Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Hentoff on Donald Byrd

Byrd in Paris with Walter Davis (p), Bobby Jaspar (ts) and Doug Watkins (b).

Trumpet player, composer, band leader and jazz educator Donald Byrd passed away last month. He left a prodigious legacy behind which among them his long and abundant tenure with Pepper Adams remains my favorite.

(a fast dissolve to Nat Hentoff)

Nat Hentoff, during his exuberantly active years as the session attendant, liner note author and producer, wrote more liner notes for Donald Byrd than any other trumpet player of the 1960s. What follows is a small part of Hentoff's illustration of Byrd, as well as his attempt to reflect Byrd's views on various issues - from educating jazz to church music and evaluation of his colleagues.

Byrd Emerges

The continuing growth of Donald Byrd as a uniquely melodic improviser with authoritative command of his instrument has not been sufficiently underlined, it seems to me, in the past couple of years. Several critics have, however, been cognizant of Byrd's increasingly substantial achievement. Frank Kofsky, for one, noted in Down Beat that "the history of Byrd's recording career has been one of consistent improvement; and the British critic, Michael James, has observed in the Jazz Review that Byrd's "tone sings loud and clear throughout the range of his horn, and his invention has more that kept pace with his improved technique...There is not a hint of blandness technical confidence will sometimes bring."

Also heartening is the fact that Byrd does not find necessary to pound home the point that he has roots. A blues feeling courses through everything he plays, but he is also able to range through a much wider variety of moods than are several of his more self-consciously "hard" contemporaries. There is in Byrd a linkage to sunny, light-hearted jazz playing as well as to vigorously assertive self-expression.

Hancock on Byrd

"The best way I can characterize Donald," says the trumpeter's friend and colleague, Herbie Hancock, "is that he thinks forward all the time. You can notice this in his albums, for one example. On each one, he gets into something new. His mind is too quick and his curiosity too active for him to get caught in any single groove."

Other Byrds

Byrd sometimes reminds me at a Finely disciplined juggler. Always, he has a number at projects going simultaneously; and because he is disciplined as well as musically resourceful, they all get done.

For the past year, Donald has been involved in an intensive course of self-education. Not only in music, but in anthropology and history, particularly Negro history. ''I want," he explains, "to get a broader perspective on the way we live. If you concentrate everything into the life of the clubs and the sessions, you're not getting as much out of being as you can. There's a very big world out there."

He [shapes] a small combo into an energetic unity, giving ample space for the soloists but stamping the overall result with his own  distinctive characteristics - disciplined lucidity, economy and a continual freshness of involvement. It's a quality that marks his conversation too. There's no time to be bored. There are new books to discuss, new theories of music and of history. And new experiences. And that, of course, is why his music is so alive. He's persistently absorbed in the processes of growth.

There continue to be several other Byrds. Donald is teaching in New York and is increasingly involved in
classical composition. In Europe, he also conducts, composes, and plays jazz dates. For a long time, in and out of music, Donald has been a searcher. He keeps reaching out to and absorbing experience. As for his future in music, so far as Donald sees it, “the sky’s the limit.”

In addition, he was planning music for a ballet under commission from the Radio Orchestra at Norway, and was also involved in writing jazz masses tor Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart and for the Advent Lutheran Church. Moreover, Donald was coaching and writing music for startlingly precocious six-year-old Chicago organist and pianist, Frederick Nelson III.


"[In Fly Little Bird] I wanted to see it I could build a structure similar in a sense to what Coltrane is doing. Harmonically, the song is constructed off a whole-tone scale. It sounds easy to play, but it's really quite difficult because at the whole-step, halt-step pattern. Most people aren't used to playing chords in that way. It you get lost on one chord, you usually have to wait eight bars to catch up. McCoy [Tyner who plays piano here], of course, is especially quick at this because at all the training he had with Coltrane. Listen to him on the track. He tears the song completely apart."


Donald Byrd’s Blackjack was written for an entertainer in Paris who was visiting New York during the time of [Byrd’s] engagement at the Five Spot. “Blackjack” is Donald’s nickname for her. “Underneath,” says Donald, “the idea for the rhythm came from a performance l’d heard by Joe Williams and the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band of “Get Out Of My Life, Woman.” I sort of turned that beat around, and the top part has a light, Monkish type of feeling. You know that dance Monk does when he’s listening to his music? The last two beats of the melodic pattern here go exactly with that dance.” The feeling is loose and infectiously buoyant. Sonny Red practically talks his story, displaying in the process one of the surest senses of swing in
jazz. Donald is characteristically crisp, cohesive, and he too has that human “Cry” in his horn.

