Donald Byrd, an influential jazz trumpeter who helped shape the course of the genre and music at large, died Feb. 4 in Delaware. He was 80.
Rumors of Byrd's death circulated online for a few days before being confirmed by his nephew, Alex Bugnon, a jazz pianist.
Byrd performed and recorded with some of the top performers of the '50s, '60s, and '70s, including John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Gene Harris, Stan Getz, and many others. Byrd later found commercial success by expanding into what critics called jazz fusion or jazz rock.
Byrd's recordings also live on through the work of rap and hip-hop producers who have sampled many of his recordings for artists such as Tupac, Nas, A Tribe Called Quest, and Ludacris.
Donaldson Toussaint L'Ouverture Byrd was born in Detroit in 1932 and began his career playing as one of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, alongside Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, and many other legends of the field. His 1959 debut recording on Blue Note Records, one of the famed labels of the genre, featured a young Herbie Hancock.
By the time of that release, Byrd was marked a master of the hard bop style of jazz, but broke from convention in the 1970s. It was then he recorded the album "Black Byrd," his commercial breakthrough. It fused elements of jazz and funk, with vocal elements as well. The album found pop success on the Billboard Top 100 charts, peaking at No. 88. It also became the highest-selling record released by Blue Note. He also landed hits with "Street Lady," "Stepping Into Tomorrow" and "Places and Spaces."
Byrd was a fervent academic. He studied law as well as music and earned a doctorate from Teacher's College at Columbia University in 1982. He became the first person to teach jazz at Rutgers University and also taught at Howard, Cornell, the University of Delaware, North Carolina Central University, and Delaware State University. Byrd received a Jazz Masters award in 2000 from the National Endowment for the Arts.
On his Facebook page, Bugnon wrote a tribute to Byrd: "Let's remember Donald as a one of a kind pioneer of the trumpet, of the many styles of music he took on, of music education. In sum, Donald was an avid, eternal student of music, until his death. That's what I try to be, everyday!! Rest in peace, uncle!"
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