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Donald Byrd and Revolutionary Words

As our daily news reminds us, these are chaotic and violent times. I was recently reminded by Los Angeles poet SA Griffin with his "Poetry bomb" project, that sometimes only the arts can bridge the gap over the gray areas of human understanding and relations. This is why music and poetry have been the ultimate mediums for expressing the wide range of human emotions since the dawn of man. Songs like Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On," and Allen Ginsberg's poem, "Howl," become seminal because they tap into the zeitgeist of their era and offer a deeper insight. Working in this light, this week L.A. Letters pays tribute to jazz trumpeter legend Donald Byrd and an anthology of poetry titled, "Words of Protest, Words of Freedom."

"Words of Protest, Words of Freedom," published by Duke University Press, is an anthology of poetry from the Civil Rights Era that is over 300 pages long and includes almost 100 poets. Editor Jeffrey Lamar Coleman writes, "Poetry, due to its ability to speak concisely and directly or metaphorically to any given situation, was the art form writers and everyday people chose to voice opposition to social and political conditions."

Coleman is a well-researched literary scholar, and his anthology reflects the breadth of his poetry knowledge. Besides publishing the expected celebrated Black Arts poets, there are several unexpected voices from other worlds of poetry, including W.H. Auden, John Berryman, Charles Bukowski, and Robert Lowell, along with Beat Poets like Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti. This diverse range of poets makes the book feel extra comprehensive.

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Published by Duke University PressColeman's interest in this idea stems back two decades when he was a graduate student. He began searching for "civil rights poetry," and it was slow going at first. Over the years he looked for poems dealing with crucial movement-related events, like the integration of schools in Arkansas, the murders of Medgar Evers and Emmett Till, the race riots of the late 1960s, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and the Kennedys.

Working equally as a poetry anthology and history book, the best part of this volume, like all great anthologies, is to have all of these poems published together in one collection. The book is divided into 14 chapters, and Coleman writes informative headnotes that background color for the poems in each section. In his introduction, Coleman writes that, "'Words of Protest, Words of Freedom' is the culmination of nearly two decades of interest in the history and poetry of the period roughly between 1955 and 1975."

Each poem is a lyrical Polaroid from the Civil Rights Era. The series of elegies on MLK, Malcolm X and the Kennedys, along with the poems condemning the Alabama church bombings, express the violence, outrage, fear, and resistance that dominated the era. Coleman writes: "By critiquing -- some more vociferously than others -- systems of oppression that tend to keep Americans divided, these poems... are concerned with helping America become what she has long claimed to be." Moreover Coleman says, "in the midst of tragic stanzas there exists the unifying goal, the shared and common goal that America will become America."

The music of hard bop impresario, and later soul jazz innovator, Donald Byrd shares the same spirit as the poets. DJs around the world have been in mourning since Byrd died on February 4, 2013. I wish I could say I heard Byrd's music first in my parent's record collection, but like many of my generation I learned of his music from hearing his samples in hip hop songs by A Tribe Called Quest, Digable Planets, Public Enemy, and other early 90s records. Sampled over 200 times, Byrd's recording career spanned over five decades, primarily with Blue Note Records. Two of his best known albums are "Blackbyrd" and "Spaces and Places."

The success of these albums led to some jazz purists criticizing Byrd, but posterity has shown that he was ahead of time and right all along. Songs like "Wind Parade," "Dominoes," and "Rock Creek Park" are incredible compositions that not only get a dance floor busy, they make you feel the euphoric energy of the mid 1970s when jazz, funk, and soul collided. Though there were other artists in the same movement, Byrd had more crossover success; his "Blackbyrd" record remained the best-selling album on Blue Note's catalog for many years.

Born in Detroit in 1932, Byrd already had a Bachelor's Degree from Wayne State when, in his early 20s, he moved to New York and soon earned a Masters from the Manhattan School of Music. While he was still in graduate school he began playing with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. After a few years with Blakey, Byrd went on to play with many of the era's greats, including John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, Eric Dolphy and Sonny Rollins.

Soon enough he began leading his own bands and started recording with Blue Note. Through the 1960s he established his prowess as one of the most prolific jazz trumpeters and charismatic live performers. He also taught Jazz at Rutgers, Cornell, and Howard Universities, among other schools over the years. Like L.A. legends Billy Higgins and Horace Tapscott, Byrd had a lifelong dedication to music education.

To this end, Byrd is also known for his role mentoring musicians like Herbie Hancock and the Mizell Brothers. The Mizells were originally his students at Howard University in the early 1970s. The symbiotic chemistry between Byrd and the Mizells can be heard in songs like "Think Twice." The Mizells produced his biggest hits, including the albums mentioned above. Furthermore, the Mizells have gone on to have long successful production careers. Byrd also gave Herbie Hancock one of his first big breaks, and they worked together closely many times over the years.

More recently, Byrd appeared on two records from Guru's Jazzmatazz Series in the 1990s. In the song "Loungin" Guru rhymes about the connection between hip hop and jazz while Byrd plays trumpet infectiously. These lines from Guru explain more,

"Peace to the pioneers but I gotta try to clear
My throat, check out what I wrote
You can't tap into this unless you know the roots."

Donald Byrd is unquestionably a pioneer and will be missed dearly. Fortunately his iconic music remains. The polyphonic mojo present in his recordings will live forever. The same can be said of the poetry published in "Words of Protest, Words of Freedom." Scholars and activists alike will find ample inspiration within its pages because the 150 plus poems reveal the pulse of America during the Civil Rights Era. All in all, Donald Byrd and these poets are powerful agents for alchemy in the land of L.A. Letters.



Top: Donald Byrd by William Claxton

About the Author

Third-generation Angeleno Mike "The Poet" Sonksen is a poet, journalist, historian, tour guide, and teacher.
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Nice piece, Mike. I believe I'm related to Donald Byrd in some way, met his son at a family funeral. "Dominos" is a classic! Thanks for keeping us in the know.