Chuckatuck jazz great dies

Published 9:41 pm Wednesday, March 7, 2012

A Chuckatuck native and beloved jazz musician died Tuesday in an auto accident in Maryland.

Gene Herbert “Joe” Byrd, who often played with his brother, Charlie Byrd, was 78 years old.

“He led a miraculous life,” his wife, Elana Byrd, said on Tuesday. “He was an outstanding musician. He traveled the world in 125 countries, places that most people don’t go. He loved people.”

Joe Byrd, a Chuckatuck native who played guitar with his brother Charlie, died in a car accident in Maryland on Tuesday.

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The four Byrd brothers grew up in Chuckatuck. Joe, the youngest, started playing guitar when he was about 9, instructed by his father and older brother Charlie, who died in 1999.

He graduated from Chuckatuck High School, served in the U.S. Army and graduated from the Peabody Conservatory of Music with a degree in music and teaching.

Charlie and Joe played together for more than 40 years. They were goodwill ambassadors for the State Department and had performed at the White House for three presidents.

Elana Byrd recalled one of the State Department tours when she accompanied her husband. It was a 10-week, 10-country journey in Asia.

“We would play for the masses one night,” Elana Byrd said. “The next night might be an ambassador’s private party for dignitaries. Sometimes we would go into school and university settings.”

Other State Department tours would go off the beaten path in Africa, setting up in tents and hauling loudspeakers and generators where there was no electricity.

At the height of the brothers’ careers, they were on the road 40 weeks out of the year, Byrd said. Her husband enjoyed the scenery, as he was an avid photographer. He also enjoyed reading and always read up on the history of where he was going, she said.

“He loved people,” she said. “He’s going to be missed by a lot of people. He had so many friends around the world.”

Joe retired from music when he turned 75. Playing the bass guitar is a lot of work because it is such a heavy instrument, she said.

“It just ends up being a huge hauling job in addition to mastering and playing the piano,” she said. “He gave that up in favor of playing the piano at home, which he loved doing. Friends would come and play with him. I’m going to miss that terribly.”

In addition to playing with his brother, both as part of the Charlie Byrd Trio and informally, he also played with the Great Guitars, which Charlie also was a part of, and also with artists such as Jimmy Witherspoon, Mose Allison and Coleman Hawkins.

He also created his own regional group, the Joe Byrd Trio, which was house band for three hotels in Annapolis and Washington, D.C., for several years.

Despite all the traveling, Byrd said, her husband still loved Chuckatuck.

“Chuckatuck and small-town living was his idea of a good time,” she said.

His brother Jack Byrd still lives in Suffolk.

A celebration of life memorial will be held in Annapolis on March 24 at 1 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Church.

At a later date yet to be determined, his ashes will be brought to Chuckatuck to Oakland Christian Church to be memorialized there.