The 2006 Atlanta Jazz Festival hosted a panel discussion with Donald Byrd and Grady Tate. The official title for the panel was Jazz Origins: "Conversations with Elders". While the "conversation" part was true to billing, there wasn't a whole lot of talk about jazz. Instead, the discussion focused mostly on education, hip-hop, and (occasionally) politics.
Sure, it would have been nice to hear about their experiences playing jazz in the 50's and 60's, and the musicians they've played with. But frankly, Donald Byrd could have spent the entire time talking about tax law and I would have been happy. It was a joy just to be in the same room as the great Donald Byrd.
Following is a brief biography and my notes from the topics covered during their panel discussion.
DONALD BYRD (BIO)
No doubt about it, Donald Byrd is one of the greatest jazz trumpeters of all time. Among jazz fans, he's best known for his iconic recordings during the hard bop period, most of which were on the Blue Note label. Some of my favorite Byrd recordings include "Fuego", "Byrd In Hand", "Free Form", Hank Mobley's "No Room For Squares", and Jackie McLean's "Vertigo". But you really can't go wrong with any of his hard bop recordings. They're all outstanding!
In addition to his hard bop contributions, Byrd is well known for his R&B/jazz/funk/fusion recordings from the 1970's. These recordings were very popular at the time ("Black Byrd" was Blue Note's top seller), and are often cited as precursors to acid-jazz. In the 1990's, Byrd gained renewed popularity in the hip-hop community due to his involvement with the rapper Guru.
Byrd is also heavily involved in jazz education. He has four masters degrees and a doctorate from Columbia University, and has taught at several universities including Rutgers, NYU, Howard, and North Carolina Central University.
GRADY TATE (BIO)
Grady Tate is mostly known as a jazz drummer, however he's also a fantastic singer. As a drummer, he's recorded hundreds of albums with many legendary jazz musicians including Jimmy Smith, Wes Montgomery, Stan Getz, Kenny Burrell, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Roland Kirk, Oliver Nelson, and Clark Terry.
THE STATE OF EDUCATION
Both Byrd and Tate are very concerned with the state of public school education today, in both music and academics at large. As most people know, music programs in public schools have been on the decline now for at least 20 years. Many schools have completely removed music from their curriculums and many more are terribly under-funded.
Grady Tate spoke about the music programs of yesteryear (30+ years ago) and how they contributed to the growth of jazz. Tate mentioned how when he was a kid, his school had more than enough instruments to go around. You could take a trombone home one day, decide to you don't like it, and try a different instrument the next day. Today, of course, many schools don't have any instruments at all. Tate also pointed out that in his school, everyone was taught piano. They learned at least enough to play a V-1 chord progression. From there, some students would learn the blues and continue experimenting with music. All of this set the stage for further musical development whereby young people could attain the high level of musicianship required to play jazz. Sadly, these programs are virtually non-existent in many of today's public schools.
Donald Byrd continued the education discussion, focusing the attention on academics. It's Byrd's belief that the educational system is setting young people up for failure, especially in mathematics. In short, he doesn't think math is presented in a way that appeals to a majority of young people, especially not to those who are already disinterested in school. To address this issue, he has developed a program he calls "M+M=A", or Music+Math='A' Grades. The program explores the relationship between music and math, using music to teach math and vice versa. I don't really have any specifics on the program, but I do know that some of the relationships are based on rhythmic exercises. It's Byrd's hope to present his program to other educators where it will eventually make its way into the classroom.
The topic of hip-hop music came up many times during the panel discussion, by both Byrd and Tate. Of the two, Byrd is more directly connected to hip-hop due to his recordings and touring with the rapper Guru. Byrd's music (and speech) is also frequently sampled on several hip-hop recordings, so it's only natural that he should talk about it and field some questions about his experiences.
While Byrd seems to have the strongest ties to hip-hop, Grady Tate actually spent more time talking about it, mostly with regard to its connection with education. As previously mentioned, Tate talked about the fact that musical instruments and musical instruction were more prevalent in public schools 30+ years ago. That educational environment produced many young people who had the musicianship required to play jazz. As time went on and the music programs were discontinued, you had a situation where there will still many talented young people needing a musical outlet to express themselves. Without traditional instruments at their disposal (and the instruction to play them), they turned to turntables, beatboxing, and rapping. Even though the instruments may have changed, the spirit of creativity and expression found in jazz lives on in hip-hop.
It was obvious that both Tate and Byrd are fans of hip-hop and proud of the young people who created it. Tate did express concern, however, that hip-hop is facing stagnation due to all the money surrounding it. Rather than innovate and try new things, today's artists seem more likely to stick to the financially rewarding and formulaic status quo. Tate is hopeful for the future, though, and would love to hear richer harmonies and more complex melodies in hip-hop. Perhaps with improved music programs in schools, Tate's wishes will come true. Who knows, maybe we'll even get a resurgence of jazz as well!
IT'S GOOD TO BE COOL
At one point Donald Byrd commented about his accomplishments as a jazz musician. He said he can go into any record store, and if they have a jazz section he knows some of his recordings will be there and people will know who he is. Summing it all up, he said proudly "I can go anywhere in the world and I'm cool." You can say that again!