The Blackbyrds

To introduce a legendary ensemble such as the Blackbyrds, I cannot help but to mention a couple of facts about the guy who was their brain and the spiritual guide… Born in Detroit, Michigan, on September 9th 1932, Donald Byrd had been playing in the bands accompanying Nat King Cole and Mel Torme since his very age, thereafter collaborating with artists such as Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Max Roach and John Coltrane.

In the ’50 and ’60 he had become known as one of the best hard-boppers around, famous for his crystalline sounds and a particular attitude for improvisation. His fame was recognized by the academic world when he became professor in Ethnomusicology at New York Academy of Performing Arts and Howard University in DC.

In the late 60’s and 70’s Byrd decided to give his sound a different twist, setting off a very risky experiment: contaminating jazz with funk and soul atmospheres. To concretize his project, Byrd needed a band that, under his directions, could take his experimentation to the next level.

Traditional musicians would have never accepted such a challenge.

Therefore Byrd decided to look for help among his best students at Howard.

Keith Killgo was a model student and a talented drummer. One of the strongest personalities in the band, started playing the drums at the age of 9, performing in the following years with artists such as Sonny Stitt, Stan Getz, Miles Davis, Woody Shaw, Bill Harmon, Art Blakey’s band, Joe Henderson Quintet and Eddie Harris. As a curiosity, he also studied piano with Roberta Flack, who too taught at Howard, before being discovered by Less McCann, signing with Atlantic and recording the hit “Killing me Softly”.

Kevin Kraig Toney, a jazz keyboard player from Detroit was a old acquaintance of Byrd’s. He was noticed by Professor Byrd and thus invited to play with him in several different clubs under his supervision and participated to some of his mentor’s records, starting from “Black Byrd” (1972).

Allan Curtis Barnes had a superior talent on the saxophone and clarinet, Joe Hall made miracles slapping his electric bass and guitar, Barney Perry completed this group of talents.

Almost immediately after coming together, the Blackbyrds signed with Fantasy Records in 1973. Strangely enough, the history of the relationship between them and their label was a happy one, no fights for rights or royalties happened and things went smoothly for a long period of time.

The first album, carrying the group’s name, was produced by Donald Byrd and Larry Mizell (from the glorious Blue Note Records) and printed in 1974. The record, whose cover cleverly represented Van Gogh’s “Cornfield with Crows”, contains killer tracks such as “Do It Fluid” (sampled by Stetsasonic in “So Let the Fun Begin” and “Summer love”) and “Gut Level”, where the jazz influences are the most evident. The risks of producing an unknown group playing such a controversial genre were high, but Blackbyrds lived up to the expectations completely: “Do It, Fluid” was a hit and the group was able to get to n.69 in Billboard Chart and n. 23 in the R&B Chart. Obviously a lot of purists didn’t hesitate to harshly criticize Mr. Byrd calling that contamination a taint, while other more open minded critics enthusiastically defined him one of the finest jazz innovators.

Right after that, in the same year, the Blackbyrds recorded “Flying Start”. Witnessing the fame and respect that the guys had gotten in such a short period of time, Jesse Fax (the director of WHUR FM) offered to write an introduction to the record, comparing those youngsters to legendary names such as Stevie Wonder, Freddie Hubbard and Earth Wind & Fire. “Flying start” had an even greater success, manly thanks to the hit “Walking in Rhythm”, who got to number 4 in the R&B Chart and number 6 in Billboard’s. Among the other great tracks every serious funk lover shouldn’t miss “Blackbyrds’ Theme”, whose wild bass loop has inspired the Jungle Brothers (“Tribe Vibes”) and Queen Latifah (“Bad as a Mutha”). You can even find this track in the third volume of “Pulp Fusion” compilation (Harmless).

Riding their ongoing success, they opened 1975 producing the “Cornbread Earl & Me” soundtrack. The movie is a classic of blaxploitation genre, telling the misadventures of a basketball player through a socially twisted lens, pretty uncommon for that kind of movies.

The soundtrack was kind of traditional, with jazz, soul and funk blended with more orchestral grooves. Besides “Cornbread”, my personal picks are “The Gym Fight”, “The One-Eye Two Step” and, above all, “Wilford’s gone”, being praised by some illustrious Hip Hop representatives such as Gangstarr (“Step in the arena”), the Roots (Beatminerz’ remix of “Silent Treatment”) and GhostFace Killa (“Black Jesus”). Unfortunately, despite this record contained many interesting ideas, it was welcomed quite tepidly.

At the end of the same year, the group gave birth to another album titled “City Life”. Noticeable collaborations contributed to the success of this record, from Gary Bartz (one of the most inspired saxophonists of the time), the soul singer Merry Clayton, George Bohannon, Ernie Watts, Tommy Morgan and the Mizelle brothers. In the meanwhile the group enlarged its roster adding Stephen Johnson at the sax and Orville Saunders at the guitar. The LP contains plenty of good tracks, but “Rock Creek Park” outstrips them all. Dedicated to DC’s biggest and most famous park, the song became (and still is) a popular local anthem, not to mention that it’s still part of every hot selection at b-boys’ parties. Not surprisingly, it’s even the most sampled Blackbyrds’ track: from Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Coolio in “In the park” to the early NWA in “Quiet on tha set”, Big Daddy Kane (“Raw ’91”), Eric B & Rakim (“The R”), UTFO (“Doin’ It), Ice Cube (“I wanna kill Sam”) and De la Soul (“Ghetto thang”). Going gold was automatic.

