Guitarist Charlie Byrd, a jazz and classical musician who was instrumental in popularizing the bossa nova, died of cancer early yesterday at his home in Annapolis. He was 74.
A native of Virginia, Mr. Byrd had been playing guitar since childhood. He grew up playing a steel-string guitar and, after he made his professional debut on electric guitar, switched to the classical Spanish guitar in 1950. One of the first jazz musicians to make exclusive use of the nylon string instrument, Mr. Byrd brought new techniques and color to the jazz vocabulary, and would often include selections from the classical repertoire in his nightclub performances.
As a stylist, Mr. Byrd was celebrated for his broad taste and impeccable technique. A musical Renaissance man, he was as comfortable playing Vivaldi or a traditional Brazilian choro as he was improvising jazz. No wonder the jazz critic Barry Ulanov once wrote that Mr. Byrd's playing "evokes two Segovias, the Renaissance Spanish city and the great classical guitarist."
Mr. Byrd was best known, however, for his way with the music of Brazil. He discovered the bossa nova while touring South America as a "goodwill ambassador" on behalf of the U.S. State Department. Becoming fascinated with the then-new bossa nova sound, he brought back songs composed by Antonio Carlos Jobim, which he recorded with saxophonist Stan Getz for the 1962 album "Jazz Samba."
The album was an unexpected smash, topping the Billboard album charts and producing the hit single, "Desafinado."
Although Mr. Byrd made his reputation on the ultra-competitive New York jazz scene, he moved to Washington in 1950 and remained an area resident. He relocated to Annapolis in 1972, where he played regularly at the Maryland Inn's King of France Tavern. He was a fixture on the local music scene, and was named a Maryland Arts Treasure -- the first to receive such an honor -- in 1997.
Mr. Byrd gave his final performance on Sept. 18, at the King of France.
"He was a performing musician," said Elana Rhodes Byrd, his sister-in-law. "That was his life. He liked to be out there and on the road for as long as he could be."
Born Charlie Lee Byrd in Suffolk, Va., he grew up in nearby Chuckatuck. The Byrds were a musical family. His father, Neuman, played mandolin, while Charlie, along with brothers Joe and Jack, played guitar. Joe would later switch to double bass, and became a professional musician in his own right, frequently playing and recording with Charlie's trio.
For the most part, the Byrds played traditional country and folk tunes -- what would now be referred to as "old-timey" music -- and were good enough to perform on local radio stations. The eldest of four sons, Charlie was studying at Virginia Tech when he was drafted in 1943. He saw combat duty in Europe, and after the war wound up playing guitar in an Army Special Services band, entertaining the troops in occupied Europe.
It was through that Army band that the young guitarist found himself in Paris, where in 1945 he met and played with the famed gypsy jazz guitarist, Django Reinhardt. At the time, Reinhardt was the best-known guitarist in jazz, and (along with the late Charlie Christian) one of the instrument's most original and influential stylists. Meeting Reinhardt had an enormous effect on Mr. Byrd; upon his discharge from the Army, he moved to New York and studied jazz theory and composition at the Harnett National Music School.
In the late '40s, Mr. Byrd worked as a sideman with clarinetist Sol Yaged, reedman Joe Marsala, singer Barbara Carroll and pianist Freddie Slack, but in 1950 went to Washington to study classical guitar with Sophocles Papas. Mr. Byrd worked with Papas for the better part of a decade, and taught at Papas' Washington studio, the Guitar Store. In 1954, he received an invitation from classical guitar virtuoso Andres Segovia, and spent several months in Italy studying with the famed master.
During this period, Mr. Byrd also began to make a name for himself as a composer. He wrote music for the Tennessee Williams play "The Purification," and also scored several educational films for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Still played jazz
Despite his accomplishments in the classical field, Mr. Byrd had not abandoned jazz. He began playing jazz dates with his own group at Washington's Showboat Lounge. He made his first recording as a band leader for Savoy, in 1959, and later signed with Fantasy Records.
By 1961, Mr. Byrd became interested in compound rhythms and Indian classical music. "He experimented some with the Brubeck `Take Five' rhythms, and also the Indian rhythms, from Ravi Shankar," said his brother, Joe. "We dabbled some."