Even two days of memorializing Dr. Donald Byrd recently didn’t appear to be enough since there were numerous musicians and speakers eager to perform and to share their memories of one of the true giants of American music.
Somehow to limit Byrd’s influence to jazz—and no doubt this is the genre in which he burnished his international reputation—would only tell a portion of his reach and magnitude as composer, innovator, teacher, lawyer, band leader, businessman, and ethnomusicologist.
Before offering a soulful rendition of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” one evening in May at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, trumpet master Jimmy Owens cited three areas in which Byrd had influenced his life and career. “He taught us about the music business,” he began. “To him, there was first of all performance, then education, and finally the music business.”
This point was underscored by pianist and composer Herbie Hancock who related how Byrd instructed him on how to retain copyright possession of his music by establishing his own company. “I followed his advice and one of the songs that I kept under my name was ‘Watermelon Man.’” He garnered almost as much applause for that statement than when he took his seat at the piano during the triumphal version of Byrd’s masterpiece “Cristo Redentor.”
Among a number of treasured moments this performance by the choir with Wallace Roney dutifully representing Byrd’s heavenly trumpet passages may have been the highlight of the two-day celebration of the musical genius, as writer/historian Don Mizell dubbed Byrd.
A coterie of world class musicians, including Najee, Bobbi Humphrey, Maurice Brown, Poogie Bell, Onaje Gumbs, and Jeremy McDonald funked up the church with a hard-bop kicker that would have certainly pleased Byrd. When Gumbs and Humphrey sculpted their moment from the performance the nearly packed church practically uttered an “Amen.”
Byrd’s son, Donald Toussaint Byrd, III deliberately kept his remarks brief choosing to read a letter that expressed the sentiments of many Byrd admirers unable to attend the celebration. “My father’s greatest love was his music and his trumpet,” he said, “and thanks to my wife, I’m in good hands now.”
When word spread that Byrd may have joined the ancestors on Feb. 4 it was accompanied by a lot of false rumors before it was finally determined that he had passed. Born in Detroit in 1932, Byrd accumulated almost as many degrees as he recorded albums, which Professor John Szwed estimated numbered at least fifty.
“No one worked harder to create jazz studies in our schools than Donald,” said Szwed, who directs Jazz Studies at Columbia College.
Eli Fountain and James Carter were among the former Detroit musicians in attendance and they seemed particularly thrilled swaying in the pews to “Places and Spaces,” with Roney, pianist Alex Bugnon, Clifford Adams, Nat Adderley, Jr., Keith Robinson, Humphrey and others giving the sanctuary a fresh trace of the blues.
Bassist/teacher Larry Ridley, who was closely associated with Byrd both as a performer and educator said that “Donald encouraged me in my studies,” and that encouragement has placed Ridley among the key advocates of jazz studies in the nation.
Pianist Kevin Toney presented a lengthy but absorbing mini-concerto, replete with a series of sparkling obbligatos that hinted at much of the music that had gone before, especially the Koka String Ensemble’s performance with an “Amazing Grace” feel.
At St. Peters’ Church in midtown Manhattan on a previous evening the music and recitations were equally rewarding and it’s hard to overlook guitarist Keith “Captain” Gamble’s lowdown bluesy “Godfather, Baby” that artfully transposed the film theme into gutbucket, Saturday night special at any juke joint in Mississippi.
Moderator and radio jazz host Lamon Fenner was polished and professional in keeping the show moving and he has all the poise that the Rev. Calvin Butts evinced in a similar task at the other memorial.
If there was a performance commensurate with Toney’s at Abyssinian it was pianist Danny Mixon’s version of Ellington’s “Single Petal of a Rose.” As is his wont, Mixon was all over the piano, teasing from the song a melodic thunder that found solace in each niche and sinecure of the wooden pews.
Trumpeter Tex Allen rendered a quick and tasteful touch on Miles Davis’s “Solar” and was equally poignant on “Body and Soul.” “Speak Low,” with bassist Mickey Bass leading the way had the ebullient Jerry Weldon, Anthony Nelson on saxes, Marvin Horne (guitar), James Zollar and Shatish Robertson on trumpets, and Frank Haynes, Roy’s son, on drums. It was a beautiful study in controlled harmony and tempo.
As at the Abyssinian church, there was a performance of “Cristo Redentor” with Lester Dean, Cynthia Eytina, Kathy Farmer, Tony Hewitt, Whitney Marchelle Jackson giving the tune an anthem-like ring, and it was immediately recognized by the audience.
Reflections from Kojo, who is widely known and respected as a promoter of events and “Here’s to Life” by Rome Neal were warmly delivered and amplified the contributions of pianist Lafayette Harris, drummer Alvin Atkinson, and bassist Gene Torres who worked overtime without missing a beat. Thrilling too was the solo performance of “My Funny Valentine,” by Michael Lewis on flugelhorn.
Like Cedric Rose at Abyssinian, Benny Urreta (who was unable to attend) and Jeanne Olivierre and their crew were absolutely spot on and remarkable in organizing and coordinating the events.
A week-long memorial for the great Donald Byrd would not have been far-fetched.