Not too long after that, the group published “Unfinished Business” (1976) with the collaboration of the saxophonist Wesley Jackson, Tommy Morgan at the harmonica, Ernie Watts and Ray Parker Jr. (guitar). The highlight here is without a doubt “Time Is Movin'”, with its syncopated rhythm and clear disco twist. “Partyland” definitely confirmed this tendency. Such a partial change of direction split the critics once again.

On one side it was interpreted as a further confirmation of Byrd’s multifaceted personality and willingness to experiment, on the other side it was judged as an unforgivable drop in style. A lot of Jazz purists labeled Byrd and his men as commercial and sellout artists, recommending to give up that music without any depth and to go back to acoustic jazz. But the Blackbyrds weren’t really interested in purists’ opinions. Their music was soul, funk with a jazzy twist, and the people buying their albums liked Earth, Wind & Fire and Tower of Power better than Sonny Stitt or Art Blakey. Critics apart, the album was a public success, and brought in another gold record.

Contrary to artists such as Stevie Wonder, Gil Scott-Heron, Marvin Gaye, the O’Jays or Curtis Mayfield, the Blackbyrds didn’t mean to launch social or political messages. Theirs was pure party music, aimed to spread fun and a positive attitude. This characteristic has been the main driver of the success of pieces like “Happy Music” and “Rock Creek Park” itself, the ultra sweet “Love So Fine” and the super-funky “Party Land”. This said, it would be wrong to label this thoughtlessness as superficiality: the lyrics might not have been exactly deep and meaningful, but from a musical perspective the band was creative as only a few others. Even though their approach was markedly soul, funk and lately disco, all the band members had a solid jazz background that made them particularly incline to innovation.

In Autumn 1977 the Blackbyrds came back with “Action”. Tracks such as “Supernatural Feeling” and “Something Special” (with an unforgettable Toney) showed how their jazz soul allowed them to move comfortably through the disco sc
ene of the period still remaining unique. The gold record arrived punctual.

As to witness their great success, in 1978 “Night grooves” was published; it was a sort of collection containing all their greatest its, like “Rock Creek Park” and “Walking in Rhythm”.

After a pause of almost 3 years, the group came back with “Better Days”. Unfortunately the melancholic twist of the title was more of a hope than a certainty: Professor Byrd had been substituted by George Duke and this caused all the fan of the typical Blackbyrds sound to be at least disappointed. The record sounded more like pretty standardized pop and every eclectic attitude seemed to be lost. The grooves were less fluid and the group’s skills seemed to be somehow withheld. The results in chart terms were still decent even if far from the good old times:

“What We Have is Right” got to number 38 in the R&B chart while the mid-tempo “Love Don’t Strike Twice” touched the marginal positions of the charts. Another couple of decent tracks that didn’t make it to the charts are the title track and “Do It Girl”.

The Blackbyrds project represented a collective of musicians contributing with their talent under the expert guide of the genius Byrd. Many of the components had already started their own solo careers or collaborations with other artists or band and they went on doing it even after the experience with the group. Kevin Toney supported the saxophonist Andrew White in many of his albums and spent a lot of time throughout the ’80s working with artists like Rahmlee Davis and Brenda Russell. In the ’90s he started a solo career recording some smooth jazz and funk records such as “Special K”, “Pastel Mood” and “Extra Sensual Perception”.

Alan Barnes became the leader of some bands like the Jazz Renegades and the Pizza Express Modern Jazz Sextet and recorded tracks with Dave Newton, Tony Coe, Ken Peplowski and Warren Vache. At the same time he spent a lot of time teaching and participating to important jazz festivals.

After the last official album, the news about a Blackbyrds come back have been just a few and very fragmented. We know that they’ve often played together in the last 10 years. Gossips even talk about a potential collaboration with Guru on the Jazzmatazz project, given the friendship between Donald Byrd and the leader of Gangstarr.

Every collector cannot miss the first 5 albums, all of them are straight classics. Almost every LP has been re-printed and is easily available in good music shops. If you only listen to CDs, you could buy convenient 2-albums-in-one-CD compilations, published by the English label ACE Records.

The Blackbyrds (Fantasy, LP, 1974)
Flying Start (Fantasy, LP, 1974)
Cornbread, Earl And Me O.S.T. (Fantasy, LP, 1975)
City Life (Fantasy, LP, 1975)
Unfinished Business (Fantasy, LP, 1976)
Action (Fantasy, LP, 1977)
Night Grooves: The Blackbyrds’ Greatest Hits (Fantasy, Collection, 1978)
Better Days (Fantasy, LP, 1980)
Greatest Hits (Fantasy, Collection, 1989)
Action/Better Days (ACE, Reprint, CD, 1994)
Blackbyrds/Flying Start (ACE, Reprint, CD, 1995)
City Life/Unfinished Business (BGP, Collection, CD, 1999)