Friday, February 8, 2013

Donald Byrd and the Power of Music Instruction Inside and Outside Our Public Schools

I just found out that the great jazz trumpeter, composer and music innovator Donald Byrd passed away. I am devastated by this news, not only because Donald Byrd owned a brownstone on the Park Slope block to which I moved in 1976, but because Donald Byrd was a central figure in the musical history of the Bronx, which I discovered when doing oral histories for the Bronx African American History Project. In the 1950's, Donald Byrd and Herbie Hancock got an apartment together on Boston Road and 164th Street in the Bronx in Morrisania, which was then the Bronx's largest and most vital Black neighborhood. Byrd was then working as a music teacher at Berger JHS near St Mary's Park, a common destiny for great musicians during a time when NYC middle schools and high schools had bands and orchestras and hundreds of instruments which students with talent could take home to practice. During his years in the Bronx, Byrd mentored many talented young r musicians, among them jazz trumpeter Jimmy Owens, who took private lessons from Byrd, and salsero and trombone player Willie Colon, who was his student at Berger JHS. But the most amazing Byrd story has to do with his role in the recording of Mongo Santamaria's "Watermelon Man." One day, in the early 1960's, Mongo Santamaria called up Herbie Hancock and asked him to sit in as a pianist with Mongo's band, which was then performing at Club Cubano InterAmericano on Prospect Avenue, a popular Latin music spot. Herbie was reluctant to do it because he never played Latin before, but accepted the offer and was doing pretty well by the end of the first set. Then during intermission, Donald Byrd, who was there, asked Herbie to play his original composition "Watermelon Man" for Mongo. When Herbie started doing this, Mongo's band, especially his huge percussion section, started joining in, and before you knew it the whole club was dancing. Mongo was so excited by what happened that he asked if he could record the song. He did, and it became his greatest hit. Such is the influence that Donald Byrd had as a teacher and a mentor to young musicians. It is is not only a testimony to his own unique vision, and to Black Latino cultural and musical cross fertilization, it is a reminder of how important it is to keep music instruction and music performance as an integral part of the life of our public schools

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