by Ken Avis
The D.C. area this month lost one of its most appreciated and legendary musicians. Joe Byrd, best known for his work as the bassist with the Charlie Byrd Trio and the Great Guitars and for his involvement in the milestone Jazz Samba album, died on March 6. He was 78.
Joe was much admired as a musician and as a person. Many remember him particularly from his time playing at D.C.’s Showboat Lounge and in later years at the King of France Tavern in Annapolis. He toured internationally with both the trio and the Great Guitars (featuring Herb Ellis, Barney Kessel, Tal Farlow and Charlie Byrd) and was proud to have played at the White House.
I had the opportunity to interview Joe just a week before his death, for a video documentary about Jazz Samba. He was in great humor and welcomed us with many stories of his musical adventures and collaborations. Joe described his upbringing in Chuckatuck, Va. In the family’s country store, blues players would perform around the stove; his parents, too, were musicians. His mother was a pianist, and his father a mandolin player and blues guitarist. Brother Charlie taught him to play guitar and encouraged Joe to play the bass because “Charlie needed a rhythm section,” Joe said. “Everybody needs a bass player.” The two would go on to perform together for four decades.
Joe moved from rural Virginia to D.C. in the 1950s. He studied bass with Joe Willens, who subsequently became the teacher of another legendary D.C. bassist, Butch Warren. In D.C., Joe attended business school, where he stayed “just long enough to know that wasn’t for me,” before continuing his music studies at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore. While there, he played “the bars and gin joints” of Baltimore. The big break came with Jazz Samba, recorded at All Souls Church on 16th Street in the District.
Remembering the three-hour recording session that is widely credited with popularizing and establishing Brazilian bossa nova in the jazz domain, Joe said of the new musical style: “Everything underneath was a little different but Stan [Getz] was just Stan. He didn’t have to change a thing…. We had two good drummers, Buddy Deppenschmidt and Bill Reichenbach. Deppenschmidt had a bit of first-hand experience [with bossa nova]…. They adapted pretty well – for a couple of gringos.” Of course, they also had Charlie and Keter Betts, another longtime D.C. resident, who Joe described as “one of my all time favorite bass players … a natural, a wonderful guy and a terrific spokesman for the jazz world.”
Joe continued performing music until his retirement in 2007. In our talk, he mentioned what a pleasure it had been in his later years to play with brothers Chuck and Robert Redd. After retirement, he remained involved in promoting and enjoying music with his wife, Elana, and kept an eye open for new talent. “I’ve had the good fortune to play with some of the best guitarists that came down the pike,” he said, adding, “The new bunch with Frank Vignola and Howard Alden are definitely carrying the torch.”
As Elana said to us before the interview, Joe was “a man of few words … but good and true.” He was a lovely man and a great musician who will be much missed. His musical legacy continues in his recordings and in Peabody’s Joe Byrd Jazz Scholarship Fund, which he established.
Ken Avis is a musician in the band Veronneau, which is currently recording a commemorative 50th anniversary album of bossa songs featuring music from Jazz Samba, along with a companion documentary video. The album will be released in May with a concert at Pierce Hall, All Souls Church.