Charlie Byrd; Jazz Guitarist Helped Boost Bossa Nova

From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Charlie Byrd, the classically trained jazz guitar virtuoso who helped introduce bossa nova music to the United States, died of cancer Tuesday at his home in Annapolis, Md. He was 74.

Comfortable with a wide range of music, Byrd recorded more than 100 albums in a career that lasted five decades. Critics praised him for his versatility, his quiet virtuosity and delicate, precise lyricism. One critic called his music “polite jazz.”

His records included the million-seller “Jazz Samba” in 1962, made with saxophonist Stan Getz and bassist Keter Betts, and the Grammy-nominated “Brazilian Soul” in 1981. His final recording, a still-untitled tribute to Louis Armstrong, is scheduled for release in January by Concord Records.

Starting in 1958 and continuing through the 1980s, Byrd made several international trips as a goodwill ambassador for the State Department, originally as a replacement for pianist Dave Brubeck.


After a tour of Brazil and exposure to its burgeoning bossa nova style of jazz, Byrd worked with Getz to help make the sound widely popular here. To many collectors, their record, “Jazz Samba,” remains one of the most rewarding albums of its era.

“The thing that really made it was . . . the warmness and freshness of it with Stan Getz,” said bassist Betts, who played with Byrd from 1957 to 1964. To Americans, “it was a whole new thing.”

An articulate, thoughtful man, Byrd also could be candid about the hard road that a musician faces.

In an interview earlier this year with The Washingtonian magazine, Byrd was asked what it took for a musician to survive. He answered that one needs to discard “the illusion that there’s a place waiting for you in the industry, some niche to fill.”

“Music’s not like becoming a doctor, who can walk into a community and find people who need him. A musician has to find a way to make his music mean something special--spiritually or however you can. And a musician has to learn to be frugal and to carefully manage financial affairs.”

More importantly, he added, “A person should design the way he makes a living around how he wishes to make a life.”

Asked why he chose the guitar, he responded: “The guitar chose me. I played other instruments at times, but none of them suited me like the guitar. It’s something done with the hands, and I’m oriented that way. If I weren’t a guitarist, I’d be an artisan or cabinetmaker or sculptor.”

Music infiltrated every part of his life, including his love of the water. He named his cabin cruiser “B Minor 7 Flat 5,” which his sister-in-law, Elana Byrd, said was “a tricky guitar chord he liked.”

He later changed the boat’s name to “I’m Hip.”

Charlie Lee Byrd was born in Suffolk, Va., and grew up in the Tidewater community of Chuckatuck. He learned guitar as a child from his mandolinist father, who ran a general store where musicians gathered. As a youngster, Byrd played on radio shows in a family band, which included his brother on bass.

During World War II, he served in the Army in Europe, first as an infantryman and then in the Special Services division entertaining troops. He also met the gifted Belgian guitarist Django Reinhardt, an encounter Byrd partly credited for his career choice.

Byrd attended Harnett National Music School in New York and spent the next decade playing with jazz musicians Joe Marsala and Freddie Slack as well as classical guitarists Sophocles Papas and Andres Segovia.

His first record was “Jazz Recital” in 1957, and a succession of others followed, including a collection of 16th century compositions called “Classical Byrd” in 1958 and 1960. His widest fame came with the Getz album in 1962.

Byrd also wrote scores for the films “Dead to the World” in 1961 and “Bleep” in 1970, as well as music for stage productions in the 1970s. Among those were “The Conversation of Patrolman O’Connor,” produced on Broadway, and a production of Tennessee Williams’ “The Purification” at Arena Stage.

Despite his broad musical tastes, in recent years he revisited jazz standards. And although he once said his playing was “pretty much the Segovia technique,” he disliked fusing music styles, such as jazz and classical.

“It’s a wedding that loses the best of both,” he said. “It destroys the fire of jazz, which should be hotblooded and swing hard, and it makes inferior classical music.”

Survivors include his wife of one year, Rebecca Byrd of Annapolis; a daughter from his first marriage, Carol M. Rose of Charlotte, N.C.; a daughter from his second marriage, Charlotte E. Byrd of Santa Cruz, Calif.; two brothers, Jack R. Byrd of Suffolk, Va., and Gene H. “Joe” Byrd of Edgewater, Md., and a granddaughter.