Written By Mary Spiro
When internationally-known jazz pianist Eric Byrd sits down at the piano, it is as if he is sitting down to chat with an old friend. And as blues and gospel-flavored music emerges, Byrd seems touched, almost physically, by the magical interchange.
At 35, Byrd has been having this conversation with jazz for nearly 22 years and the repartee shows no sign of stopping. “Jazz to me is like the best dialogue with your best friend,” he said. “Who would want that to end?”
Byrd’s musical talent has distinguished him as an outstanding McDaniel College instructor, as well as a U.S.State Department and Kennedy Center Jazz Ambassador. It has taken him to Austria and South America. It introduced him to the love of his life. And music has been the language that has drawn him nearer to his heavenly Father and to the one here on earth.
Music was Byrd’s childhood soundtrack. In Willingboro, New Jersey, where he grew up–he was actually born in Jersey City–his mother stayed home and his father commuted daily for two and a half hours each way to work as a longshoreman in Jersey City. During the day, Byrd and his sister, Sharon, learned to groove with Mom’s Gladys Knight eight-track tapes. At night they would swing with their father’s records of Count Basie or let their imaginations soar with the voice of opera singer Maria Callas. “I was blessed,” he laughed, “to have parents with good taste.”
At age seven, Eric Byrd watched a TV performance of Abraham Martin and John by the legendary Ray Charles. “When I found out that he was blind, I thought, ÔHow tragic,’” Byrd said. “But when I heard him playÉman, it just laid me out. I thought, ÔI have got to figure out how to do that!’”
Byrd’s father, William J. Byrd, arranged piano lessons with church musical instructor Nancy Troupas. He had not been able to afford the 25 cents for saxophone lessons when he was young, but he was going to make sure that his kids didn’t miss the opportunity. (Eric Byrd has since established a music scholarship in his father’s name through the Community Foundation of Carroll County.)
After his first lesson, his teacher remarked that Byrd played as if he already knew what to do. Before long, Eric was performing simple pieces at church. He also learned to play violin, guitar, bass and drums and played in a high school rock band. “Life seemed charmed,” he said.
Unexpectedly, his only discord came from his relationship with his father. The elder Byrd never expected his son to spend so much time playing music. A man learned a skill to get a good job to put food on the table, that’s what a man did. When his father objected, it was hard to take. But jazz was an interest that they had in common. “I knew that he loved jazz so I was going to love jazz,” said Byrd.”And I was going to get into it if it killed me.”
After high school, Byrd enrolled as a journalism major at McDaniel College (then Western Maryland College), a school just close enough for a visit but just far enough away. Not long after he arrived on campus he teamed up with adjunct music instructor Steven “Bo” Eckard to jam with the college’s jazz band. The pair would sometimes play until dawn.
While watching the sun rise once again, Byrd and Eckard envisioned what would later become the jazz program at the college. (Eckard is now director of Jazz Studies at McDaniel College.)
Not surprisingly, Byrd changed his major to music, much to his father’s chagrin. At his 1993 graduation, he was awarded the first Class of 1938’s Excellence in Music Award and composed his own graduation song.
But, as his father had warned, job opportunities for a musician were scarce. At times, Byrd gigged with the Howard Burns Quartet. “If I earned $100,” he said, “I felt loaded. Sometimes I could only afford to eat once a day.” But he believes God looked after him. Despite his lack of experience or training in choral music, Byrd was hired as the choir director of the Union Street United Methodist Church.
Singers in this predominantly African-American choir sang from their hearts rather than hymnals. They didn’t know the song titles or what key they were in. It turned out that they expected Byrd to follow their lead and just play the right chords and flourishes to accompany the first hallelujah and the last amen. The work was exhausting but inspiring.
When McDaniel music department chair Margaret Boudreaux saw what Byrd was doing with the choir, she begged him to bring the gospel experience to academia. Inspired by a gospel choir performance at Baltimore City College High School, she said she “envisioned an interracial, inter-generational choir that was pure inspiration.”
“Because gospel music is mostly an oral tradition, it allows the singer to Ôown’ the music much more quickly,” Boudreaux explained. “It infuses an enormous sense of life into everything that a singer does. I knew that Eric had all the talents and the abilities to bring that vision to the college.”
A year later, and with the promise of a faculty parking pass, Boudreaux lured Byrd back to campus to lead a choir of 17, three of whom were also Union Street choir members. Today’s McDaniel College Gospel choir has 70 singers, a full band, draws hundreds to their performances and has recorded its own CD.
After two successful years with his blended troupe, Byrd decided it was time to do something “significant.” So at 26, he took his group all the way to the “City of Classical Music,” Vienna, Austria, for its annual Advent Sing. That Christmas, their joyous performance so impressed the Austrian ambassador, that he invited them to perform for a private reception. And if that was not magical enough for a movie plot, there among the singers and the snow, Byrd fell in love with choir member Leslie Huffer. Six months later he proposed and they married in August, 1999. The couple now make their home in Westminster. They have one child, Jason Miles Byrd.
By the time he married, Byrd was a solidly professional musician on his way up. In 2000, he sang at Carnegie Hall in a tribute to opera singer Marion Anderson. In 1999, he teamed with Bhagwan Khalsa, an accomplished bassist and musical arranger from Washington, D.C., to record a solo CD, The Fire Within (The Heart) on Foxhaven Records. In 2001, while Byrd was finishing up his masters in music, with an emphasis in African music, at Morgan State University, he and Khalsa joined with drummer Alphonso Young Jr. to form The Eric Byrd Trio.
Together they have released two CDs on the Foxhaven label: the selftitled The Eric Byrd Trio in April 2002 and their most recent effort, Triunity, which explores blues and gospel-inspired instrumental jazz, as well as African-influenced music. There are even two Ray Charles songs included as homage to Byrd’s inspiration. Their sound, as Khalsa describes it, “is a mix of traditional, old-school stuff and new soundsÉwe aren’t afraid to take a Beatles song in a new direction.”
That same year, The Eric Byrd Trio applied for and was granted the U.S. State Department/Kennedy Center Jazz Ambassadorship and began a tour throughout Latin American to spread the gospel of jazz to the world. (Even Byrd’s father was impressed.) The band was preparing for a show in Maniziales, Colombia when they learned of the terrorist attacks of September 11.
“I have never been so frightened in my life,” Byrd said, having never been separated from his loved ones during a time of crisis. “It was the greatest six weeks of my lifeÉwe played every day, but it was as if under a cloud.” The trip resulted in a book, A Life’s Journey in Six Weeks, as told to Al Betz of the Life Histories Center of Maryland.
These days, The Eric Byrd Trio performs Fridays at the Marriott Waterfront Hotel in Baltimore and Saturdays at Les Halles in Washington, D.C.. They tour festivals up and down the East Coast and another international tour is being planned. Byrd has appeared on recordings by the Ron Kearns Quintet and gospel singer Lea Gilmore. He continues to lead the McDaniel College Gospel Choir. And within a few weeks, Byrd will begin his third year of teaching the language of music to youngsters at the Gerstell Academy in Finksburg. “You can’t manufacture the enthusiasm of a child,” he said.
Like improvisation, it is not apparent which direction Byrd’s musical dialogue will take him next. Leading a gospel choir, traveling the world and teaching kids were never things he trained to do, but has done. Even more, he never expected his passion for music to bring peace and harmony to a once-dissonant relationship with his father, but it has. On the other hand, Eric Byrd has a vision.
“Where there is no vision, the people perish,” he said, quoting a favorite scripture. “ I have always had a vision for my lifeÉnot of specific detailsÉbut a vision of things differently from the way they were.”