Donald Byrd, one of finest jazz trumpet players of the second half of the 20th Century, died earlier this month at the age of 80. Some of his fans might not even have known he was still around, having given up the limelight in middle age when he concentrated on music education. They had remembered him as a hard-charging musician in the 1950s and 1960s who changed directions around 1970 and started making more commercial music that harmed his reputation in some jazz circles.
Byrd, a Detroit native, made his first great jazz recordings in the mid-1950s, when he was still in his early 20s. He sounded like an old pro, when he led a group on “Byrd’s World” on the Savoy label with Frank Foster, the Count Basie veteran on tenor saxophone, Hank Jones on piano and Paul Chambers on bass. A year later, he recorded for Prestige with the great John Coltrane and Hank Mobley on tenor, Elmo Hope on piano, Philly Joe Jones and drums and again Chambers of bass.
For the next 15 years, Byrd appeared on several outstanding LPs, most of them for the Blue Note label. He was not among the top tier of trumpet players at Blue Note, where Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard and Kenny Dorham were the trumpet stars, but he was up there with Blue Mitchell and Charles Tolliver, and they were good enough.
Byrd played with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers — Blakey was a great spotter of talent — and also recorded with such Blue Note stars as Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Lou Donaldson and others.
Byrd was a fine leader of his own small groups, and he also co-led with the baritone saxophone player Pepper Adams. “The Complete Blue Note Donald Byrd-Pepper Studio Sessions” from Mosaic in 2000 helped boost Byrd’s image as a hardbop player with younger listeners and older fans who’d forgotten how good he was.
He also nurtured new talent, especially the piano player Herbie Hancock, who appeared on most of Byrd’s mid-period records, including a couple of the Byrd-Pepper sessions, as well as “Free Form” with tenor saxophone player Wayne Shorter, “A New Perspective” with Hank Mobley again and “I’m Trying to Get Home” with Stanley Turrentine on tenor.
By the end of the 1960s, Byrd must have tired of bebop — playing hard takes its toll on a musician — and anyway, by the end of the 1960s, jazz was struggling. So he moved into R&B, fusion and funk and made some serious money, especially with “Blackbyrd,” Blue Note’s biggest seller.
He also became an educator and stayed out of the limelight by the 1980s. Rappers sampled his music, and he must have lived comfortably on the income from his record royalties. From all accounts, Byrd was an unassuming musician even when he led his own groups. He loved to teach and leaves behind a legacy of first-rate jazz from the 1950s and 1960s that will be heard for generations.
Amazingly, the aforementioned Wayne Shorter is recording for Blue Note again after a 40-year absence that took him into similar territory that Byrd inhabited in the 1970s: Shorter’s group Weather Report with Joe Zawinul on keyboards was perhaps the most influential fusion group of the era, but he has returned to more traditional jazz.
Shorter plays tenor and soprano saxophone on “With-out a Net,” his newest from Blue Note, which is as daring as anything he has done during his illustrious career.
His definition of jazz is “I dare you.”
He’s never been afraid to walk a tightrope for more than 50 years, starting with the Maynard Ferguson Orchestra and the Jazz Messengers. He made his biggest mark with Miles Davis in the 1960s.
Along the way, he led several important recording sessions on Blue Note. Before that, in the early 1960s, he co-led sessions on the small VeeJay label with Lee Morgan, whose collaboration is available on the astonishing “Complete VeeJay Lee Morgan-Wayne Shorter Sessions” from Mosaic.
Shorter is also heard on two other important Mosaic box sets, “The Complete Blue Note Record-ings of Art Blakey’s 1960 Jazz Messengers” and “The Complete Plugged Nickel Sessions” with Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams.
In his 80th year, Shorter is better than ever. “Without a Net” is a compilation of live recordings made in Europe in 2011 with a brilliant quartet that includes the Panamanian pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci and Shreveport’s own Brian Blade on drums.
One lovely tune was recorded in Los Angeles with the Imani Winds quartet.
Some of the music is traditional jazz, much of it is free form and all of it is brilliant. After 55 years, Wayne Shorter continues to explore new sounds, taking new ideas from his collaborators, and in the meantime, reinventing the venerable Blue Note label, which has been issuing glorious music since 1939. May it continue for another 74 years.