Beginning in the early fifties, my grandmother, four of her sisters, two of her brothers and several of their cousins, left the south to move north, and later, they were followed by my mother and more cousins who planted the clan’s flag in the New York metro area. Eventually, I was born there, along with another group of cousins who were all close to my age. We were sprinkled all over the Apple; in Queens, in Brooklyn, the Boogie Down, and just north of there in Mount Vernon and New Rochelle. I was blessed to have grown up in my hometown in Jersey, a small enclave for jazz and soul singers, musicians, stars and record executives that was located right outside of Harlem that I now call Soul City.
Though I lived in the north, I spent many summers of my youth “down south” visiting “my people” relatives who remained at “home” worked, lived and raised more relatives. Every year, my mother would send me to her hometown, place me in the care of family in order for us both to get a break from each other for awhile. This also provided opportunities to bond with a whole group of cousins who were not New Yorkers but were also close to my age. I got to get outdoors in the North Carolina sun and to soak up a little culture too.
On a hot summer night in ‘73, I was hanging with my older cousin Ronnie Scales in the kitchen at my Aunt Lula’s, and he was turning me on to music; “Pain” the bluesy new single by the Ohio Players, as well as a few other essentials were the topics of discussion. Ronnie was a DJ at a dimly-lit joint called the Red Rooster and later, I went by to hear him spin a few sets (yes, I was underage but things were pretty relaxed back then).
What I remember most about that evening was this: I heard some heat from the Isley Brothers, a track from a Richard Pryor album and “Flight Time” a slice of groundbreaking funk from Donald Byrd’s Afrocentric masterpiece, “Black Byrd”. “Black Byrd” and its lead single “Flight Time” represented a departure for Byrd, for jazz, for funk, for soul, for everybody.
Byrd had been a fixture in the hard bop school of east coast improvisation, an educator and bandleader for years, but then, he made a jazz record that a thirteen-year-old, who was into Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind & Fire, and James Brown could feel, and the predictable thing happened; he was labeled a sellout by people who didn’t play, never danced and didn’t like or know many thirteen-year-olds. He abandoned his purists roots and created a funky new way to cut jazz records, and it was on.
His producer/arrangers were a pair of brothers from around my way who had been two of his former students from Howard University. As staff producers for Motown, Larry and Fonce Mizell had produced the first four smashes for the Jackson 5. The Mizell Brothers were dark mystics who knew the recipes for pop hits, mid-tempo grooves, electrified blues and airy, soaring melodies that made you dream of greater possibilities. They escaped the regimented dream factory that had stifled others and began to ply their craft at the more experimental Blue Note Records label. They made music for progressive thinking and struck gold while they did it. Byrd’s trumpet was the perfect vehicle for this new thing.
The A&R man who supervised the recording of this new direction was Dr. George Butler. Butler was a former classmate of my parents’ at Johnson C. Smith University, but later he would be credited with convincing Miles Davis to record after an extended period of silence as well as signing Wynton Marsalis to Columbia Records. Butler had also migrated north from the south.
“Black Bird” set the mark for Blue Note’s biggest seller for many, many years to follow, and became the first of a series of landmark collaborations between Bryd, Butler, and the Mizells. The subsequent releases; “Street Lady”; “Stepping Into Tomorrow”; “Places And Spaces” and “Caricatures” all contained tracks that laid the blueprint for progressive hip hop (backpack) and Neo-Soul. Most memorably “Think Twice” and “Dominoes” were dance tracks that were looped by Main Source, A Tribe Called Quest and Stetsasonic, and can still get your party started.
Since his success opened new avenues for him while he was teaching jazz classes at Howard U, Byrd recruited a different group of students that moved the jazz/funk needle further into the red. With a little help from the Mizells, the Blackbyrds lit the charts up with “Do It Fluid”, “Walking In Rhythm”, “Partyland”, “Happy Music” and “Rock Creek Park”. They were a top shelf rhythm machine with a horn section to match. This was serious house party music, I loved their stuff.
Hip hop has always been in love with Byrd’s records and it has been reported that they were sampled over 200 separate times. While I was an A&R man at EMI, the late Guru organized his first Jazzmatazz record and featured Byrd on the first single. The launch party for the project was held at the classic New York Jazz club, the Village Vanguard. The crowd overflowed, and there were too many patrons to allow the great Luther Vandross in that night.
I met Donald Byrd a few times, the best of them was on a bright and sunny day in May of ‘85, when I was a promotion man at Def Jam, my mother had visitors from the UMass Amherst community. They were a pleasant couple; a husband who taught jazz, and had been an old Air Force buddy of Byrd’s, and a wife who had also been my mother’s classmate at Johnson C. Smith too.
For about 10 years, Byrd and I lived in the same town in the Soul City area, and the couple invited him over to my mother’s for a visit. He sat for a couple of hours and talked funk, dance, jazz, and his then plans to go to Cuba to study with intellectuals under Castro. Like the educator that he was, he could see how eager and appreciative I was to have him share a bit of his experience. It was as though I was back in my Aunt Lula’s kitchen again.
Last week, rumors were flying about Donald Byrd’s death at the age of 80. I got an e-mail from a friend in the DC area asking if I knew anything about it. I received a couple of phone calls from Mos Def’s former manager asking the same. I didn’t want to believe it. I thought that it was curious that a groundbreaking world figure could pass and there was not one major news source who verified it. I reached out for Byrd’s former label mate and my friend, Bobbi Humphrey. She confirmed it.
Donald Byrd’s records were among the most inspirational that I have ever heard in my life. His jazz/funk fusion was a cross generational bridge that connected Black America through the funk/soul/jazz and hip hop eras. It was the sound of family, community and a people on the rise. He was a titan and he sparked something deep in the souls of his listeners and fans. His music provided the soundtrack of my youth and has remained a constant companion ever since. We will never see his like again.
For Nas, Laurie, Rhonda, Hugh, Carol, Monty, Bobbi, Raoul, Perry, Bill, Phillip, Wayne, Ernie, Barry, Brian, Cindy, Rodney, The Ab, The Ep and the Heartbreak Kid. RIP Guru, Fonce, Cedric and Mom and Dad