Donald Byrd December 9, 1932 – February 4, 2013
February 11, 2013 9:47 AM   Subscribe

"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."

You may know "Watermelon Man" better from the jazz-funk fusion version Herbie Hancock recorded for his platinum album Headhunters, but it first became a hit in Mongo Santamaria's version, as an Afro-Cuban dance song. But without Donald Byrd as linking pin and mentor to young jazz musicians like Hancock it might never have happened.

In the fifties Byrd had gotten his breakthrough as a trumpeter in Art Blakely's Jazz Messengers and featured as sideman to people like Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. He signed as a solo artist to Blue Note at the end of the fifties and in the early sixties, his musical style, like Hancock evolved into hard bop, a more funkier, more dancable version of jazz than the cool jazz and bebop styles that dominated the fifties. From there on he would further move into what would later become the jazz fusion or jazz funk or fusion genre, working with the Mizell brothers as a production team. They would produce not only his seventies solo albums, but also the Blackbyrds group he had formed out of the best of his Howard University students. In the eighties he would form a similar group from his students at the North Carolina Central University.

For the most part of the last thirty years however he stuck to teaching, rather than recording, not only at the universities mentioned above, but also at Rutgers University, the Hampton Institute, New York University, Queens College, Oberlin College, Cornell University, and Delaware State University. He passed away earlier this month.

Several interviews of Donald Byrd are available on Youtube:

A 1976 Capital Radio 95.8 Greg Edwards interview with Donald Byrd when he was touring the UK with the Blackbyrds.
A 1982 interview for Radio London.
A piece for Rap City with Guru.

And of course quite a lot of his music is too.
posted by MartinWisse (26 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
The Watermelon Man video isn't available in the U.S. : "This video contains content from BMG_Rights_Management, The Harry Fox Agency, Inc. (HFA) and EMI, one or more of whom have blocked it in your country on copyright grounds." Do you have a different link?
posted by boo_radley at 10:06 AM on February 11, 2013

Which one?

(It may actually be easier if somebody actually in the US found one; no guarantee a new link isn't blocked too)
posted by MartinWisse at 10:12 AM on February 11, 2013

Cristo Redentor.
posted by neustile at 10:34 AM on February 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

It would be helpful if you'd advise what country I should VPN to so that I may spoof the nationality requisite to view these interesting sounding but copy-wronged videos...
posted by Fupped Duck at 10:36 AM on February 11, 2013

Steppin' Into Tomorrow.
posted by rocketman at 11:00 AM on February 11, 2013

You may know "Watermelon Man" better from the jazz-funk fusion version Herbie Hancock recorded for his platinum album Headhunters, but it first became a hit in Mongo Santamaria's version

Mongo? S-S-Santa Maria!!

Much as I love the Headhunters album, I find that arrangement of "Watermelon Man" precious and rather dull, and Mongo's is intentionally commercial, though Byrd's fills are distinctive.

The original recording of Watermelon Man with Freddie Hubbard and Dexter Gordon from Herbie's 1962 debut Takin' Off, though, is swinging.

The Harry Fox agency has done an excellent job cleansing YT of Blackbyrds album tracks but you might want to track down Walking in Rhythm; Do It, Fluid; Flyin' High; and Happy Music at least. Walking In Rhythm has been covered a couple times, too.

posted by Herodios at 11:06 AM on February 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've been thinking someone needs to do a Don Byrd obit post, you've done a great one here, thanks.
posted by HumanComplex at 11:14 AM on February 11, 2013

Pure coincidence actually, as I originally wanted to do a Watermelon Man post, (inspired by Headhunters: the Making of Jazz's First Platinum Album) and then saw the news he had died...
posted by MartinWisse at 11:16 AM on February 11, 2013

