Charlie Byrd was born in 1925 just outside of Suffolk, Virginia. His father was a guitarist, and began teaching his son the fundamentals of guitar when he was seven. The rest of the Byrd family was also musical—Charlie’s two brothers also worked with his groups. He continued playing in high school, and according to Guitar Player magazine editor Jim Crockett, “added trumpet so he could get into football games free.”
After graduation, Byrd enrolled in the business school of Virginia Polytechnic Institute, but two years later gave it up to work in dance bands. Then, when he joined the Army, it was as a guitarist with the Special Forces unit. Toward the end of World War II, the band toured Europe. There Charlie got his first taste of modern jazz. In Paris he even had a chance to meet and play with Django Reinhardt, the great French gypsy guitarist.
Back home in 1947, Byrd began to develop a fascination with the classical guitar. “Classical music,” he said, “encompasses just about everything that can be done on the guitar. And the instrument has all kinds of color within itself, so you can play its colors against each other to a much higher degree than you can the regular guitar. Besides that, I like the sound.”
Three years later, he moved to Washington, D.C. in order to study classical guitar with the great Sophocles Papas. By 1954 he had progressed enough to travel to Siena, , where he spent an entire summer studying with Andrés Segovia, whom Byrd described as “the greatest guitarist ever on the face of the earth.”
In 1957, Charlie Byrd began an engagement which was most important to his career, for it brought his music to millions of people throughout the world. He began a long-term stay at the Showboat, a Washington, D.C. club; the broadcasts of those evenings were carried by the Mutual Radio Network, and Byrd’s fame was assured. And, quite naturally, the variety of work he was asked to do increased noticeably. He scored films for VISTA and the Department of Agriculture, and scored the Tennessee Williams play, The Purification.
In 1959 Byrd was asked to join Woody Herman’s big band, and he spent some time playing throughout Europe and the Middle East. Two years later, President John Kennedy sent Byrd on a State Department tour of Latin America, a move that can be said to have influenced the direction of American popular music. It was while in Latin America that Charlie Byrd became fascinated with Brazilian rhythms, and began to combine elements of that music with the music he had been developing for years.
Upon returning to the States in February 1962, Charlie Byrd recorded an album with Stan Getz in a church in Washington, D.C. It was called Jazz Samba and it was the first bossa nova record in this country. It hit immediately, and the bossa nova rage was on. Byrd admitted: “I didn’t invent the bossa nova. I was just lucky enough to be involved in the first successful recording of it.”
Byrd’s fame spread like wildfire, and he was featured on many TV shows, won several Down Beat and Playboy polls, and recorded extensively in the classical, jazz, and bossa nova fields.
Byrd combined the best of guitar music—classical, jazz, and Latin. As Leonard Feather stated: “Byrd developed into possibly the most versatile guitarist ever to play jazz.”
Charlie Byrd died December 2, 1999.