Educator influenced jazz-oriented hip-hop producers, DJs

Donald Byrd, the influential jazz trumpeter, composer and educator, died Feb. 4. He was 80.

A post on the Web page of Detroit mortuary Haley Funeral Directors belatedly confirmed Byrd’s passing. In a Facebook post, Byrd’s nephew Alex Bugnon had said Byrd died in Delaware. No cause of death was reported.

Getting his start in the hard bop era, Byrd recorded prolifically for Blue Note Records through the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s as a sideman and leader. His later funk-jazz albums for the label found commercial success, as did the work of the Blackbyrds, a group that drew its membership from his students.

In later years, Byrd — who held a doctorate in education from Columbia U. — taught at several universities. He became an icon of jazz-oriented hip-hop producers and DJs.

He was born Donaldson Toussaint L’Ouverture Byrd II in Detroit and was educated at Wayne State U/; he later received a master’s from the Manhattan School of Music.

He made an immediate splash in 1956 when he replaced Clifford Brown, who had been killed in a highway accident, in drummer Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, the premier hard bop unit of the day. After leading sessions for the Transition, Savoy and Prestige labels and forming the Jazz Lab Quintet with altoist Gigi Gryce and a quintet with baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams, he began his fruitful relationship with Blue Note, where he issued 24 albums.

He appeared on sessions behind Hank Mobley, Horace Silver, Sonny Rollins, Paul Chambers, Jimmy Smith, Lou Donaldson, Red Garland and John Coltrane, among others. He established his hard bop bona fides as a leader on several sessions of his own.

In the late ’60s, Byrd segued into electric fusion and the funky end of the jazz spectrum. His biggest-selling releases were produced by brothers Larry and Alphonso “Fonce” Mizell. “Black Byrd” (1973) reached the top 40 of the pop albums chart and was succeeded by the similarly popular “Street Lady” in 1974 and “Stepping Into Tomorrow” and “Places and Spaces” in 1975. The R&B act the Blackbyrds, formed by Byrd’s Howard U. students Kevin Toney, Keith Killgo, Joe Hall and Allan Barnes, logged several chart albums of their own in 1974-77, with Byrd contributing compositions.

While he recorded for Elektra and Landmark from the late ’70s through the early ’90s, Byrd concentrated primarily on work as an educator, teaching at such institutions as Rutgers, Oberlin and Cornell; he was named artist in residence at Delaware State U. in 2009.

But his earlier work did not go unnoticed: His music was sampled by Main Source, A Tribe Called Quest, DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, Pete Rock, Nas and J. Dilla, among others. He also made an appearance on “Jazzmatazz Vol. 1,” the jazz-inflected 1993 album by Guru of Gang Starr.

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