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Obituaries

News Obituaries

Joe Byrd, bassist

Joe Byrd, a bassist who was best known for collaborations with his guitarist brother Charlie and who helped introduce bossa nova-inflected jazz to the United States, died March 6 at Anne Arundel Medical Center from injuries suffered in a car accident that day. He was 78.

Mr. Byrd, who also played guitar and was billed early in his career under his given name, Gene, was the youngest of four musical brothers who grew up in Virginia's Tidewater region. They gained national attention and acclaim for "Jazz Samba," which showcased jazz saxophonist Stan Getz and was recorded in 1962 at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Washington.

Charlie Byrd received top billing with Getz on "Jazz Samba." But the handful of supporting players — including Joe Byrd on rhythm guitar — were crucial to the understated melodic expressiveness of the recording and to capturing the delicate but rhythmically thrilling soulfulness of Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Desafinado" and "One Note Samba," among other songs.

Latin-tinged accents in American jazz and pop were hardly novel at the time. Guitarist Laurindo Almeida and saxophonist Bud Shank had partnered in the early 1950s on recordings featuring glimmers of bossa nova jazz.

But "Jazz Samba" was a far greater and enduring commercial success, appearing at the moment when "bossa nova was starting to percolate," said author James Gavin, who wrote extensively on jazz.

The 1959 film "Black Orpheus," a drama set amid Brazil's Carnival and with music by Mr. Jobim and Luiz Bonfa, won the Oscar for best foreign language movie. Charlie Byrd first was exposed to the burgeoning bossa nova style of jazz on a musical tour of Latin America in 1961.

"Jazz Samba" remains the only jazz album to reach No. 1 on the Billboard pop chart, according to JazzTimes magazine. It helped spur a subgenre of jazz featuring some of the leading entertainers of the era, including Peggy Lee, George Shearing and Sonny Rollins. And Mr. Getz went on to make recordings, such as "The Girl From Ipanema," that further popularized the style.

Joe Byrd worked steadily with his brother for the next four decades, seldom in the foreground. They made international trips as goodwill ambassadors for the State Department. They performed for presidents at the White House and at local clubs, such as the old Showboat Lounge in Washington and the King of France Tavern in Annapolis.

Mr. Byrd was a staple of the Charlie Byrd Trio, along with Chuck Redd on drums and vibraphone. Mr. Byrd and Mr. Redd also played in the touring group Great Guitars with Charlie Byrd and jazz guitar virtuosos Barney Kessel, Herb Ellis and Tal Farlow.

Besides his work with his brother, Mr. Byrd also backed visiting musicians on Washington-area club dates, including saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, pianist Mose Allison and singer Jimmy Witherspoon. After his brother's death in 1999, Joe Byrd led his own trio and recorded several albums, including "Basically Blues" and "Brazilian Nights."

Gene Herbert Byrd was born May 21, 1933, in Chuckatuck, Va. His father, Newman Byrd, was a farmer who also owned a general store where musicians gathered. Newman Byrd played guitar and mandolin and introduced his four children to music. They played as a family band on a Tidewater radio station.

After Army service, Mr. Byrd enrolled at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore on the G.I. Bill. In 1962, he graduated with a degree in double bass and a teaching certificate. He soon joined his brother's small group, replacing bassist Keter Betts.

In 1977, Mr. Byrd married Elana Rhodes, a lawyer.

Mr. Byrd, an Edgewater resident who had retired from performing a few years ago, was running an errand when he was fatally injured. According to Anne Arundel County police, he had a green light to turn left on Solomons Island Road from Lee Airpark Drive in Edgewater when another vehicle ran a red light and hit Mr. Byrd's car. The other driver was uninjured. The crash is under investigation.

Joe Byrd was, like his brother Charlie, a musician whose Southern drawl and unobtrusive style masked a refined talent. If Mr. Byrd ever felt overshadowed by his brother's marquee status, he rarely let on.

"He adored Charlie, and they got along so well," Elana Byrd said. "They were kind of quiet guys who understood each other. There was no rivalry whatsoever. Joe used to say he was an ensemble player. In jazz, you have to be. You can't have a bunch of egotists."

Services will be held at 1 p.m. March 24 at the Annapolis Unitarian Universalist Church, 333 Dubois Road.

A scholarship has been created in his name at the Peabody Institute.

In addition to his wife, survivors include a stepson, Jeffrey House of Washington; and a brother, Jack Byrd of Suffolk, Va.

Baltimore Sun reporter Jacques Kelly contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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