Donald Byrd, a jazz pioneer called a “renegade” for his contributions to the genre, has died at the age of 80.
Donald Byrd was described in a Washington Post writeup as “one of the most prolific and dynamic jazz trumpeters of the 1950s,” one that later went on to commercial success for his genre innovations.
Byrd came up in the jazz world in Detroit in the 50s, teaching music at Cass Technical High School in Detroit, and playing in military bands in the Air Force before moving to New York. That’s when, according to TIME, his career really took off — the mag explains:
“[Donald Byrd] soon became one of the most in-demand trumpeters on the New York scene, playing with Max Roach, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk. He also began his recording career by leading sessions for Savoy and other label … In 1958, he signed an exclusive recording contract with the Blue Note label and formed a band with a fellow Detroit native, baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams, making their label debut with the 1959 album ‘Off to the Races.’ The band became one of the leading exponents of the hard-bop style, which evolved from bebop and blended in elements of R&B, soul and gospel music.”
Of his style and changing up norms, Byrd says that he never felt the need to follow a set of ideals — he explained in 1999:
“I’m creative. I’m not re-creative … I don’t follow what everybody else does. One of the proverbs my father used to say is, ‘If you’re not first, be among the first.’ Everything I’ve done others have tried to copy.”
In life, Donald Byrd seems to have marched to a different drummer, and in death, the circumstances surrounding his passing are no more clear. Word that Byrd had died on February 4 only came to light today in the media, disclosed on Facebook by fellow jazz man Alex Bugnon.
In a cryptic posting, Bugnon said he “[has] no more patience for this unnecessary shroud of secrecy placed over his death by certain members of his immediate family,” and that the secrecy created around Byrd’s death created “an unfortunate drama that could have been easily avoided.”
It is currently unclear what Donald Byrd’s cause of death was, nor where he died.