CHARLIE BYRD His life is a history of 20th century guitar


THE STARK spars and naked masts of a thousand tranquil sailboats jut upward from the sparkling water as if to salute the winter sky with memories of summer gone, but in anticipation of good times yet to come. Truly, the view from the Annapolis condominium overlooking Back Creek is conducive to reflection, contemplation.

Inside, Charlie Byrd, a Maryland treasure who can make people laugh or weep with a few flicks of his talented, sinewy hands, is reminiscing about his long career and the stature he enjoys as one of the most versatile guitarists in the world.

Like the sailboats, he is at rest, at least for the moment, and in this serene setting, he is inclined to give thanks.

He has done it all, in 65 years, has Charlie Byrd. He has been everything from a club bum to a student of the great classical master, Andres Segovia. And from many influences he has developed a style of finger-picking jazz on a nylon-strung classical guitar, using liberal sprinklings of Latin rhythms and good old down-home blues, that has entranced audiences all over the world. Yet, even now, he is surprised by the reactions his playing evokes.

"It is still, to me, an incredible realization that you can take an audience and hold its attention for a couple of hours by such a simple thing as plucking on the strings of a simple instrument," says Byrd.

"Every day, I thank God for the people who come to hear me. They are so precious. For them to make an effort to be in tune with me is truly a blessing.

"Surely, poets and authors must feel the same way. They must be grateful to the people who read them and try to understand what they are saying. It is the same way in music -- and it is the live show where the magic happens. Oh, records are great and if hearing one makes you recall a time when something affected you, that's well and good, but there is nothing like the one-on-one situation of a live performance."

And live performances are what Byrd will continue to do. Although slowed and still recuperating from a serious lung operation, Byrd continues to tour.

Slow down? He isn't even thinking of it. Why, just in the last two years -- in addition to constant touring and frequent appearances at the King Of France Tavern in Annapolis -- his credits include the following:

* Two recordings with the Annapolis Brass Quintet.

* A recording with jazz saxophonist Scott Hamilton.

* A highly acclaimed trio recording called "Music Of The Brazilian Masters" with Carlos Barbosa-Lima and Laurindo Almeida.

* A recording with a U.S. Army group of wind instrumentalists named "Prevailing Winds."

* Continued work as a member of the Washington Classical Guitar Quintet.

* Three of his blues compositions were recorded by classical great John Williams on a recording called "Music Of The Americas: Spirit Of The Guitar."

It has been a long, long time now since Charlie Byrd began his professional career. "That happened at the end of World War II, in 1945," he says with that soft accent he has carried with him from his childhood in Chuckatuck, Va. "That's when I convinced the U.S. Army to change my M.O.S. from infantry rifleman to guitar player."

When the war ended, Byrd mustered out, took his guitar and headed for New York and began to hang around with the great jazz players of that era. He sublet an apartment from another musician and in his spare time began to fool around with some Bach and baroque numbers. When he mentioned to his landlord that some of these tunes seemed to lie well on the guitar, the owner was aghast.

"Haven't you ever heard Andres Segovia?" he asked Byrd.

"No," said Charlie. "Should I?"

With that, Byrd's friend raced for the record cabinet and a new world of music was opened to this soft-spoken man of the South.

Eventually, Charlie went to Chicago on a gig with Freddy Slack's band and, while poking around a music store, found a Martin classical guitar he bought for $40. In those days, classical guitars were strung with gut because the nylon string was just beginning to be manufactured, thanks to a gentleman named Albert Augustine, who developed the process with a grant from the Du Pont company.

"That's when it hit me," recalls Byrd now of his early classical connection. "It was the sense of history. I found I could learn something from these great composers of the past -- Sor, Guiliani, Tarrega. I was becoming part of the world, part of humanity. I had models to go by; I didn't feel so alone anymore."

Even with his new discovery, though, Byrd's love of jazz continued to bloom. He worshiped its freedom of expression, its capacity for improvisation.

"And that is the greatest virtue of jazz, its fluidity," he says now. "It is liquid and constantly changing. All music must change, or it dies, and it changes and changes until it all comes back around again."

Money was a problem, however, and it wasn't until Byrd hooked up with a black guitarist named Bill Harris one night in Binghamton, N.Y., in 1949 that the wheels really started turning.

"Bill told me about a guy in Washington, D.C., named Sophocles Papas, who was teaching classical guitar in connection with the GI Bill," Byrd recalls. "I set out very soon for Washington, D.C."

Byrd studied under Papas for several years in Washington, all the while playing in clubs and halls and even museums. In 1952, he was invited to Siena, Italy, where the great Segovia was conducting a summer camp. Among the invitees was a 12-year-old Australian prodigy named John Williams. It was to be Byrd's most enlightening experience.

"A marvelous revelation," he says. "I was still naive in the ways of the guitar, even though I had been playing since I was 8 years old and thought I was pretty damned good at it. How quickly you learn how little you know! It was a very valuable lesson, being around these people that Segovia had hand-picked. It was a great moment of awareness.

"From that summer came the realization that the greatest asset for any guitarist is to play within himself, to be honest in his own self-appraisal. You can always push your boundaries, but you must know your limitations."

