Legendary jazz musician Dr. Donald Byrd appeared before a Cornell audience with the Cornell University Jazz Ensembles last weekend at the 10th annual Jazz Festival — perhaps for the last time.
Byrd has spent the past year as the guest director of the jazz band, replacing Prof. Karlton Hester who recommended Byrd for the one-year post while Hester taught at the University of California-Santa Cruz.
During his lifetime, Byrd has played and recorded “with the greatest jazz musicians of the last half century,” such as Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk.
The festival kicked off on Thursday night with a lecture by Byrd in the Ujamaa Residential College. Byrd spoke about several of the jazz programs he has created at universities around the country.
On Saturday evening in Bailey Hall, the jazz ensembles and guest musicians, including Jimmy Heath on saxophone, performed the final concert of the Jazz Festival. Unexpectedly, before the student ensembles finished their performance Byrd took the stage and began to address the audience.
“Dr. Byrd said, [on Saturday night], that he had been fired, even though he had only signed a one year contract to replace Karlton Hester during his sabbatical,” said jazz band treasurer Phil Guerci ’01.
When Hester announced his decision to remain at Santa Cruz and submitted his resignation to the Cornell music department, the students began to discuss who would fill the director position for next year. Byrd was angered when he learned the students had begun discussions about next year’s director without consulting him.
“The students got it plotted for me to not come back,” Byrd said. “They’re planning for someone else to come in and take over who knows nothing.”
Mark Davis Scatterday, chair of the music department and the jazz ensemble students said that Byrd’s speech on Saturday evening was the result of a misunderstanding due to a lack of communication. They also attributed the confusion to Byrd’s inaccessibility as a commuting professor.
Byrd would travel once a week to Cornell from his home in Delaware to direct the jazz ensembles, and he noted the difficulty involved with the arrangement himself.
“For the ensemble directing position, we need someone local who can put more time into being the director, and we thought he didn’t want to come back. There was a gross misunderstanding and what [Dr. Byrd] said to the audience was part of that misunderstanding,” said jazz band President Jennifer Park ’01.
Several jazz band members added that Byrd expressed to them that he was not interested in maintaining his position for another year.
“[Dr. Byrd] could be very difficult to communicate with,” said Emily Read ’01, jazz band vice president. “He made it clear that he wasn’t happy and he was not here often so he wasn’t around during our meetings.”
Byrd said that his position at Cornell has often been dissatisfying.
“There is no respect for jazz [at Cornell],” he said. “[The experience] has been positive because now I see how the upper class works.”
Many of the students in the jazz band were upset by Byrd’s speech during Saturday night’s performance and disappointed that they were unable to finish their show.
“Many people will replace their respect for [Byrd] with a resentment that he ‘ruined’ their concert, despite the fact that the Big Band played some of their best ever. The audience members on Saturday night were put in a very uncomfortable position by his speeches, and may unfortunately decide not to attend future jazz concerts because of it,” jazz band secretary Andrew Marcus ’03 said.
Next year’s jazz band director has yet to be determined but, following a meeting yesterday, Scatterday said that Byrd, the students and the music department have come to an agreement.
“I think that some unfortunate misunderstandings took place this weekend between the students and Dr. Byrd,” Scatterday said. “We believe that these issues have been resolved and the program is moving in a positive direction.”
If Byrd does not return to Cornell next year, he plans to perform on the road, possibly full time, and continue work on a project combining mathematics and music in jazz education. He expressed hope that the jazz program he began at Cornell will continue to grow in his absence.
“Dr. Byrd has brought a lot to the jazz program this year and we really appreciate his enthusiasm,” Park said. He was very helpful and willing to do anything we asked and he inspired a lot of people.”
Regardless of any problems, many members of the jazz band felt that, overall, the festival was a success.
“Despite what happened, all the confusion and politics, both concerts were great and I learned a lot from the experience,” Park said.
The festival also included a concert on Friday night in Barnes Hall. The show featured performances by several of the jazz ensembles and famous guest jazz musicians Joe Chambers, drums, Erick Reed, piano, Ira Coleman, bass and Darren Barrett, trumpet.
“[Friday night’s concert] was a great performance. The students and the professional musicians all played very well,” Scatterday said.
On Saturday afternoon, Byrd and the guest musicians, with the addition of legendary jazz musician Jimmy Heath, saxophone, spoke in Barnes Hall.
Each of the guest musicians addressed the audience, speaking mainly about the importance of jazz education today and the influence that it has had in each of their lives.
“Jazz is a living thing that incorporates all kinds of styles. That is the beauty of it,” Coleman said. “To make a better society, we need to make room for the arts and human expression.”
Archived article by Lauren Haber