Legacy

The Jazz Journey Of Joe Byrd: From Background Bassist To Spotlight Star

Joe Byrd. i i

Joe Byrd. Michael G. Stewart for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Michael G. Stewart for NPR
Joe Byrd.

Joe Byrd.

Michael G. Stewart for NPR

For every music star, thousands spend their lives playing a supporting role — those who barely see and often don't seek the spotlight.

One of them died Tuesday. His name was Joe Byrd, and he was a hell of a bass player. He was 78 when the driver of an SUV ran a red light and struck his car.

He was also guitarist Charlie Byrd's younger brother. Charlie came to international attention in 1962 with his album Jazz Samba. Recorded in a church in Washington, D.C., with guest saxophonist Stan Getz, it produced a Top 20 pop hit with the Antonio Carlos Jobim tune "Desafinado." The album reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and helped launch the bossa nova craze in the U.S.

Joe played rhythm guitar and a little bass on Jazz Samba. (His given name was Gene Byrd, and that's how he's credited on the album.) Charlie became a jazz star and Joe happily backed him up for four decades. Here's a later clip of the Charlie Byrd Trio, with Chuck Redd on drums.

Joe was the youngest of four Byrd brothers who grew up in Chuckatuck, in Virginia's Tidewater region. Their father was a farmer who ran a country store that was a gathering place for local musicians, black and white. Joe and Charlie learned guitar from their father, and they played hillbilly music and country blues.

After serving in the U.S. Army, Joe went to the Peabody Institute in Baltimore on the G.I. Bill to study classical bass. But blues and jazz were his passion. In addition to playing with his brother, Joe accompanied pianist Teddy Wilson, singers Jimmy Witherspoon and Mose Allison, and saxophonist Coleman Hawkins.

Charlie died in 1999, and Joe decided — at age 66 — to step into the spotlight. He made his debut album as a leader in 2001 with Basically Blues, an album of blues and jazz standards on which he also sings with a distinctive Southern drawl that recalls Mose Allison. Over the next seven years, he self-released five more albums, ranging from a tribute to his late brother to a Django Reinhardt-inspired trio disc to a collection of duets with guitarist Howard Alden that really shows off his bass playing.

Like Charlie, Joe was a man of few words — quiet and polite in a Southern way — but also very friendly. He always seemed genuinely happy to see you. There was a good bit of that in his bass playing: warm and full, with a sharp, precise attack that reflected his classical training.

Joe Byrd retired from public performance two years ago. But he and his wife continued producing and promoting jazz concerts by other artists in the Annapolis, Md., area where he lived. Fittingly, he continued supporting musicians his entire life.

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