A century on and the evolution of jazz continues to unfold. There will always be traditionalists and there will always be those who desire to walk the coals to find the next level of blowing. The intention of these weekly posts will not be to hold your hand through the chronology of jazz history, but to give you an idea of the many directions you can choose to go in the exploration of the myriad, complex, and curious forms that fall under the moniker of jazz.
We'll start with Donald Byrd, both to honor his recent passing and to offer a prime example of a jazz musician stepping out of the formal idiom of the genre without eschewing it entirely and gaining a wider following as a result. For many established jazz artists in the ’70s, the lure of the funk proved too great to resist (and was probably more lucrative), resulting in many excellent crossovers of jazz into funk and R&B territories. As with Miles Davis' forays into jazz-rock fusion, Byrd rankled the purists. "Then the jazz people starting eating on me,” Byrd recalled in a 1982 radio interview. “They had a feast on me for 10 years: 'He’s sold out.' Everything that’s bad was attributed to Donald Byrd. I weathered it, and then it became commonplace. Then they found a name for it. They started calling it 'jazz fusion,' 'jazz rock.'"
Ultimately, his 1973 album Black Byrd (one of the long-running Blue Note Records’ best-selling albums ever) and 1975's Places and Spaces have become some of the most heavily sampled records by hiphop artists of the last 20 years. This is jazz assimilating and re-purposing a popular-music form (itself arguably a spawn of jazz) only to be re-assimilated back into another popular music form that is also a not-so-distant relative. Well played, Mr. Donaldson Toussaint L’Ouverture Byrd II, well played.
The following clip is from Byrd's 1963 Blue Note album A New Perspective. About the project, Byrd said: "The most accurate way I can describe what we were all trying to do is that this is a modern hymnal. In an earlier period, the New Orleans jazzmen would often play religious music for exactly what it was—but with their own jazz textures and techniques added. Now, as modern jazzmen, we're also approaching this tradition with respect and great pleasure."