During the college year, Byrd, headquartered in his Manhattan apartment, comes to Washington, D.C. three times a week for his classes at Howard University. As head of the Institute of Jazz Studies there, he has completely revamped the curriculum since his arrival several years ago, so that now the courses offered at the predominantly Negro university stress the presence of pure African music in American jazz. At Howard, Byrd teaches seminars in Afro-American Music History, and Composition and Arranging, and is the conductor of the university’s jazz band. On the days he remains in New York, he instructs students at Brooklyn College in Afro-American History, and the methods for stimulating interest in music in ghetto areas.
Since his affiliation with these two outstanding educational institutions seem to take up most of the week, it seems incredible that Donald Byrd finds time for yet another professional endeavor! At Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, he remains a “composer in residence” and is the conductor of the jazz orchestra. Also, at the state university he is involved with the world-acclaimed Marshall Stearns Jazz Collection, a compilation of over 25,000 albums which traces the history of jazz in this country.
Summer, usually means a vacation from work for most teachers, however Byrd, feeling the need to share his valuable knowledge with as many students as possible, has extended his “school year” to twelve months. During June, July and August of this year, he will be on the summer faculty of North Carolina College in Durham, North Carolina and New York University in Greenwich Village. At the Southern school, where Byrd feels that acquainting the students with their ethnic heritage is critical, he will be giving lectures on Negro history, and setting up symposiums in Afro-American music. At the same time, he will be teaching a course at NYU for music educators on Afro-American musical techniques. It is the first such course to be taught in New York City, and is being sponsored by the New York State Education Department, in conjunction with the Division of Music Education at the school.
Donald Byrd was born December 9, 1932 in Detroit, the son of a musically inclined Methodist minister. After a brief stint at Wayne University, he joined the Air Force at the age of 18, where he played in service bands from 1951-54. After his discharge in 1955, he moved to New York where he was first heard as a member of George Wallington’s quintet. In December of that year he joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, and from there he gigged around with Max Roach, and was subsequently signed to an exclusive recording contract with Blue Note Records. Considering the academic aspects of music as important as the professional, during this period he attended Columbia University, and ultimately earned his M.A. degree from the Manhattan School of Music.
His international reputation grew during the late 50’s, when he spent several months playing at festivals in Belgium, and on the French Riviera. He gave performances through most of Scandinavia, and took part in two motion pictures in France and one in Germany. His continental appearances in recent years have included jazz festivals at Juan les Pins, France; Reckinghausen, Germany; Stockholm, Sweden; and Molde, Norway.
In August, after he completes his summer instruction, Byrd will be traveling to East Africa to gather information for a future seminar. It is here, in the “cradle of civilization,” that Byrd feels much can be discovered about the ancient black man and his music. He was initially drawn to exploring this area by reports of cave etchings, possibly dated as far back as 5000 B.C., which show musicians playing an assortment of unique instruments.
His upcoming LP on Blue Note Records is a compilation of authentic African music, utilizing the dialect of several tribes. The most current albums by Donald Byrd, Blackjack, A New Perspective, and I’m Trying To Get Home, have been extremely successful in both their sales and critical reviews.
“There just aren’t enough hours in the day” is an apt cliché for Donald Byrd, as he also has managed to cram the following activities into his busy schedule: hosting a regularly presented television show on N.E.T. (educational television), acting as a music consultant to Hampton Institute in Virginia, performing in a jazz festival in New Jersey on July 27th with Blood, Sweat and Tears, coordinating jazz performances for students at Prince Tech in Hartford, Connecticut, and preparing a syllabus in Afro-American music courses for secondary and elementary schools in New York State.
As a future goal, Donald plans to begin attending law school at night in the fall. He feels that the most practical way of tracing the black man’s history, besides through his music, is through law. Since there is practically no preserved documentation on the Negro prior to 1865, it is Byrd’s opinion that much can be learned from studying the legal aspects of slavery, and other pre-Civil War court cases.
“My friends are convinced, with each new project I take on, or new cause I espouse, that I will work myself to an early grave…or, at least, a premature deterioration. However, I feel that the more active and diversified a man becomes, the more favorable opinion he can have of himself…and this, of course, puts him in a much better position to help others. Concerning my interest in African music and culture, I feel that even though the black man has been progressing during the past ten years, with an acute desire to learn his true heritage and history, there’s still more. Now, I want every Negro man, woman and child in the nation to be able to say with dignity: ‘I’m black, and I’m proud.’ A simple request.”
[c. July 1969]