Donald Byrd remembered (with thanks to Al Young)

February 9, 2013
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Recent word that Donald Byrd had passed sent me to Al Young’s poetic prose about the trumpet-bari sax team of Byrd and Pepper Adams back in the Detroit of the 1950s. It’s in Young’s “musical memoir” Bodies and Soul (the first of at least three musical memoir collections by Young, all apparently out of print, sad to say). Young captures what it was like to be a 10th grader “macking” – as the walk was called – near Woodward and being frozen by the sounds coming from the Byrd household, “the ring of a solitary trumpet smearing blues all over a sequence of diminished and augmented 7th, 9th and 13th chords.” And at a tender age, when you had no chance of getting into the city’s lauded clubs, there was the musician-and-music-lover-run New World Stage, “a sort of precursor to the jazz lofts.” It was a place all the legends-to-be (and should-have-beens) played, where anyone passing through town might drop by, and where Byrd and Adams were hometown favorites.

And Young evoked a night when Byrd – by then a rising star along with Jackie McLean in George Wallington’s band at Café Bohemia in New York – came back to town for a night at the Stage and etched in Young’s memory an exciting ride on Bud Powell’s classic “Parisian Thoroughfare,” which begins with a musical evocation of frenetic traffic.

In the midst of all this theatrical mood-setting cacophony, you could clearly make out Byrd’s mellifluous brass-chimed tones; a tender ripe sound you could practically reach up and touch as it glided overhead like some luminous songbird circling the Champs Elysées. Aloft and soaring, bulging with humor, Byrd even dipped down into his crystalline conservatory bag, picking up just enough morsels of “Petrouchka” and “The Soldier’s Tale” – pulling a Stravinsky in reverse – to round out the suspenseful effect.

By the time the band had stepped back into 4/4 time and stated Bud’s theme, you were still hanging on with a lump in your throat, flying home blind in a taxi airborne.

Writing back when Byrd and Adams were still kicking, Young described the holes they left in the lives of Detroiters when they moved to the Big Apple. But, of course, with their passings (Adams died in 1986), the holes are altogether different now.

Coda: For those following, it’s been a terrible stretch, it seems, for losses to the jazz world. In recent months:  John Tchicai, Borah Bergman, David S. Ware and Rahn Burton. In the last couple weeks: Butch Morris and Jayne Cortez, in addition to Byrd. No doubt, I’ve missed others. Just this evening, as I was about to post this, I saw a note in my inbox adding trombonist Julian Priester to the list. (Update: The reports of the demise of Julian Priester are, thankfully, untrue, though Priester apparently has been ailing. Sadly, the names of Claude BlackRod Hicks and George Gruntz can be added to the list.)

  • Lazaro Vega

    Julian’s still with us, according to his Facebook page.