Jazz critics panned Byrd for deviating from the jazz mainstream, but he was unperturbed.
“I’m creative; I’m not re-creative,” Byrd told the Detroit Free Press in a 1999 interview. “I don’t follow what everybody else does.”
Byrd invited several of his best students at Howard to join a jazz-fusion group called the Blackbyrds that reached a mainstream audience with a sound heavy on R&B and rock influences. The band landed in the Top 10 on the R&B charts with the mid-’70s albums “Street Lady,” ”Stepping Into Tomorrow” and “Place and Spaces.”
In 1982, Byrd, who also had a law degree, received his doctorate from New York’s Teachers College, Columbia University, and turned his attention from performing to education. Byrd, a longtime resident of Teaneck, N.J., was a distinguished scholar at William Paterson University and twice served as an artist-in-residence at Delaware State University.
Byrd didn’t have much training in mathematics but created a groundbreaking curriculum called Music + Math (equals) Art, in which he transformed notes into numbers to simultaneously teach music and math.
“I can take any series of numbers and turn it into music, from Bach to bebop, Herbie Hancock to hip-hop,” he told The Star-Ledger newspaper of Newark, N.J.
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, he returned to playing hard-bop on several albums for the Landmark label, which also featured saxophonists Kenny Garrett and Joe Henderson.
He performed on Guru’s 1993 jazz-rap album, “Jazzmatazz, Vol. 1,” and his recordings were sampled on more than 100 hip-hop songs by such performers as Black Moon, Nas, Ludacris and A Tribe Called Quest.
In 2000, the National Endowment for the Arts recognized Byrd as a Jazz Master, the nation’s highest jazz honor.
Zezima reported from Trenton, N.J. Associated Press writer Charles J. Gans in New York contributed to this report.