Sweet sounds: Bossa nova innovator Charlie Byrd returns.
Jazz master’s six-string love affair
By Greg Cahill
CHARLIE BYRD is anxious. The celebrated jazz and classical guitarist–whose 1962 Brazilian music collaboration Jazz Samba with saxophonist Stan Getz launched the U.S. bossa nova craze–has “a rigorous regimen of practice” that starts at the crack of dawn and lasts most of the day. It leaves little time for phone interviews.
“I like to practice,” says Byrd, his soft Southern drawl and gracious manner barely masking a desire to return to his studies as he speaks from his Maryland home. “I’ve played every day since 1963. I even managed to get in a couple of hours this morning . . . before the phone started to ring.”
OK, let’s just say that the guitar is an all-consuming passion for Byrd, who co-headlines a stellar jazz bill Sept. 1 at the final concert in the third annual Rodney StrongPiper Summer Music Series. “Charlie Byrd’s versatility in the literature of the guitar surpasses that of anyone else,” music writer Willis Conover once opined. “He is a masterful jack-of- all-guitar-trades.”
Indeed, Byrd’s well-known flirtation with bossa nova is just part of a deeper love that has spanned five decades. In fact, talking to Byrd about the six-string guitar is like dialing into a living repository of music history. He has performed, recorded, or studied with many of the most prominent instrumentalists in the world, including sitar master Ravi Shankar.
A pivotal turn in that career came in the mid-’40s. During World War II, former infantryman Byrd returned to France as an Army Special Services performer and tracked down legendary Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt–a pioneering jazz guitarist in his own right–at a small Paris club. “Usually, no one quite knew where he was going to be,” Byrd recalls. “But I met his brother and about an hour later in walks Django with an entourage of friends. He always traveled with a large group–carried his own admirers with him, the most sinister-looking bunch of hoodlums you’ve ever seen. I walked up and offered to buy him a drink. That seemed to be the right thing to do.”
The brief encounter had a lasting effect on Byrd, who last year recorded a stunning tribute to Reinhardt, Du Hot Club de Concord (Concord Jazz). “He was the first really brilliant solo guitarist I ever became aware of,” Byrd explains. “I had records of his when I was 10 years old. It just blew my mind that anyone could play a guitar like that. Still does.”
But in 1950, Byrd switched to classical guitar, studying with legendary guitarist Sophocles Papas. Four years later, he flew to Siena, Italy, for a six-week class with Spanish classical guitar master Andrés Segovia. The hottest player in the class was soundtrack composer and orchestra leader John Williams–then a scrawny 12-year-old with an impressive command of his instrument. “That was a lesson in humility right there,” Byrd laughs.
But his breakthrough came in 1962 when Byrd initiated a Brazilian jazz project. “I had been to São Paulo the year before and became pretty well acquainted with the music of composer Antonio Carlos Jobim,” he says. “I had already started playing that music, and the audience response had been pretty good because those songs are so melodic. I knew it would be something that would be appealing; I wasn’t thinking that it make the top of the pop charts or anything like that.”
A few months later, Byrd’s wife suggested that he hook up with tenor saxophonist Stan Getz. “She said, ‘He’s the one. Get Getz and record those Brazilian songs and you’ll have something,’ ” Byrd recalls. The result was Jazz Samba, an album that changed American jazz and popular music and helped usher in the recent world-music craze. Byrd’s dynamic style left an indelible print on those bossa nova collaborations.
On “Desafinado,” from that landmark album, Byrd’s lush jazz guitar chords hang like an rare exotic bird in the languorous summer heat.
“The guitar is a means of expressing music,” he muses. “When you get into the emotional side of it, then it’s not the guitar that matters so much as the music itself. But the guitar is the vehicle I use. It’s how I express myself. As for the emotional side, music takes up where language leaves off. To try and verbalize what music says, emotionally and spiritually, is futile.
“Let me put it this way,” he chuckles. “Louis Armstrong once said if you’ve got to ask, you’ll never know.”
The Charlie Byrd Trio co-headlines Sunday, Sept. 1, at 1 p.m. with the Bobby Hutcherson Quartet and the Cedar Walton Trio at the Rodney Strong Vineyards, 11455 Old Redwood Hwy., Healdsburg. Tickets are $25 advance and $28 at the door. 433-0919.
From the August 29-September 4, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent
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