Before & After: Donald Byrd

This B&A originally appeared in JazzTimes in 2007. I wish I had taken photos of Byrd’s eyes and animated enthusiasm when he talked about Clifford Brown and the Alessi family.

Donald Byrd

Trumpeter Donald Byrd may be best known for his classic hard-bop recordings and much sampled forays into funk-jazz, but his heart has always been in education. Coming out of the celebrated Cass Tech in Detroit, he graduated from Wayne State University, got his Master’s at the Manhattan School of Music, studied with Nadia Boulanger, Joseph Alessi and William Vachianno, and earned his doctorate in 1982. A pioneer in jazz education, he has taught at Rutgers University, Hampton University, North Texas State and Delaware State University, and while head of the Black Music Department at Howard University, he helped create and guide the chart-topping group, The Blackbyrds

We met one early March morning following Byrd’s performance with fellow NEA Jazz Masters Ahmad Jamal and Jimmy Heath at the Kennedy Center. As I set up my gear, Byrd pulled out his own tape recorder and a set of talking points, which included Ahmad Jamal and the Titans of the 20th century, connections between music and mathematics, how he encountered rap and hip hop in The Bronx, Brooklyn and Inglewood, the educational problems in the U.S., comparisons between private schools and universities, his forthcoming book on Nat Turner, his relationship with Billy Taylor and his updated Master’s thesis on jazz education.

1. Roy Eldridge‑Dizzy Gillespie

Sometimes I’m Happy (from Roy and Diz, Verve). Eldridge, Gillespie, trumpets; Oscar Peterson, piano; Herb Ellis, guitar; Ray Brown, bass; Louis Bellson, drums. Recorded in 1954.

Before: Sounds like Dizzy, all of his lines and the triplets. Yeah, that’s Dizzy. The other one sounds like someone in the generation before Dizzy, Roy or someone like that. I can hear it in the vibrato, the growling, very relaxed with the blues sound. We were discussing this last night. The people who played music had a personality to go with it. Read about Dizzy’s history and all the wild things he did. I used to go hear Roy on 52nd street.

After: They played in a lyrical fashion. Like Lester Young, they knew the lyrics of the tune. What they were projecting in their music and their solos was their experience.

2. Wynton Marsalis

From The Plantation To The Penitentiary (from From The Plantation To The Penitentiary, Blue Note). Marsalis, trumpet; Walter Blanding, saxophone; Dan Nimmer, piano; Carlos Henriquez, bass; Ali Jackson, Jr., drums; Jennifer Sanon, vocals. Recorded in 2006.

Before: I don’t have the slightest idea. What I’m hearing is somebody who’s probably still alive, somebody who grew up in the 80s into the 90s. I can tell from the music, the beat and the vocalist singing about freedom. It’s a contemporary type of blues. The trumpeter uses a conglomeration of little growl sounds and he’s using some triplets, which dates it a little bit. But the tempo and the drum beats and the intervallic solos-the pianist is playing in 4ths, coming out of Coltrane-it’s different and it’s contemporary. It’s not something for the masses to dance by. They are voicing and projecting their experience and that’s what the music is all about. So it’s today’s type thing.

After: I thought that’s who it might be. Yeah, Walter Blanding I know. Ali Jackson, I know his father. He’s a fantastic drummer from Detroit. Wynton is evolving all the time. But then I remember the first time that Wynton was here with the Jazz Messengers in DC, so I’ve watched them all evolve. I feel what he’s doing. He’s putting his experience and expression in it.  [long discussion about Byrd’s recent series of lectures on Math + Music = Art]

3. Ben Riley‘s Monk Legacy Septet

Rhythm‑A‑Ning (from Memories of T, Concord). Riley, drums; Don Sickler, trumpet; Bruce Williams, alto saxophone; Wayne Escoffery, tenor saxophone; Jay Brandford, baritone saxophone; Freddie Bryant, guitar; Kiyoshi Kitagawa, bass. Recorded in 2005.

Before: Lou Donaldson introduced me to Monk and I started to play with Monk when I was 19, so I started to compare this with how Monk wrote this. They’re playing it the way they feel it but I also think of the way Monk wanted it. That’s got more of a be‑bop feel to it and Monk didn’t really care for a be‑bop type thing. So if you’re going to get into it, get into the style of the music. Coltrane went Monk’s way. Look at what happened with Monk and Miles; Monk laid out, ok? Monk was strictly into his type thing. Billy Taylor was telling me that Monk used to play like Art Tatum. That freaked me out when I heard that. I knew where this was going. It’s good technique and everything, but that doesn’t sound like Shadow Wilson.

