Trumpeter Donald Byrd, a funk-fusion experimenter, dies at 80

  • By Reed Johnson Los Angeles Times
  • Tuesday, February 12, 2013 9:04am
  • LifeGo-See-Do

LOS ANGELES — Jazz trumpeter and band leader Donald Byrd, whose clean, elegant phrasing made his reputation in the 1950s and ‘60s before he began experimenting in the ‘70s and ‘80s with jazz-funk-R&B fusions on discs such as “Black Byrd” and “Thank You … for F.U.M.L. (Funking Up My Life),” has died at age 80.

He reportedly died Feb. 4 in Dover, Del.

Byrd was born Donaldson Toussaint L’Ouverture Byrd II in Detroit and grew up immersed in that city’s rich blues and church-music culture (his father was a Methodist minister).

He moved to New York in 1955 and quickly became one of the most sought-after young trumpeters in America and an exponent of the hard-bop movement. Eventually, he would collaborate with Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. Critic Nat Hentoff hailed his debut album for heralding “one of the most important jazz trumpet talents in the past few years.”

In the early ‘70s, Byrd joined a number of jazz artists, including Miles Davis, to begin fusing jazz with R&B and funk elements. His album “Black Byrd” peaked at No. 88 on the Billboard Top 100, and Byrd expanded his following among younger listeners who were coming to jazz through jazz-influenced pop-soul groups such as Earth, Wind &Fire and other funk fusionists such as Roy Ayers.

One standout track from that period, “Loving You” (from “Thank You … for F.U.M.L.”), lays a trumpet’s guiding melodic line, plus silky lead male and backing female vocals, over a snapping bass line and cracking percussion.

Predictably, however, some jazz purists reacted with horror and condemned Byrd as a heretic. “The jazz people started eating on me,” Byrd recalled in one interview.

Byrd also put together a new group, the Blackbyrds, from some of his music students at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Among their hit singles were “Walking in Rhythm” and “Rock Creek Park,” an atmospheric, erotically charged paean to the Washington oasis.

The song has been heavily sampled by rap and hip-hop performers such as Public Enemy and Nas, and was used memorably on the soundtrack to the 1991 British film “Young Soul Rebels,” a same-sex love story set amid the tense world of England’s ethnic gangs and subcultures.

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