His life is a history of 20th century guitar


February 15, 1991|By Larry Harris | Larry Harris,Evening Sun Staff

THE STARK spars and naked masts of a thousand tranquil sailboats jut upward from the sparkling water as if to salute the winter sky with memories of summer gone, but in anticipation of good times yet to come. Truly, the view from the Annapolis condominium overlooking Back Creek is conducive to reflection, contemplation.

Inside, Charlie Byrd, a Maryland treasure who can make people laugh or weep with a few flicks of his talented, sinewy hands, is reminiscing about his long career and the stature he enjoys as one of the most versatile guitarists in the world.

Like the sailboats, he is at rest, at least for the moment, and in this serene setting, he is inclined to give thanks.

He has done it all, in 65 years, has Charlie Byrd. He has been everything from a club bum to a student of the great classical master, Andres Segovia. And from many influences he has developed a style of finger-picking jazz on a nylon-strung classical guitar, using liberal sprinklings of Latin rhythms and good old down-home blues, that has entranced audiences all over the world. Yet, even now, he is surprised by the reactions his playing evokes.

"It is still, to me, an incredible realization that you can take an audience and hold its attention for a couple of hours by such a simple thing as plucking on the strings of a simple instrument," says Byrd.

"Every day, I thank God for the people who come to hear me. They are so precious. For them to make an effort to be in tune with me is truly a blessing.

"Surely, poets and authors must feel the same way. They must be grateful to the people who read them and try to understand what they are saying. It is the same way in music -- and it is the live show where the magic happens. Oh, records are great and if hearing one makes you recall a time when something affected you, that's well and good, but there is nothing like the one-on-one situation of a live performance."

And live performances are what Byrd will continue to do. Although slowed and still recuperating from a serious lung operation, Byrd continues to tour.

Slow down? He isn't even thinking of it. Why, just in the last two years -- in addition to constant touring and frequent appearances at the King Of France Tavern in Annapolis -- his credits include the following:

* Two recordings with the Annapolis Brass Quintet.

* A recording with jazz saxophonist Scott Hamilton.

* A highly acclaimed trio recording called "Music Of The Brazilian Masters" with Carlos Barbosa-Lima and Laurindo Almeida.

* A recording with a U.S. Army group of wind instrumentalists named "Prevailing Winds."

* Continued work as a member of the Washington Classical Guitar Quintet.

* Three of his blues compositions were recorded by classical great John Williams on a recording called "Music Of The Americas: Spirit Of The Guitar."

It has been a long, long time now since Charlie Byrd began his professional career. "That happened at the end of World War II, in 1945," he says with that soft accent he has carried with him from his childhood in Chuckatuck, Va. "That's when I convinced the U.S. Army to change my M.O.S. from infantry rifleman to guitar player."

When the war ended, Byrd mustered out, took his guitar and headed for New York and began to hang around with the great jazz players of that era. He sublet an apartment from another musician and in his spare time began to fool around with some Bach and baroque numbers. When he mentioned to his landlord that some of these tunes seemed to lie well on the guitar, the owner was aghast.

"Haven't you ever heard Andres Segovia?" he asked Byrd.

"No," said Charlie. "Should I?"

With that, Byrd's friend raced for the record cabinet and a new world of music was opened to this soft-spoken man of the South.

Eventually, Charlie went to Chicago on a gig with Freddy Slack's band and, while poking around a music store, found a Martin classical guitar he bought for $40. In those days, classical guitars were strung with gut because the nylon string was just beginning to be manufactured, thanks to a gentleman named Albert Augustine, who developed the process with a grant from the Du Pont company.

"That's when it hit me," recalls Byrd now of his early classical connection. "It was the sense of history. I found I could learn something from these great composers of the past -- Sor, Guiliani, Tarrega. I was becoming part of the world, part of humanity. I had models to go by; I didn't feel so alone anymore."

Even with his new discovery, though, Byrd's love of jazz continued to bloom. He worshiped its freedom of expression, its capacity for improvisation.

"And that is the greatest virtue of jazz, its fluidity," he says now. "It is liquid and constantly changing. All music must change, or it dies, and it changes and changes until it all comes back around again."

Money was a problem, however, and it wasn't until Byrd hooked up with a black guitarist named Bill Harris one night in Binghamton, N.Y., in 1949 that the wheels really started turning.

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