After: Monk was crazy about Ben. But that was later on. Sickler was my student. I started him off.

4. Blue Mitchell

I’ll Close My Eyes (from Blue‘s Moods, Blue Note). Mitchell, trumpet; Wynton Kelly, piano; Sam Jones, bass; Roy Brooks, drums. Recorded in 1960.

Before: He’s got a lot of triplets in there, so it’s coming out of the be‑bop era. Sounds like Blue Mitchell or Nat Adderley. The most distinctive thing is his vibrato when he sustains his notes. The pianist has technique-the diminished scale there. It’s got that Ahmad [Jamal] background, with the accents. See, Ahmad changed everybody from around 1955. They anticipate the beat; They got that from Miles and Miles got that from Ahmad. He changed my whole style of playing, running all those chromatic lines. I have a stack of his albums in that brown bag there. [opens the bag and shows me the records, then his notebook with trumpet exercises in minor 3rds].

After: That’s who I thought it was. It doesn’t sound like Wynton on Kind of Blue. I know everybody there. Roy was crazy. Literally. One day in Chicago he was sitting at the bar completely nude. But his drumming, he had a set of drums with tubes that go into the air‑holes to change the pitches. He also could play the hell out of the saw. Blue is good. Fantastic. That’s who Horace Silver was crazy about.

5. Helen Merrill

What Is This Thing Called Love (from The Feeling Is Mutual, Gitanes/Emarcy). Merrill, vocals; Thad Jones, cornet; Dick Katz, piano; Jim Hall, guitar; Ron Carter, bass; Pete LaRoca, drums. Recorded in 1965.

Before: [arches his eyebrows during the cornet solo, chuckles] They’re playing off of a diminished pattern. Harmonically, it’s very interesting the way they’ve re‑orchestrated it.  He’s playing it the way he hears it. That’s a hell of a tempo. Very good. She’s trying to sing off the Cherokee bridge. Forget it. The only thing she could have done is articulate it like an instrument, like scat.

After: Dick, I went to Manhattan School with him. Thad Jones, he could play any goddamn thing. Hell yes. There wasn’t anything he couldn’t play and everything he did was right. He knew everything. If you had a brother like Hank Jones? Forget it! Are you kidding? That whole family. See, I grew up playing with them. Tommy Flanagan, we used to stand outside of the Blue Bird and would hear through the window.

6. Ralph Alessi

At The Seams (from Look, Between The Lines). Alessi, trumpet; Andy Milne, piano; Drew Gress, bass; Mark Ferber, drums. Recorded in 2005.

Before: [grunts with approval] Very nice. I like all of what they’re doing. The trumpet player is articulate. He’s playing in a melodic sense. The lines are cool; the symmetry in the chord structure and the way the pianist is accompanying him.

After: [looks at the record, then fixes me with a stare] Turn that off and let me tell you something. Do I know Ralph Alessi? His grandfather was my teacher! And his father, we went to school together at Manhattan. And his brother Joe is the greatest trombonist ever. Goddamn! We go all the way back to when I was 19. I’ve got pictures of his grandfather and stuff that he’s never seen [with] the two of us standing together. And I used to eat at his grandfather’s and grandmother’s house. Hell yes.

So the Alessi family can play?

No question about that. [laughs] Get out of here. Joe is cool. That’s where I get my trumpets special made. [shows me the trumpet]  This family is something.

7. Larry Young

The Moontrane (from Unity, Blue Note). Young, organ; Woody Shaw, trumpet; Joe Henderson, tenor saxophone; Elvin Jones, drums. Recorded in 1965.

Before: I made a recording of that. Freddie? Somebody who likes Freddie Hubbard. [during tenor solo] Oh, god. That sounds like somebody I know. Yeah, nice. Whew. He’s got a style. That’s Woody’s tune.

You like the tune?

Hell yes. The chord progressions and everything. I don’t know who the organist is.

