By Mark Anthony Neal
Donaldson Toussaint L'Ouverture Byrd II aka Donald Byrd is probably most remembered as a Detroit City born Hard Bop maestro. In the mid-1970s Byrd began to collaborate with the Mizell Brothers -- Larry and Fonce -- to chart a new direction for Jazz and Funk music that would reverberate a generation later in the music of Hip-Hop Acts like GURU of Gangstarr and Main Source. A no less important part of Byrd’s story, who died in 2013, was his ongoing commitment to train younger musicians at HBCUs, a commitment that led him to a celebrated residency at North Carolina Central University (NCCU) in the late 1970s.
Donald Byrd had a stellar career, recording mostly on the Blue Note label through the mid-1950s, when he first moved to New York City through the late 1960s. Like many Jazz musicians in the era, he was drawn to some of the new technological advancements, and began to go electric. Albums like Fancy Free (1968) and Electric Bryd (1970) echoed similar innovations like Miles Davis’ more celebrated In A Silent Way (1968) and Bitches Brew (1970).
Byrd’s sound forever changed when he began a teaching residency at Howard University, heading its Jazz Studies program in 1972, working with musicians Allen Barnes and Kevin Toney, among others. The byproduct of those relationship was the album Black Byrd (1973), the first album of Byrd’s produced by the Mizell Brothers. A year later, and in tribute to Blackbyrd, The Blackbyrds, featuring Howard University students including Barnes, Toney, Oscar Brashear, Keith Kilgo, and David Williams, released their first albums, which included their now classic single “Walking in Rhythm” and flowed by other classics like “Rock Creek Park” and “Unfinished Business,” which featured favorite breakbeat of early Hip-Hop producers. At a time when many young Blacks were tuning traditional Jazz out, Byrd found an inroad to those audiences with his style of Jazz-Funk
It was because of the success of The Blackbyrds that Gene Strassler, then the head of North Carolina Central University’s Music department, reached out to Byrd to create some of that magic in Durham. In the process, Byrd and saxophonist Stanley Baird, helped launch the first bachelor degree program in Jazz Studies in the state of North Carolina in 1977. As Strassler told cultural historian Joshua Clark Davis, the relationship with Byrd began some years earlier when he “telephoned Donald Byrd to inquire if he would bring some of his associates in jazz down to Durham to set up a series of lecture-demonstrations...” adding, “this series continued over a four year period and the enthusiasm generated was remarkable. Not surprising, from these early sessions emerged a concept for a jazz curriculum.”
One of the first creations of Byrd’s collaboration with NCCU was the album Super Trick from a group called New Central Connection Unlimited or N.C.C.U., which was made up of NCCU students, including Norris “Country” Duckett on guitar and bassist Aaron Mills, who would go on to perform on some of Cameo’s classics from the 1980s (“Word Up” and “Candy”) and work with Dungeon Family members OutKast and Cee Lo Green.
Byrd’s time in Durham coincided with his switch from the legendary Blue Note label to Elektra Records, and the accessible Jazz Funk heard on Super Trick was the template for Byrd’s albums with his new label. Byrd started a new band called 125th Street, NYC, which included musicians from NCCU, and recorded three albums with the band, including Love Byrd (1981) and Words, Sounds, Colors and Shapes (1982). The latter two albums were produced by Memphis Soul legend Isaac Hayes. The keyboardist on those dates was another NCCU student Chip Crawford, who is most well-known these days as the accompanist for jazz vocalist Gregory Porter.
Donald Byrd’s time at NCCU and Howard University was firmly in line with his own training. Byrd came up through the ranks of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, which for four decades was one of Jazz’s great finishing schools. Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard and Terence Blanchard are among the alumni of The Jazz Messengers. Byrd was among a generation of artists like Yusef Lateef and Grady Tate (currently at Howard), who reproduced Blakely’s model for the academy. Currently working jazz musicians like Branford Marsalis and John Brown hold down Donald Byrd’s legacy in the triangle, teaching at NCCU and Duke, respectively.
Mark Anthony Neal is the James B. Duke Professor of African & African American Studies and Professor of English at Duke University, where he is Chair of the Department of African & African-American Studies. Neal is the author of several books including Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic and Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities and hosts the weekly video podcast Left of Black, produced in collaboration with the John Hope Franklin Center for International and Interdisciplinary Studies. Follow Neal on Twitter at @NewBlackMan and Instagram at @BookerBBBrown.