Donald Byrd: I’ve Longed And Searched For My Mother (I’m Tryin’ To Get Home, 1964)
For an album called I’m Tryin’ To Get Home, Donald Byrd’s tenth LP as a bandleader is for the most part remarkably celebratory. Like its predecessor, A New Perspective, it combines threads of cool jazz and gospel to create a seamless and singular sound. A few years later, Quincy Jones took this same kind of sound, dragged it further out of church and shot it into orbit on his great Walking In Space LP, but here it still has a strongly organic feel.
In the middle of all this joyous, wordless singing and upbeat jamming, though, is this song, “I’ve Longed And Searched For My Mother,” which is… I don’t know what you’d call it. A cosmic funeral march, perhaps. It twists the ebullience of the rest of the LP inside out, and for all its very intentional drama, it’s really a devastating piece of music.
Byrd takes the sound he’d developed and pulls it apart, strand by strand, isolating one female voice and setting her away from the background singers. The others may be there, cooing at the fringes, but she is alone. He has the saxes playing at the very bottom of their range, where the tone is naturally rougher and less even, and he keeps his own trumpet muted at the outset, calling out from the distance. When he finally takes a solo, he doesn’t sing out—he sings inward. His trumpet sounds exhausted but determined.
It’s a modern tone poem. It doesn’t tell a story with a concrete beginning, middle and end, but it does nevertheless tell a complete story, taking you on a journey of ache.
Albums like this make me wonder why I don’t hear more about Byrd as a bandleader. He’s widely respected as a trumpeter, but the LPs he made under his own name aren’t usually considered must-hear entries in the jazz canon unless you’re already in deep. I suspect some hardcore jazz heads never forgave him for the records he made in the 70s with the Blackbyrds, a fusion group he assembled from among his best students as he was teaching music at the university level. It’s also awfully hard to make a dent in jazz’s front line when it’s populated by guys like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Bill Evans and Dizzy Gillespie.
Regardless, the guy was a fantastic leader with lots of great, creative ideas, and exploring his catalog reveals some amazing stuff, from his hard bop days in the 50s all the way through the Blackbyrds. His roughest fusion record, 1971’s Ethiopian Knights, is a favorite of mine.
I’ve loved this song for years, but there’s a reason I chose to write about it today.
Byrd was born Donaldson Toussaint L’Ouverture Byrd II in 1932. He grew up in Detroit, was a music major at Wayne State University, and went on to a brilliant and prolific career leading his own bands and playing with Coltrane, Art Blakey, Lionel Hampton (while he was still in high school!), Herbie Hancock, Paul Chambers, Horace Silver, Red Garland, Jackie McLean, Sonny Rollins and others. He was one of the last people to play with Eric Dolphy before the woodwind player’s untimely death from insulin shock.
And he taught his craft generously, to students at Oberlin, Rutgers, Howard and half a dozen other schools. He’s still going today at 77, living in New Jersey.
And as for me, I just moved to the Detroit area so my wife could teach at Wayne State. And there is something about this piece of music that matches the journey of Byrd’s home city over the last five decades. Detroit’s population peaked in 1950. Things were already changing by the time Byrd recorded this fourteen years later—the ‘67 riots weren’t the beginning of the end like we’re often told. They were a step along the way.
And of course, you’ve seen the photos of abandoned homes and factories, and the vacant lots, and you’ve heard about the white flight and the hollowing of the city’s core. But I’ve been around this place a little now, and I can tell you it’s not all bad. The suburbs and the city still have their backs turned to each other, and there’s a lot to be done, but the thought of doing it makes Detroit an uncommonly exciting place to be these days.
And that’s the bit I left out of my description of the song above—the edge of hope. It has the ring of a long, exhausting journey that hasn’t reached its destination yet. You don’t know where else it will take you, but the future just might carry you home. And that’s something to look forward to.
Donald Byrd passed away last week, and I’ve been wanting to do a proper remembrance post. Re-sharing this will have to do for the moment.