Charlie Byrd (1925 – 1999) began playing the guitar at an early age under the guidance of his father. In his teens he was playing plectrum guitar with local groups in Virginia and Washington. At the Polytechnic Institute in Virginia, he played guitar with the school band. During World War II he played with an Army band in Europe. After the war he settled in New York where he played with local jazz groups such as Joe Marsala and Freddie Slack.
In 1950 Charlie Byrd returned to the Washington DC area where he began studying the classical guitar. He had always had an interest in classical guitar and decided at this time to begin a serious study of the instrument. He studied guitar with Sophocles Papas and music theory with Thomas Simmons. In 1954 he went to Italy to study with Andres Segovia. It was shortly after that trip that he formed a jazz trio for the first time and began performing in local clubs. His instrument of choice for his trio was the concert guitar.
In the trio format Byrd’s found the perfect form for mixing his love of jazz and blues with classical music. The orientation of the music for the trio was jazz, but jazz infused with classical technique and sound. Between 1957 and 1960 his trio performed in and around Washington. During that time Charlie Byrd made some of his best recorded work In 1957 he released Jazz recital and Blues For Night Peopleand in 1958 Jazz at The Showboat and in 1959 Guitar in the Wind and in 1960 Charlie’s Choice also known under the title The Artistry of Charlie Byrd. In 1961 he released Charlie Byrd at The Village Vanguard. It was this recording that introduced Charlie to a broader audience than he had had in Washington DC.
In 1962 Charlie Byrd and his trio traveled to South America under the sponsorship of the State Department. When he returned to the US he made the landmark recording with Stan Getz Jazz Samba. Unlike the Laurindo Almeida and Bud Shank recordings of Brazilian music, this record caught on with the listening public and made Charlie Byrd a household name.
Throughout the 1970’s 1980 and 1990’s Charlie Byrd continued to record and play. He made some exceptional recordings with Barney Kessel and Herb Ellis as The Great Guitars and dozens of recordings under his own name.
Charlie Byrd is best remembered for the work he did with Stan Getz, and for his work with Herb Ellis and Barney Kessel, as The Great Guitars. The significance of those two associations sometimes obscures the remarkably innovative work he did in the late 1950’s and 1960’s with his trio. Although Laurindo Almeida preceded him in the use of the concert guitar in a jazz setting, Byrd’s style and technique seemed a perfect fit for jazz. He brought to the concert guitar both a high degree of sophistication due to his classical training and a kind of down home quality that came through when he played blues and straight ahead jazz.
It was said he could play a Bach Cantata with the same ease as a Gershwin song, but he delivered each in its own unique way.
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