FOR jazz fans, this month began on a rather sad note, following the demise of ace trumpeter Donald Byrd at age 80 on February 4. As his family took time to confirm the news, the media obituaries have been appearing only over the past four days or so, with each writer remembering the enormous contribution made by him.
Byrd had a rich tone, clear phrasing and distinct style, which old-timers initially admired on his work with drummer Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. He released some remarkable albums with Blue Note Records, including ‘Byrd in Hand’, ‘A New Perspective’, ‘Kofi’, ‘Electric Byrd’ and ‘Places and Spaces’, besides venturing into rhythm and blues. And though his biggest seller ‘Black Byrd’ was sadly criticised by purists for being too pop, he actually introduced jazz to younger audiences through that 1973 effort.
Personally, I began listening to Byrd around 10 or 11 years after I became a jazz fan. Nobody had specifically recommended him to me, but I found his cassette ‘Caricatures’ at a record store. It had no liner notes, but seeing a trumpet on the cover, I picked it up. I heard him closely later, though there are still many albums from his enormous catalogue I am yet to hear. And while I have had many favourite trumpeters, Byrd’s style has always been special.
The news of Byrd’s demise also prompts me to recall my own fascination with the trumpet and think of some of the greatest trumpeters who have graced the world of jazz. After all, when one asks me about my favourite jazz instrument, I always say it is a toss-up between the trumpet and saxophone. But the former has a nostalgic advantage because I first got into jazz more by listening to some fabulous trumpet players.
In fact, rather than the trumpet, my jazz journey actually began in 1983 with Chuck Mangione’s rendition of the similar but somewhat sweeter-sounding flugelhorn. Mangione played more melodic pop-jazz, but tunes like ‘Feels So Good’, ‘Children of Sanchez’ and ‘Memories of Sirocco’ had me hooked.
The first trumpeter I saw live was the remarkable Woody Shaw at the 1984 Jazz Yatra in Delhi. He played with the great trombonist Steve Turre, and the show still buzzes in my brain. After that concert, I wanted to hear the trumpet more than anything else. And the LP I picked up next was ‘In Flagranti Delicto’ by trumpeter Ian Carr and his band Nucleus. Its sound was very much in keeping with the jazz-rock trend of the day.
Soon, there was a conscious effort to discover more trumpeters. The three biggest names came first. Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. Each had a different style, and each of them was a pioneer. I always loved Armstrong’s voice and his trumpet-playing, especially in those recordings with vocalist Ella Fitzgerald. But it was Miles who initially created a bigger impact on me with albums like ‘Kind of Blue’, ‘Sketches of Spain’ and ‘Bitches Brew’, even though I admired the last one more for its amalgamation of various instruments.
Much later, there was a long Dizzy Gillespie phase, after I heard his recordings with saxophonists Charlie Parker and Stan Getz, and also some of his early recordings. Simultaneously, I got into Chet Baker, and besides his trumpet, I simply loved the way he sang, especially on the album ‘Chet Baker Sings’. His version of the Rodgers-Hart standard ‘My Funny Valentine’ is a classic.
Over the years, other trumpeters to attract my attention were Freddie Hubbard, Herb Albert, Maynard Ferguson, Randy Brecker, Lee Morgan, Roy Hargrove and Clark Terry, besides old-timers like Roy Eldridge, Clifford Brown and Cat Anderson of the Duke Ellington Orchestra. I heard Don Cherry primarily for his fusion work rather than his jazz. And there was Bix Beiderbecke on the cornet, an instrument similar to the trumpet.
Interestingly, I first heard neo-classicist Wynton Marsalis a few months after I got into Byrd. But I was already so impressed by Byrd’s style that I found Marsalis dry, an opinion which thankfully changed later, on hearing his album ‘Hothouse Flowers’.
My later favourites include Arturo Sandoval, Nicholas Payton and Dave Douglas. Sandoval has a distinct style, blending Afro-Cuban music with jazz. Payton did a marvellous dedication to Louis Armstrong on ‘Dear Louis’, whereas Douglas did a superb show in Mumbai at the Jazz Yatra over a decade ago. Chris Botti had a smooth tone but concentrated mainly on smooth jazz, rather than the rapidfire improvisation I always prefer. In a more relaxed mood, I would hear him.
There are some who I have heard sparingly or not at all. I saw South African concert great Hugh Masekela at a memorable concert in Mumbai, and on a DVD with Paul Simon, but haven’t heard his recordings. Doc Cheatham, Thad Jones, Kenny Dorham and Art Farmer are some well-known names whose records I haven’t found in Indian stores.
Obviously, the field of jazz trumpet has been filled with extraordinary talent. I may have missed some names because I wasn’t exposed to them, or by sheer oversight. And with so many great artistes, it’s always difficult to pinpoint one’s favourite. But Donald Byrd was always somewhere at the top. He shall be missed.