Kinda Blue

[The song] Eldorado was written some years ago by Mitchell Farber, a New Yorker who was a student of Donald’s at a Stan Kenton Band Clinic at Michigan State. “l’ve always liked this song,” says Donald. “lt’s reminiscent of a Miles Davis-Gil Evans-Bill Evans feeling, but it very much has its own character. Everytime we played the song, all the musicians in the band were fascinated by it. it’s very relaxing and yet liberating
too. The triadic effect against a basic pedal point is very interesting and the simplicity of the tune-there are basically only two chords in it-gives you freedom to really stretch out and do what you want. All in all, it creates a hell of a mood” as Donald and his colleagues demonstrate here.

The order of soloists is Donald, Hank Mobley, Sonny Red and Cedar Walton.

Slow Drag

Donald considers Slow Drag the quintessential example of the depth of rapport [the group] achieved during their association [in 1967]. ‘We had been well into this song at the Five Spot," Donald recalls, "and at the session, it took on a new dimension as Billy Higgins started having fun singing it. Alfred Lion, who was in charge of the date, asked us if we'd record it that way. And although the melody and bass lines were written out, the rest of what happened was entirely spontaneous. It's a fun tune, and we had a marvelous time doing it." 

Donald, in his current work as an educator, stresses the need to get at and understand the roots of music; and his solo on Slow Drag is an emotional, story-telling illustration of just that process. 

Sonny Red

Sonny Red
“You know,” Donald Byrd points out, “Sonny [Red] and I met in the eighth grade in Detroit. He was one of the people instrumental in my starting to play jazz. [He] got me listening to Charlie Parker and Dizzy. Through the years he's always struck me as someone who is really turned on when he plays. I wish I could always be that happy in the act at music. Music and the alto saxophone have been his whole life."

"You listen to his work,” says Donald, “and it’s clear how definite a talent Sonny has as a tune writer."

[In another session, Byrd says:] Sonny likes people like Bo Diddley and John Lee Hooker. [He] listens to a lot at the authentic folk singers, like T-Bone Walker who stayed a lot in Detroit where Sonny comes from. What Sonny is trying to do in his writing involves an attempt to really capture the black feeling in American music. [He] has a real knack for writing strong, firm melodies. In that respect, he reminds me of Herbie Hancock as a writer. This man has been so underrated, both as a player and composer. And his playing, like on this record, continues to grow upward and outward.”

Billy Higgins

Of Billy, Donald emphasizes: “Talk about being underrated. Musicians know how important Billy is, but more of the public should. There’s a whole school of drummers that have taken out of Billy. In his way, he’s been as much of an influence on a lot of drummers in and around New York as Elvin Jones. He has a basic simplicity and drive, but it’s not as simple as it seems. Underneath there’s a storm going on. He has a distinctive imagination. Also he's one of the two or three drummers in New York who plays with a time and feeling reminiscent of Kenny Clarke. With that as a base, he has a younger man's conception and daring."”

Byrd with altoist Jackie McLean and the baritone player Pepper Adams.

Sing, Sing

From my paint of view," Donald continued, ''I think all writing should sing, including writing for instruments. I always try to play in a vocal manner. For me, that's much more vital than showing how fast or high I can play. And what my trumpet occasionally does here is to take on the role of the minister who is sometimes preaching and shouting over the congregation. The congregation in this case consists of the instrumentalists
and the chorus.

Educating Jazz

As for that diversity, Donald is now composer-in-residence at the Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University, where he is also, as a member of the faculty, drawing up an educational program in jazz. He is a professor of Jazz Studies, a new department, at Howard University -the first jazz department at a black college. There too he has set a regular curriculum, including a band as an organic part of the learning 

At Columbia University's Teachers College, Donald is a lecturer in non-Western music, he is a lecturer and consultant in the same field at North Carolina College in Durham; and he is a consultant in non-Western music for the New York State Board of Education. In that capacity, with African music as his specialty, he has been setting up guidelines for music departments throughout the state as well as directing symposia for music supervisors. And Donald is setting up similar programs for New Jersey and Connecticut. In what time he has left, he's writing a book that will clearly delineate between Western music and those elements of the African experience in Afro-American music.

Electric Byrd

[Byrd's switch to electric] is organic extensions of his essential lyricism and of his concern with newly variegated, continually shifting textures. At least as vital as the electronics here is the constantly provocative, subtle interplay of percussive accents and colors. What [takes place] are absorbing aural landscapes-or rather feelingscapes-of the imagination. Moods are set, with electric immediacy, and then they change as the focus moves from solo statements to collective movement-through-texture to intricate rhythm section designs and then on in various mixtures of the previous ingredients. There is, in sum, a pervasive cohesiveness in these works even though so much is going on-in terms of dynamics, color changes, rhythmic contours, melodic shapes-in each piece.

* * *

Liner Notes from these albums were featured here: Free Form, 1961; Cat Walk, 1961; A New Perspective, 1963; Mustang!, 1966; Slow Drag, 1967; Blackjack, 1967; Electric Byrd, 1970. © Nat Hentoff. Re-published here by kind permission of Mr. Nat Hentoff.

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