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Monk's Trumpets

Matt Lavelle By

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Donald Byrd (1932-2017) holds a unique place in jazz history. Before he recorded with Monk's ten-member ensemble at a live concert at Town Hall in 1959 for Riverside records at twenty-six years old, he had already recorded seven albums as a leader and appeared as a sideman on over fifty recordings. Byrd was in huge demand as a sideman who began recording at twenty-three in 1955. He could adapt to the music of many different musicians and bring his version of bop with a unique tone and pacing. On "Sweet Sapphire Blues" as a sideman with John Coltrane, he plays an almost five-minute solo where he attempts Coltrane's sheets of sound on trumpet. Especially interesting is what happened when Byrd entered Monk's house. According to Robin Kelley's research, Monk was especially hard on Byrd, telling him not to play so loud like he was playing alone, and especially not to solo exclusively on the changes. When Byrd questioned him as to why, Monk told him to focus on the melody. During the Town Hall concert, Byrd seems to be on the fence between his approach and Monk's perspective. On "Friday The Thirteenth," Byrd takes his time and plays his with his sound and style, adapting to the environment, but he only has to play over four descending chords. The melody is a type of haunting bop line that lets Byrd remain intact. On "Little Rootie Tootie," Byrd plays the changes clean and fast but is unable to utilize the melodic content. When Monk lays out towards the end of the solo, Byrd continues playing the changes where that may have been the opportunity to play more melodically. On "Off Minor," Byrd takes a Charlie Rouse approach but the changes playing is still apparent. Monk again gives him a trio section halfway through his solo, but he continues to outline the changes. The challenge remains to any musician playing Monk's music to use the melody as the primary basis for improvisation. The key may be that Monk's songs contain a unique rhythmic swing that can be used as a basis for the improvisation, instead of being compelled to spell out each chord change. From 1958 to 1976 Byrd recorded almost exclusively for Blue Note and also became an educator. During the 70's Byrd made a surprising turn to a rhythm and blues focus into a form of pop-jazz that sold quite well, using his students from Howard University that eventually formed a separate project called the Blackbyrds. Byrd did return to straight-ahead playing part-time while continuing to teach in the final stage of his life.


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