For days, rumors had been circulating on social media that legendary trumpeter Donald Byrd had died away. On Thursday, reports of the jazz musician and educator extraordinaire's death were confirmed by the artist's nephew, Alex Bugnon, who said via Facebook and emails that his 80-year-old uncle had died on Monday, Feb. 4, 2013, adding that for some reason other family members were trying to shroud his passing in secrecy.
"I have no more patience for this unnecessary shroud of secrecy placed over his death by certain members of his immediate family," wrote Bugnon.
An official statement, from Byrd's immediate family or one of his many labels, has yet to be released.
Born Donaldson Toussaint L'Ouverture Byrd II in Detroit, Mich. in Dec. 9, 1932, his work spanned several decades and genres. His career began when he joined Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, as a replacement for his idol, Clifford Brown, in the 1950s, and formed the fusion group, The Blackbyrds, in the early 1970s.
According to Amoeba magazine, Byrd was a "one of a kind trumpeter," who was known not just for his work in jazz, but also in R&B, soul and funk music. It was his ability to transcend time and genre and remain relevant that sets his work apart from others. Toward the end of the '60s, Byrd became fascinated with Miles Davis' move into fusion, and started recording his own forays into the field.
In the early '70s, with the help of brothers Larry and Fonce Mizell, Byrd perfected a bright, breezy, commercially potent take on fusion that was distinct from Davis, incorporating tighter arrangements and more of a smooth soul influence. Byrd went on to release a string of successful LPs in partnership with the Mizell Brothers, including the imaginary blaxploitation soundtrack “Street Lady” (1974), “Stepping into Tomorrow” (1975), the much-lauded “Places and Spaces”(1976) and “Caricatures” (1977). All made the Top Ten on the R&B album charts, and the “Places and Spaces” single "Change (Makes You Wanna Hustle)" even got substantial play in discotheques.
In the wake of its success, Byrd formed a supporting group, the Blackbyrds, who were culled from the cream of his music students at Howard University and eventually signed them to Fantasy Records — as a group in their own right — in 1973.
“Basically Donald never let you think you could play,” recalled longtime Blackbyrd Keith Killgo in a recent interview with Blues & Soul magazine. “You know, you’d play, he’d look over and say `OK, I need to talk to you, man. I don’t know what that is that you played or why you played it. But we need to TALK!`. He`d constantly challenge you musically. He`d throw music in front of you and, whatever instrument you played, he’d make you go research all the cats that played it. Not only the jazz cats, but the classical cats, the blues cats... So, you’d become well-rounded. Then, once you`d read UP on them, he`d make you LISTEN to all their MUSIC! So that, when you were up there onstage playing, he could see your progress.
“You know, he’d definitely check on you on a daily basis to see if you’d done your homework. We’d have these all-the-way-down-to-the-ground kinda band meetings. But, though we hated it at the time, it made us the musicians we are today. We were basically rookies, and we learned from the best in the business.”
Bryd’s influence remained strong into the 21st century. The once popular acid jazz movement heavily built upon its sound via Byrd's work, and hip-hop fans know his work from the countless times it has been sampled. Large Professor, Organized Konfusion, Black Moon, The Pharcyde, Nas, Public Enemy, Madlib, and Del Tha Funkee Homosapien are among the many that sampled him, along with fellow late great Detroit artist J Dilla. In recent decades Byrd was known as an educator lecturing at numerous institutions on music.
"Let's remember Donald as a one of a kind pioneer of the trumpet, of the many styles of music he took on, of music education, “Bugnon wrote. “In sum, Donald was an avid, eternal student of music, until his death. That's what I try to be, everyday!! Rest in peace, uncle!"