at Blue Note  and made not one, but two albums with choirs – 1963’s ‘A New Perspective’ and ‘I’m Trying to get Home’ from the following year.

I heard ‘A New Perspective’ many years ago and would describe it as an interesting experiment.   That seems to have been how the record-buying public looked at it as well.  Both albums sold respectably but probably not as well as the early 60’s quintet albums.  Byrd did eventually leave  Blue Note and signed a one-album deal with Verve, where he made ‘Up with Donald Byrd’, an album which combined his choral leanings with orchestrations by Claus Ogerman.  The album was produced by Creed Taylor who was eventually to set up his own label (CTI).  Here, he would use the same template of orchestras and BIG arrangements  to record a whole host of jazz players including Freddie Hubbard, Hubert Laws and Stanley Turrentine.

By that point, however, Donald Byrd had gone back to Blue Note with sone new ideas and a new band- the Verve album hadn’t sold and, looking around, Byrd detected the growing popularity of what is usually referred to as ‘Soul Jazz’.  Herbie Hancock’s ‘Watermelon Man’ was an early and highly successful example of this style, which combined straight-ahead rock drumming with funky jazz instrumentation.  In a way, ‘Soul Jazz’ was a conservative backlash against all the wild experimentation  and ‘free jazz’ of the times and reperesented something of a return to the hard bop fundamentals of the late 50’s.  Byrd wasn’t the only player at Blue Note active in this area either as both Grant Green and Hank Mobley were by this point producing  albums in a similar vein.

By 1969, however, it was clear that no-one was going to get the lid back on to Pandora’s Box and that all the experimentation of the times had captured not only the imagination of the critics (and many white rock fans) but also heralded the arrival of a much more ‘electric’  and rock-based approach in the jazz arena.  Of course, Jimmy Smith (Hammond Organ) and Grant Green (electric guitar) had been making  ‘electric’ records for Blue Note for years, but now Miles Davis was using multiple electric keyboards and bass guitar as well as electric guitar and was soon to amplify his own trumpet as he searched for new textures.

Donald Byrd again moved with the prevailing currents and produced ‘Fancy Free’ (1969), ‘Electric Byrd’ (1970) and ‘Ethiopian Knights’ (1971) which all borrowed heavily from the Miles Davis of ‘In a Silent Way’ and Bitches Brew’.  Lengthy, open-ended pieces with electric keyboards, percussion and studio effects dominate, but despite ‘Ethiopian Knights’ being a very good album indeed, nothing it seemed was going to turn Donald Byrd into a major force in jazz.

Ironically, Byrd himself seemed to have reached a similar conclusion and by the early 70’s had used his substantial CV of recordings to parlay himself into some teaching work, initially at Rutgers University in New Jersey and subsequently at several other colleges & universities.  All the more ironic therefore that whilst teaching at Washington’s Howard University in 1973, he ‘discovered’ and eventually produced the highly successful Blackbyrds, who had numerous chart hits in the mid-to-late 70’s and who helped to reinvigorate Byrd’s own career, at least in terms of record sales. 

Donald Byrd’s lengthy career still goes on – he’s currently ‘Artist in Residence’ at Delaware State University.  He may not have had the career he originally anticipated, but then, how many of us can say that we have?


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