DeepSoul: The Blackbyrds - "Rock Creek Park"

Jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd left his mark in the jazz and funk worlds, as evident in this 1975 track.
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Few jazz musicians have crossed over to other musical genres and experienced commercial success.  Yet trumpet player Donald Byrd, who passed away recently at age 80, managed to straddle several worlds: academic and commercial, jazz and funk.  From his beginnings as a member of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers to a creator of splinter fusion groups, Byrd retained his hard bop roots while incorporating contemporary R&B music.  While difficult to choose only one track, "Rock Creek Park" may best represent his spanning of jazz and soul, just one of many songs he produced with the Blackbyrds.  

As previously mentioned, Byrd initially forged a reputation in the hard bop realm, recording with Blakey, John Coltrane, and Sonny Rollins before signing a solo contract with Blue Note in 1958.  Through the early sixties he recorded a stream of studio and live albums, even giving Herbie Hancock his first break on 1961's Free Form.  Despite the critical success, he elected to focus on teaching, establishing jazz theory and history curricula at universities such as Rutgers, New York University, and Howard.  Byrd recorded sporadically during this period, although he regained momentum in the late 1960s after exploring African music and observing Miles Davis's efforts to attract new fans through fusion.  His 1972 effort Black Byrd represents his full immersion in this relatively new genre; traditional jazz fans despised it, but it gradually became Blue Note's best seller in the label's history.  Buoyed by this success, he formed the splinter group the Blackbyrds, consisting of some of his best Howard University students.  For almost a decade, the group would record songs that became disco and funk classics.

Starting in 1973, the Blackbyrd members featured percussionist Pericles "Perk" Jacobs, Jr.; drummer Keith Killgo; keyboardist Kevin Toney; reeds player Allan Barnes; bassist Joe Hall; guitarist Barney Perry; and occasional members Orville Saunders (guitar) and Steve Johnson (saxophone and flute).  With Byrd serving as composer and producer, their 1974 self-titled debut introduced listeners to their brand of jazz-inspired funk and relentless grooves.  Their followup, Flying Start, produced the hit "Walking in Rhythm," but their 1975 effort City Life brought their music to the charts with the R&B deep grooves "Rock Creek Park" and "Happy Music."  

"Rock Creek Park" may be simple, but it works on many levels.  Its group-penned lyrics function essentially as a chant: "Doing it in the park/ Doing it after dark, oh, yeah/ Rock Creek Park, oh, yeah."  Other than a whispered chant of "do it" during the bridge, those are the only words sung throughout the mostly instrumental tune.  That leaves the instruments to carry the burden, and the Blackbyrds prove up to the challenge.  The track immediately sets the beat through Saunders's scraping guitar riff, followed by Toney's laser-sharp synthesizer notes.  Hall's complicated bass lines underscore the straightforward, danceable tempo.  While the song sounds completely at home in discos, listen closely to the piano riffs and flute solo that interweave throughout the track--their improvisational sounds that dart in and out of the arrangement derive straight from jazz.  

Tracks like "Rock Creek Park" and "Happy Music" have influenced Britain's acid jazz movement, and hip hop artists have frequently sampled Byrd's music with and without the Blackbyrds--Eric B. & Rakim, N.W.A., and De La Soul represent just a few of the many artists who have paid homage to "Rock Creek Park."  Whether in jazz or fusion, Byrd has left his mark as a pioneering artist who exposed jazz to broader audiences, and proved that contemporary R&B and jazz could coexist in harmony.