Back in the U.S., Byrd continued both his classical studies and playing odd jobs. Finally, he sat down for a very personal analysis.

"I was 30 years old," Byrd says. "I was doing all the right things, playing all the right places with all the right classical connections. But I was 30 years old and there were people like John Williams and Julian Bream who were eons ahead of me.

"What if I can somehow combine these musical expressions, I asked myself. If I do, would I have something unique? Something unique is always a valuable commodity in music. I envisioned this, thought about it. It wasn't something that happened accidentally or overnight."

Then, just when Byrd had arranged a program of old standards for his new style, along came a break. An article in a magazine listed several musicians who should be recording but weren't, and Byrd's name was among them. A few days later, a gent from Savoy records was on the phone and a recording career was born.

"It's the timing of things like that that makes you wonder if there isn't something out there that is regulating things for all of us," muses Byrd.

That was the beginning, and the exotic style of fusion evolved from that. Few in the guitar world ever have tried to emulate Byrd's musical expression, and that gives him pause to chuckle: "I once had a guitar friend who told me, 'The way you do it is the best way to do it, but it will never catch on because it's too damned hard.' "

Charlie Byrd and saxophonist Stan Getz generally get most of the credit for bringing the bossa nova sound to the United States in the early Sixties, but Byrd's affection for South American rhythms goes back much further than that.

In New York after World War II he was influenced after playing with a crew of Cuban musicians. Later, he performed on guitar for a dancer named Catherine Dunham, who was very skilled in South American dances.

"I fell in love with the rhythms," Byrd says. "She just let me play."

During the middle Fifties, the U.S. government began a cultural exchange program with various countries around the world. When pianist Dave Brubeck couldn't make a South American trip, Byrd filled in for him and from then on he was hooked on the music of Jobim and Vila-Lobos.

"We played in town halls, town squares, schools, everywhere," Byrd recalls fondly. "I absorbed everything."

Charlie's collaboration with Getz was a great success, but apparently the two men, both strong individualists, never really hit it off. "It was not a pleasant experience," says Byrd, ending the subject.

His recent lung surgery is not Charlie Byrd's first bout wit cancer. Years ago, he conquered bladder cancer, and he is positive his latest impairment will not slow him down.

"My doctor is more than pleased with my progress," he says. "Funny, I haven't smoked a cigarette in 10 years, but they tell me this latest problem may be smoke-related. I'm walking two miles a day and I live on an upper level so I can climb the stairs. I'm not going to slow down or retire. Retire from what? As long as I feel good, I will play because I love the music.

"I love all kinds of music -- jazz, renaissance, whatever. In music, you can transport yourself to another place, another time, another world. When you are playing other kinds of music, you become that music. For instance, to play Brazilian is to be Brazilian . . . and if you are lucky, your audience can be there with you."

And what is Charlie Byrd's legacy? How does he want to be remembered? As a romantic wandering minstrel, perhaps? As a troubadour from an earlier age? The answer is succinct and, like Charlie Byrd himself, carries great dignity:

"I am most proud of the fact that I have tried to make music in the most eloquent and profound way that I possibly can."

The master's favorites

Charlie Byrd's earliest guitar influences were players like Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt and, improbably, Les Paul, who often was featured on the daily Fred Waring Radio Show during the late '40s.

During his long career, Byrd has worked with hundreds and hundreds of fellow guitarists, but he doesn't like to make lists of his favorites, he says, "because you always run the danger of leaving somebody out."

Nevertheless, there are some who can't be denied:

* Carlos Barbosa-Lima and Laurindo Almeida: "When you are playing Brazilian music with them, you know it is authentic. They're the real thing."

* Barney Kessel and Herb Ellis: Byrd traveled for years with these two jazz masters as the "Great Guitars" trio. He has fond memories of both.

* Bucky Pizzarelli, a seven-string artist, and Gene Bertoncini, another jazz-classical fusion player.

* Emily Remler, who died unexpectedly at 32 last spring: "I had great respect for her. She was a fine jazz player."

* Joe Pass, regarded by some as the finest jazz guitarist of all time. "Don't forget him, please."

* Hank Garland: "A fine country player who had a tragic auto accident and lost his ability. He could have been a fine jazz player."

* Stanley Jordan: "I don't think he'll revolutionize guitar-playing with that two-handed tap system, but he's interesting."

And then there were Martin Taylor and Jack Checcini and Chet Atkins, Louis Stewart, Remo Palemieri and . . . the list could go on and on.

"The thing about all the great ones," says Byrd, "is that they have some little thing they can do so well. They can always show you something you wish you had thought of."

The master's guitars

Charlie Byrd's finest guitar is a Kohno, a Japanese-made classical model that sells for $5,000 or more.

The guitar he carries with him on most of his trips, however, is a Takamine electro-acoustic, also a Japanese-made model which has a cutaway at the bottom side to allow easier access to the lower fretboard. "It's also set up well for amplification," says Byrd.

Guitar players are noted for keeping everything, and Byrd is no exception. He still has his first classical guitar, a C.F. Martin-made model he purchased for $40 in Chicago in the late Forties. "Someday I have to get that thing out and clean it up," he says.

The Martin Company doubtless would love to restore it for him.

I= Byrd uses Savarez strings, a nylon of French manufacture.

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