“I met him in the 11th grade in Detroit,” he (Byrd) said. “I skipped school one day to see Dizzy Gillespie, and that’s where I met Coltrane. Coltrane and Jimmy Heath just joined the band, and I brought my trumpet, and he was sitting at the piano downstairs waiting to join Dizzy’s band. He had his saxophone across his lap, and he looked at me and he said, ‘You want to play?’
‘So he played piano, and I soloed. I never thought that six years later we would be recording together, and that we would be doing all of this stuff. The point is that you never know what happens in life.’” – Cornell University, 1998.
In 1932, jazz and R&B trumpeter Donald Byrd, was born in Detroit, Michigan. Born Donaldson Toussaint L’Ouverture Byrd II, Byrd played with Lionel Hampton while attending Cass Technical High School. After playing in a military band during a stint in the United States Air Force, he earned his bachelor’s degree in music from Wayne State University in 1954 and later his Master of Arts degree in music education from Manhattan School of Music. Prior to forming his first band in 1958, Byrd played with such jazz greats as Art Blakey, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, and Herbie Hancock. In the 1970s, Byrd led his group into jazz fusion and R&B and recorded such hits as “Black Byrd” (1972), Blue Note Record’s highest ever selling album, “Street Lady” (1973), “Steppin’ Into Tomorrow” (1974), and “Places and Spaces” (1975).
In the 1960s, Byrd turned his attention to jazz education. He studied in Paris with composer Nadia Boulanger, became the first person to teach jazz at Rutgers University in New Jersey, and started the jazz studies department at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Byrd earned his law degree in 1976 and his Ph.D. in 1982 from Columbia Teachers College. In 2000, Byrd was designated a NEA Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts, the highest honor the United States bestows on a jazz artist.
Byrd has taught music at a number of institutions, including Rutgers University, Hampton Institute, Howard University, and Oberlin College. In 2009, he was named artist-in-residence at Delaware State University. Byrd died on Feb. 4, 2013 in Dover, Del. He was 80.
The Akosua Report: Facts on The African Diaspora, is written by Akosua Lowery. Follow her on Twitter @AkosuaLowery.