After: [sees Joe Henderson’s name] Aw shit, no wonder.  I need to get this one. Woody was with me in France. He’s coming more out of Freddie. But Freddie had more technique and greater range. Ok, let me tell you what happened. When I went to Europe in ’58, I started at a club near the Notre Dame. Then Mingus came over and had Eric Dolphy and I was showing Eric how to operate in Europe. Back then you didn’t have agents, we just told each other about the jazz clubs in each city. After Eric came over, he left Mingus in Holland and came to Paris. I started helping him. I watched him kill himself. He drank four bottles of honey a day. He passed out and they said he was a junkie and treated him for an overdose. But he was a straight cat, a clean cat. And he told me about a little trumpet player named Woody Shaw. I told him I couldn’t get him an airline ticket but I could get him on a boat, which would take about a week. So I sent for Woody. I was working at Ronnie Scott’s and I opened on Monday and they said Eric Dolphy had died. So then I had to take care of Woody when he arrived. He practiced his lines night and day.  Yeah, this group is happening.

8. Terell Stafford.

Taking A Chance On Love (from Taking Chances: Live At The Dakota, Maxjazz). Stafford, flugelhorn; Tim Warfield, soprano saxophone; Bruce Barth, piano; Derrick Hodge, bass; Dana Hall, drums. Recorded in 2006.

Before: That’s coming out of Ahmad Jamal. [starts humming along with the melody]  The arrangement is nice. They’re playing on the chords, laid back. It’s a nice tune. That beat is coming out of a New Orleans thing, like Vernell [Fournier] and Idris [Muhammad]. They play that New Orleans street beat: gonk, gonk, gonk, gdon‑donk. Yeah, This is cute. He’s hittin’ it.

After: I don’t know Terell’s playing that well. I know he’s in Philadelphia, teaching at Temple.  See, the pianist there, that’s Ahmad. Stafford, yeah, he’s cool.

9. Christian Scott

Rewind That (from Rewind That, Concord). Scott, trumpet; Matt Stevens, guitar; Zaccai Curtis, Fender Rhodes; Luques Curtis, electric bass; Thomas Pridgen, drums. Recorded in 2005.

Before: Is that something with Herbie Hancock or somebody? I’m hearing a lot. It’s nice. Somebody coming out of Miles. Who is it?

After: I don’t know him. [examines the cover photo] He’s got that trumpet like Wynton. I like it. But I’d like to see them play in line with what’s happening with contemporary music. There’s a big world out there, African stuff and European stuff.

10. Clifford Brown and Max Roach

If I Love Again (from Study In Brown, Emarcy). Brown, trumpet; Roach, drums; Harold Land, tenor saxophone; George Morrow, bass; Richie Powell. Recorded in 1955.

Before: Whew. Turn it off. Hell no! Aw, that’s the greatest. Clifford, are you kidding? Mathematician, straight A student at Howard High School in Wilmington Delaware. If you ever played with him, you’d be sorry. I went to his funeral and everything. He was a great pianist, he could have had a career as a pianist. There was no end to him. Put him against anybody, even Dizzy. Miles and them, forget it. Hell no! Idris Sulieman told me about him. He said, you’ve got to go to Philadelphia and hear this trumpet player. His sound, his vibrato. He played with me at Café Bohemia. Oh yeah. One night he was there and everybody walked in on me: Chet Baker, Miles Davis, Kenny Dorham. I jumped off the stand and said you’ve got it. Clifford? Oh no, hell no! Listen to the way he used to tongue the notes, the way he played chords, his articulation, his rhythmic sense. Get the album that Neal Hefti wrote for him with strings. Look at the album cover, he had rubber bands holding the water keys down and everything. No! Dizzy and everybody would stand back and look at him.

11. Satoko Fujii & Natsuki Tamura

A Holothurian (from In Krakow in November, Not Two). Fujii, piano; Tamura, trumpet. Recorded in 2006.

Before: I don’t have the slightest idea. Somebody expressing themselves. Yeah, they’re doing their thing. That sounds like some contemporary music. The chord structures and everything. It’s jazz oriented but from a harmonic standpoint it’s coming out of modern classical music. I would go and hear him.

After: Very intelligent music. That was interesting. Where did you get that? Yeah, it’s nice. I like that. You played some very good things. You’ve covered the gamut, but you haven’t played any Clark Terry. And next time you do one of these, put some Kenny Dorham in there.

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