More 60s jazz posts, please! I'm a big fan of Byrd's groovy Blue Note records, especially the stuff like "Cristo Redentor" posted above, with the spiritual-inspired singing.
posted by Fnarf at 11:29 AM on February 11, 2013

posted by batmonkey at 11:32 AM on February 11, 2013

Also, more Latin jazz! Mongo Santamaria was an absolute beast, far beyond his one hit.
posted by Fnarf at 11:35 AM on February 11, 2013

Thanks for the sad news (though I'm not sure Byrd would appreciate being seen primarily as the guy who helped Mongo Santamaria get his big hit).

posted by languagehat at 11:49 AM on February 11, 2013

I'd say composing "Afro-Blue" is a bigger credit than having a hit with Hancock's tune
posted by thelonius at 11:49 AM on February 11, 2013

They would produce not only his seventies solo albums, but also the Blackbyrds yt group he had formed out of the best of his Howard University students.

That's how I first got into the Blackbyrds. When I traveled to D.C. I would listen to WHUR, whose DJs played them a lot at the time..

posted by fuse theorem at 11:51 AM on February 11, 2013

I have always like Donald Byrd's story of how he wrote the song: he looked out onto the street in Chicago on a hot day. There was a guy pushing a cart stacked with watermelons along and he was calling out "Watermelon Man" to attract trade. The cart was making this rhythmic noise as it was pushed along the rough pavement. All he had to do was transcribe the words and the feel of the cart into music and he had his hit.
posted by rongorongo at 11:58 AM on February 11, 2013

Geniuses all!
posted by asok at 12:18 PM on February 11, 2013

Here is a link to how Watermelon Man's riff was used in a jazz fusion rap video for one hit wonder, US3's Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia).
posted by jadepearl at 12:25 PM on February 11, 2013

1) .

2) A lot of DJ's owe their bad ass breaks and samples to Donald Byrd & the Blackbyrds.

3) Total side note but seemingly on point...saw the Headhunters (sans Herbie) do Watermelon Man live about 10 years ago and Bill Summers explained how he did the opening sounds to the Headhunters version of WM with the alternating pitches... At least when they played it live, he used a beer bottle that was about 3 quarters of the way full and went back and forth between humming the sounds and blowing across the top of the bottle. Always loved that idea.
posted by priested at 1:23 PM on February 11, 2013

Donald Byrd has breaks for days.
posted by box at 1:31 PM on February 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

A little encore. Mysterious Vibes.
posted by priested at 1:46 PM on February 11, 2013

First Donald Byrd track I heard (or at least knew as a Donald Byrd composition) - Dominoes
posted by Perko at 3:36 PM on February 11, 2013

Cantaloop doesn't sample Watermelon Man, but rather Cantaloupe Island, Herbie Hancock's OTHER early-60s melon-themed jazz standard. Don't know how you could mix them up!
posted by jeffj at 3:40 PM on February 11, 2013

(Donald Byrd did a cover of 'Cantaloupe Island' on the Up with Donald Byrd album, which featured Herbie Hancock on piano. Biddy biddy bop!)
posted by box at 7:20 PM on February 11, 2013

Never knew his real name was Donaldson Toussaint L'Ouverture Byrd II. (!)

I also never much liked the Mizell Brothers, and where they took Byrd, but good for him for making that sound a success. I did play A New Perspective (featuring ‘Cristo Rendentor’ and my favorite track, ‘Elijah’) over and over, from the time it came out. Still do. It’s one of the key albums of that time, a remarkable mix of hard bop and gospel choir.
posted by LeLiLo at 1:16 AM on February 12, 2013

I just signed off here and pulled a record (at random, I thought), off the shelves — Sam Rivers’s double album Involution, two dates recorded in 1966 and 1967 but not released by Blue Note until 1975. The first LP, when released a second time as the album Dimensions & Extensions, was described at as “ambitious, atonal, challenging," and I was surprised to find that Byrd is the trumpeter in Rivers’s avant-garde sextet. (I have no memory of that at all.)

To hear an aspect of Byrd’s playing you might not be familiar with, check out the second track, Paean, at YouTube.
posted by LeLiLo at 2:46 AM on February 12, 2013

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