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Charlie Byrd: 1925-1999
Charlie Byrd

Born: September 16, 1925 in Chuckatuck, Virginia
Died: November 30, 1999 in Annapolis, Maryland

Adapted Classical Finger Style to Jazz

Copyright © 1999 

The Scotsman, 1999

Byrd, Charlie In a music where personal style is valued more highly than anything else, Charlie Byrd was able to boast two major signatures in the course of his long jazz career. The first was to adapt classical finger style technique to a jazz idiom, and the second was as an instrumental figure in the popularisation of Brazilian music in a jazz context.

His father played various string instruments, including guitar and mandolin, and Byrd was introduced to the guitar at the age of nine. He played in a dance band as a teenager while studying at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute, then joined the army, where he found a place in an army band on a tour of Europe.

That tour brought one of the seminal experiences of his career, in the shape of an inspirational meeting with the Belgian-born gypsy guitar innovator Django Reinhardt. On his return to civilian life in 1946, he moved to New York and played jazz in a number of different groups, while continuing to study music. Work opportunities were limited, however, and in 1950 he decided on a change of direction that would have major repercussions on his stylistic development.

Byrd had grown increasingly interested in classical guitar, and moved to Washington, DC, where he studied with a noted guitar teacher, Sophocles Pappas, at the Columbia School of Music. In 1954, he spent some time in Siena, in Italy, where he participated in masterclasses with the legendary Spanish guitarist, Andres Segovia.

Byrd had initially employed the plectrum style of playing on electric archtop guitar which was the customary one in jazz. His principal preoccupation, however, was to find a method of bringing together his love of jazz with the classical finger style techniques and knowledge he had at his disposal, and to do so on the acoustic nylon-strung classical guitar, an unusual instrument in jazz.

Byrd worked hard on his new direction out of the public eye, having decided not to play in jazz settings until he had worked out the ramifications of his new method. When he felt ready, the laboratory for refining that style was the Showboat Lounge in Washington,a club owned by his family.

Byrd installed himself there with a trio featuring bassist Keeter Betts and drummer Bertel Knox in 1957, playing a programme which mixed jazz from the trio with solo classical pieces by the guitarist. His new finger style won an immediate audience for the fluent, highly melodic brand of jazz which was captured on his Jazz Recital album (1957), and all the more so when he added the additional colourings of Latin and flamenco music.

Following a spell with Woody Herman in the late 1950s, the latter development really took off after Byrd participated in a tour of South America in 1961, organised by the State Department. He came home with the lithe, reflective bossa nova rhythm firmly in his mind, and persuaded saxophonist Stan Getz of the possibilities inherent in the form.

The record they made, Jazz Samba (1962), was not the first attempt to fuse jazz with Brazilian rhythms, but it quickly became the most popular. The album topped not only the jazz but also the pop charts (in March, 1963), and Getz won a Grammy award for his solo on the single 'Desafinado' from it.

That was a source of bad feeling, in that Byrd's contribution was excised from the shortened single version, and the partnership ended messily when Byrd eventually brought a court action against Getz and the record company in 1964 for his share of the royalties on the album. The case was settled out of court in Byrd's favour in 1967.

Despite that dispute, the massive success of the record cemented the guitarist's status, and he went on to record a series of successful albums for the Riverside label, and a rather more commercial trio of recordings for Columbia. The precision of his technique and expressive charm of his playing appealed to a wide audience, and he was invited to play at the White House for President Johnson in 1965.

In 1973, he teamed up with fellow guitarists Barney Kessel and Herb Ellis in The Great Guitars, a group which convened at regular intervals until Kessel suffered a stroke, and continued thereafter with other players, including Martin Taylor. Byrd's distinctive style and nylon-strung instrument dovetailed beautifully in the trio, and also in various recordings he made with Brazilian guitarist Laurindo Almeida, but was equally effective in combination with saxophonists like Bud Shank and Ken Peplowski.

He recorded with both of those players during a long association with Concord Records from the mid-1970s, often employing a rhythm section which featured his brother, Joe Byrd, on bass, and drummer Chuck Redd. Earlier this year he recorded what was to be his last session for the label, a tribute to Louis Armstrong.

As well as recording extensively, including sessions with the Washington Guitar Quartet, Byrd also wrote a widely-used guitar tutor, Charlie Byrd's Melodic Guitar Method.

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