My earliest memories begin in the backseat of a ’92 Camry. It was in my mother’s car that I was introduced to music.
Before Jay-Z, before the radio, before MTV, before anything else modern, I listened to what she did and that began with Donald Byrd.
It annoyed me, because even at a young age, I wanted to be defiant. I wanted to rage against the parental machine. Listening to the same music as your mother is textbook lame and I hated myself for succumbing to her infectious tastes. So, I decided to hide.
Conjuring Fitzgeraldian nightmares of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg or perhaps even Big Brother, itself, a pair of bright, attentive eyes met mine. Rear-view mirrors are a child’s worst enemy. Their watchtower-like construction required of me a new level of stealth. And just like that, I was discreetly nestled behind the driver’s seat, quietly mastering my greatest gift—the air trumpet. Despite my fears, I knew this much: You can’t just plaaaaay the air trumpet; you’ve got to really PLAY the air trumpet. So, at the tender age of nine, I choreographed a flawless set of movements to accompany my imaginary virtuosic displays. Even in the reduced confines of my leather-bound stage, I articulated every note with an orchestrated dip and an exaggerated sway. I was effortlessly cool. I was Donald Byrd. I was a legend in my own mind. Ask about me.
Now it may sound strange – a nine year old kid, inconspicuously spazzing out to an old jazz-funk fusion record on the backseat of his mother’s car. Ironically, it made even more sense to me. I appreciated the music of my generation, I really did, but it didn’t make me feel the same. This was different.
As a teenager, I came to terms with it all and accepted myself for who I was. I did, however, find myself occasionally justifying this ardent stannery vis–à–vis a burgeoning appreciation for hip-hop’s primary sources.
“Nah, see…I was riding out to that Wiz, you know? Just doin’ me. But then I had…um…I had put this on by accident. It’s straight doe, cuz…like…it’s the same song. Nahmean?”
It’s funny thinking about all of this now, because as we speak I’m going through my mother’s old crates, exploring dusty vinyls from the Donald Byrd back catalogue. Life always comes full circle.
Donald Byrd has passed away and we will hear endless conversations about his achievements—countless degrees, years upon years educating the children, and a discography that shaped the entire platform of hip-hop. But honestly, I’m not interested in any of that right now. This one feels a bit more personal.
And let’s be clear. I never met Donald. I was never in the Blackbyrds (Wikipedia won’t acknowledge my contributions to the Complete Car Sessions, recorded from ’97-’99). And I never even got to catch him live. But when my mom put me in that backseat, she drove me to school and Donald Byrd was my first teacher.
I don’t mean to suffocate you with melodramatic wordplay. I, too, recognize the possibly overbearing sentimentality of my prose, but that doesn’t make these words any less true. Donald Byrd meant more to me than just about any artist of my own time. Through his art, I found the critical framework for my overarching theses on organized sound. He is the reason I value, above all, the Roots, Robert Glasper, and any other musician that defies traditional archetypes.
But I’ll save that discussion for another day. Right now, I just say thanks to Donaldson Toussaint L’Ouverture Byrd II. You will be missed.
Written By: Paul Pennington