Q&A: Farnell Newton

Farnell Newton photo by Sharon Thomas

Trumpeter Farnell Newton speaks with Artistic Director Don Lucoff on the legacy of Dr. Donald Byrd as part of this year’s Blue Note @ 80 celebration.

Q: Donald Byrd has been a major influence on so many musicians of different generations. When do you first recall hearing him?

A: I first heard Donald Byrd on Guru’s Jazzmatazz, Vol. 1 in 1993 right after I started learning jazz in Philadelphia at the University of Arts Summer Program with trumpeter Rick Kerber. Jazzmatazz was one of the first albums to combine a live jazz band with hip hop production and rapping.

Q: Have you had the chance to interact with him?

A: Yes, I’ve hung out with Donald Byrd a couple of times in the past while as a student at Oberlin Conservatory of Music and had some great discussions on life, music, trumpet and more with him and my former mentor Marcus Belgrave.

Q:  Talk about Dr. Donald Byrd’s influence as an educator.

A: I didn’t know much about Dr. Donald Byrd as an educator until I found out every few years he would come to Oberlin and teach for Dr. Wendell Logan (Director of the Jazz Studies department) while he was on Sabbatical. Then I started to hear more about his connection with Howard University and his mentoring of many musicians around the country. I believe this is the reason why Dr. Byrd stayed relevant for all of those decades he did as a musician because of his love of teaching and connecting with the younger generation.

Q: Why have so many musicians, producers, DJs, among others particularly gravitated to the musical period that you are going to highlight?

A: Records like Black Byrd and Stepping Into Tomorrow has attracted so much attention from musicians, producers, DJs and more in many ways because of the production of the Mizell Brothers (Larry and Fonce). In fact the Mizell Brothers were producing records for the Jackson 5 and many other soul artists of the time right before they started working with Donald Byrd. Their production took Donald Byrd’s music to a whole different level by combining the various forms of black music of jazz, funk, soul, and R&B into a soundscape that reflected what was happening in the inner cities of the ’70s. The ’70s soul & jazz music was very important to the creation of hip hop in the late ’70s in NYC and abroad and Donald Byrd has been sampled by hip hop icons A Tribe Called Quest, Nas, Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, The Pharcyde, Lisa Lisa 7 Cult Jam, Erykah Badu, and many other greats.

Q: Black Byrd was a huge radio record with massive crossover success during an interesting time when Head Hunters, Return to Forever and Weather Report were emerging as well. I know you were not even born yet but what has been your major takeaway from that album and musical period? 

A: Black Byrd featured a creme de la creme of musicians from the jazz, r&b and soul world with members like Joe Sample and Wilton Felder of the Jazz Crusaders, percussionist Bobbye Hall Porter (Pink Floyd, The Doobie Brothers Bill Withers, Carol King). The rhythm section featured Chuck Rainey (best-known for his playing on Aretha Franklin’s Young, Gifted, and Black, plus all of Steely Dan’s best records) and drummer Harvey Mason (Headhunters, Brecker Brothers). With the production being laid by the Mizell Brothers and the jazz essence sprinkled on top by Donald Byrd you had a recording that all people could easily relate to, dance to, ride to in comparison to the other popular artists at the time like Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, Aretha Franklin and more.

I try to do the same thing with my various bands merging the popular music of rock with my guitarist Agyei Ptah Hotep Marshall, gospel with my drummer Tyrone Hendrix and Bassist Marquay Seamster, funk with my trombonist Kyle Molitor, soul and blues with my singer Arietta Ward, and jazz together in a package where all people no matter their musical background can relate to and enjoy my music. None of this would be possible without the foundation that artists like Donald Byrd have laid many years ago by blending black music into the commercial music industry and Blue Note Records was on the forefront of that movement.