Jazz Great Charlie Byrd
He seemed our local treasure, but when guitarist Charlie Byrd, of Annapolis, died December 2, all the world mourned.
By Lori L. Sikorski
Charlie Byrd stared out his sliding glass window into a wet messy day in 1993. "I think the view is beautiful right now," he said.
Byrd's sense of beauty kept him by the Bay. He always loved the water, ever since he was a boy growing up in the 1920s in tidewater Virginia. He always loved music, too.
"My father was a guitarist and I got started playing the music he played with his friends," Byrd recalled. At eight years old, he was playing country, pop and blues on his first guitar. As he moved into his impressionable teens, he fell under the spell of Big Band music. "Jazz was pop music," he explained. Under that spell, Byrd played trumpet in high school.
Graduating at 16, he entered Virginia Tech, from where he was drafted and shipped to Europe as an infantryman. When the fighting ended, he got to play in a GI show. "The leader of the band could do Charlie Christian. I mean, he could really play like Charlie Christian," Byrd recalled. "I learned a lot from him and was exposed to many good players like Django Reinhart and Glenn Miller."
Back home in the States, Byrd experienced Big Bands first hand. Hot with confidence, he even played trumpet and guitar with the marching band. "I was 18, and I thought I was the best. I could always improvise, and I knew from the beginning that music was it for me." Byrd flashed another smile.
"There weren't too many people I couldn't beat."
In 1946, he was a student in New York, and New York was the place to be. He rubbed shoulders with many of jazz's heroes, among them Charlie "Bird" Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.
Charlie Byrd spoke of Charlie "Yardbird" Parker, the alto saxophone player who revolutionized music with his incredible facility and wealth of ideas, pioneering the jazz style called be-bop.
"Bird was a real approachable guy. Of course he was out of it most of the time," he said, noting the drug habit that eventually killed the sax-playing great. "But you could buy him a drink and sit and talk to the guy. I never played gigs with these cats, but we would all pitch in and jam together in rented studios."
Byrd became friendly with Nick Travis, the lead trumpet player in the Glen Miller Big Band, who was incorporating the complex rhythms of be-bop into his own playing. "That was when bop first turned me on," Byrd recalled.
Classical guitar also turned the young Byrd on, and by the 1950s he had moved to Washington, D.C., to study that instrument. Soon, the pieces came together.
"In 1956," Byrd said, "I made my first jazz recording as a leader. A gig I played in D.C. was attended by Tom Scanlon, a writer for the Army and Navy Times. When Scanlon wrote an article highlighting unknowns, I was in it. After that, Ozzy Cardinal asked me to record for Savoy Records."
From Bogota to the White House
That album, including songs that combined jazz and classical music, was the first of over 100 recordings, including Charlie Byrd's 1962 smash album with saxophonist Stan Getz. That album contained the Latin influences that had become very much a part of Byrd's playing.
"I took a trip in 1960 to South America, and the music really turned me on. Plus in New York, I played with a lot of Latin musicians," Byrd recalled.
As well as recording, Byrd toured the world, playing for his largest crowd - 15,000 - in Bogota, Colombia. He played at the White House for the Kennedys and the Fords, and in presidential inaugurals. He's won numerous Downbeat and Playboy magazine polls, but two experiences remained his most memorable.
"I played a gig in D.C. and Billie Holiday came to see my trio with her dog," Byrd remembered. Like Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday was both influential and self-destructive.
On the other hand, Duke Ellington's power was untempered. "He played the piano for me for about half an hour, showing me songs I should perform and ideas. Duke has always been a big influence on me, and I still play some of his songs today," Byrd said.
Like many musicians, Charlie Byrd worried that his fame was slipping. Yet in 1993, his small tour of Europe drew huge crowds. After all he's seen and done, Byrd looked through his glass door into the beautiful, rainy day and reflected:
"I'm content with my life. I'm going to keep on moving. That's my future plan. I'm going to keep on moving."
Honors continued to follow Charlie Byrd into his 70s. In 1997, he was honored as the first Maryland Art Treasure. In 1999, he was honored as a Knight of the Rio Branco by Brazil, whose music he had helped popularize in the United States. In 1998, he married.
Charlie Byrd moved on until the brink of the new millennium, when, at 74, he died at home. He had cancer.
The great Charlie Byrd will be remembered in a musical memorial service Sat. Dec. 11 at 2pm at the Unitarian Universalist Church, 333 Dubois Rd., Annapolis.
Eric Byrd interviewed Charlie Byrd in 1993 for NBT.
| Issue 49 |
Volume VII Number 49
December 9-15, 1999
New Bay Times
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