Donald Toussaint L'Ouverture Byrd, II
(December 9, 1932-February 4, 2013)
The Howard University Department of Music is deeply saddened by the loss of world- renowned trumpeter Donaldson Toussaint L’Ouverture Byrd, II, the founder of our prestigious Jazz Studies Program. Dr. Byrd, a 2000 NEA Jazz Master, was a legendary jazz artist and a prolific composer. He arrived on campus in 1968 with a larger-than-life persona and planted seeds for what would later become one of the greatest collegiate jazz programs in the world. Professor Fred Irby, III, Director of the Howard University Jazz Ensemble since 1975, has often said that, “Donald Byrd and Benny Golson are the most important figures in the history of the Howard University Jazz Studies program.” During the turbulent ‘60s, Howard University faced student protests over the Department of Music curriculum that consisted of only the study of European art music. Performing or studying jazz in the Howard University Department of Music was strictly forbidden. Students were expelled for practicing jazz in the on-campus practice rooms and were strongly discouraged from performing it off-campus. Benny Golson actually withdrew from the university because of this policy and in 1996, the Jazz Studies program created an award in honor of his legacy. The university administration finally relented by agreeing to create a Jazz Studies Program and recruited Donald Byrd to be its first Director. Howard University was very fortunate to have such an iconic artist as Byrd to accept this position after having performed with John Coltrane, Horace Silver, Sonny Rollins and discovering a young Herbie Hancock. In addition to being a consummate musical artist, he was also an avid art collector, a pilot, a lawyer and he also held several advanced academic degrees. Later in his career, he taught at North Carolina Central University, Oberlin College, University of North Texas and Delaware State University and in the process, he mentored scores of young aspiring musicians. Donaldson Toussaint L’Ouverture Byrd, II lived the epitome of the jazz life and his musical legacy lives on through his compositions, recordings and his students. The jazz heritage of Howard University was initiated and defined by the early contributions of Dr. Donald Byrd. He will be greatly missed.
Saïs Kamalidiin, Ph.D.
Chair, Department of Music
The element of immutable time always prevails regarding everybody and everything…no matter what. Sometimes we are aware of it, while at other times we are not and have no concern because the ineluctable expectation diminishes any awareness. If some of us are old enough to look back in time and remember a young talent from Detroit named Donald Byrd, we might remember when he came to New York City. A talent underscored with an archipelago of, perhaps even concentric dreams, wrapped in one another. He came with only two things under his arm: those dreams and his potential, yes, potential…that which existed in possibility. Enter Donald Byrd!
He immediately became consequentially conspicuous because of his style of playing and quickly found himself on many recordings and in demand for club dates, television and radio commercials, and tours. Gigi Gryce made him a member of his “Jazz Lab” performing and recording quintet. He was truly a ‘spark’ that ignited all who surrounded him. He soon became one of the most sought-after and successful trumpet players in New York City. By now he had played and recorded with most of the existing jazz luminaries in New York. The realities of Donald’s dreams were obviously not evanescent; they are still a living thing and will go on living past his time. He was peanut butter and jelly, merry-go-rounds and toy horses, chestnuts and open fireplaces, Punch and Judy…everything musically wonderful.
After moving to Los Angeles, I lost track of and didn’t hear much about Donald. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that when that happens the artist is ‘washed up.’ No, but merely by chance you happened not to hear anything. After the passing of time, I suddenly hear Donald being referred to as “Dr. Byrd.” I said, “What?” I was completely bowled over. I had no idea whatsoever that he had that kind of academic mind. This was a complete and unexpected epiphany. When I next saw him I said to him, “When my back was turned, you snuck off and got a Ph.D.” He merely laughed. In fact, we both had a hearty laugh but not the usual frivolous laugh. It was a laugh that suggested all sorts of deep things of the present and prescient things of the future; things that made the sun come out when he played.
What Donald had done did not require any probative, epistemological research or recounting of the expansive mind of Milton or the complications of D. H. Lawrence. He merely applied himself with a votive determination to do so. Yes, he fooled me that time, and wonderfully so.
Many years ago when I entered Howard University, the pride of the music school was the choir directed by Dean Lawson. It was a grand choir, but at that time it left no room whatsoever for the likes and entry of jazz. This existed for many years before I got there and even after I left. But as time went by, Donald Byrd was incubating in the waiting room of success while indefatigably making a name for himself in academia. Eventually time and circumstances brought him to the doorstep of Howard, and once here, things slowly began to change. Yes, his presence here became epochal, because he initiated their current jazz program, this program that exists today. It was a new day and it was then that Howard became current with similar programs throughout the country. The program has helped and is being helped and carried forward with great thrust by the invaluable tutelage and direction of Fred Irby. Though we’re here today to honor Donald Byrd, Fred Irby has been and is being honored by the persistent success of those who have been enrolled in the program.
Donald engaged many challenges head-on and possibly some opposition, which is to be expected when things never before seen or heard become things of concern and consideration. In spite of this, he never lost his feeling and ability as a dedicated and talented performer…even finding time to create a recording group called The Blackbyrds, a group that had some moderate success. Unfortunately, there is not an abundance of “Donald Byrds” inhabiting our earth who would enrich our lives musically. Fortunately, Howard has the ever-watchful sentinel of Fred Irby who is constantly adding thrust to what was and what is. So, we, along with Fred, are here today to honor and remember Dr. Donald Byrd and the wonderful and productive journey he made while he was with us. Memories as visions of past events are wonderful, but the things he left behind that are mercifully extant from day to day as an ongoing reality are even more wonderful.
Dr. Donald Byrd, we remember and proudly salute you!
Saxophonist, Composer, Educator
March 2013 and 1996 NEA Jazz Master