Trumpeter Donald Byrd Dead at 80

Bandleader was frequently sampled by hip-hop acts

Donald Byrd
Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images
February 11, 2013 3:40 PM ET

Donald Byrd, an influential jazz trumpet player and bandleader, died on February 4th in Delaware, The Associated Press reports. Byrd found success in the Fifties, Sixties and early Seventies, first with hard bop and later jazz-fusion, and his recordings have been sampled by rappers and producers, popping up in more than 100 hip-hop tracks by artists including Nas, Ludacris and A Tribe Called Quest.

Born Donaldson Toussaint L'Ouverture Byrd II in Detroit, Byrd got his start playing in military bands in the Air Force and moved to New York City in 1955. That year, he joined Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and soon became a highly sought-after and popular trumpeter, playing with John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins, among others. Byrd also led sessions for Savoy and other labels.

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In 1958, Byrd signed with Blue Note and started a band with baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams. They released their label debut in 1959 and quickly became leaders in hard bop, an offshoot of bebop that incorporated influences from blues and gospel. Their 1961 recording "Free Form" also highlighted a young Herbie Hancock.

Byrd took academic detours in the Sixties, studying in Paris, becoming the first person to teach jazz at Rutgers University and establishing a jazz studies division in the music department at Howard University. By the end of the decade, Byrd had begun moving toward a funk-jazz fusion sound, releasing Fancy Free in 1969. In 1973, he released Black Byrd with the Mizell brothers, displeasing jazz critics with what was Blue Note's top-selling album at the time.

In the 1970s, Byrd formed the jazz-fusion group the Blackbyrds and landed top-10 hits on the R&B charts with Street Lady, Stepping Into Tomorrow and Place and Spaces. He returned to academia in the early Eighties, receiving a doctorate from New York's Teachers College at Columbia University in 1982. Byrd, who also held a law degree, later twice served as an artist-in-residence at Delaware State University and was a distinguished scholar at William Paterson University.

Byrd returned to hard bop in the late Eighties and early Nineties, and his recordings lived on in many hip-hop samples. Nas sampled Byrd on his 1994 classic "NY State of Mind," while A Tribe Called Quest sampled his work on 1990's "Footprints." Byrd also performed with Gang Starr's Guru on his 1993 jazz-rap album, Jazzmatazz, Vol. 1. Byrd He was honored by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2000 as a Jazz Master, the nation's highest jazz honor.

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