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Facebook Beats the Obit Pages

The week that Donald Byrd, Ronald Dworkin, and David Hartman died.

A regular roundup of how the obituaries remembered the lives of the week's most prominent dearly departed.

Newspapers may be devoting more and more energy and resources to social media these days, but when it comes to the obituary pages, Facebook still doesn’t count—you’re not dead until someone official says you are.

Which is why the music world mourned jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd over the weekend, days before his obits appeared in print. Byrd, a hard bop pioneer who later “became both successful and controversial in the 1970s by blending jazz, funk and rhythm and blues into a pop hybrid that defied categorization,” as The New York Times put it, had died on Feb. 4 in Dover, Deleware, at 80. His nephew, jazz keyboardist Alex Bugnon, announced Byrd’s death on Facebook three days later. It wasn’t until Monday, though, that a funeral home outside Detroit, where Byrd had grown up, confirmed his death and the media let their appreciations loose.

Byrd was a towering figure in the 1950s jazz world, who “soon became one of the most in-demand trumpeters on the New York scene, playing with Max Roach, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk,” the Detroit News reports under the local-oriented headline, “Renowned jazz trumpeter a Cass grad,” referring to Byrd’s alma mater Cass Technical High School. “With a distinctive tone that balanced crisp intonation with a clean melodic line, he was in constant demand for record dates,” The Washington Post notes. “From his legacy as a proponent of hard-bop to his segue into jazz fusion and hip-hop, Byrd was highly regarded for his ability to transcend genres, which earned him the respect of artists from all musical circles,” says jazz magazine DownBeat, where critic (and political commentator) Nat Hentoff had declared Byrd “one of the most important jazz trumpet talents in the past few years” after his 1955 solo debut.

All the tributes note Byrd’s creativity and intellectual side; he founded the jazz studies program at Howard University in 1968, leading the university’s jazz band at a time when, as Washington City Paper (which I edit) notes, music students faced expulsion for deviating from classical in campus studio space. He would later teach in jazz programs at Hampton University, North Carolina Central University, Rutgers University, Cornell University, the University of Delaware, and Delaware State University. After graduating from Wayne State University, he picked up a master’s in music education from the Manhattan School of Music, went to law school at Columbia, and got an Ed.D. there.

By the late 1960s, Byrd was also pushing his music into new directions: He “began moving toward a more commercial sound with the funk-jazz fusion album Fancy Free in 1969, taking a path followed by fellow trumpeters Miles Davis and Freddie Hubbard,” the Associated Press reports. Jazz critics didn’t love the fusion sound, but Byrd shrugged them off: "I'm creative; I'm not re-creative,” he told the Detroit Free Press in a quote the AP uses. Instead of chastely returning to his hard bop roots, Byrd organized some of his Howard students into a funk band, the Blackbyrds (named in tribute to him), producing their albums, which yielded some top 20 R&B and pop hits. For some reason, The Washington Post obit notes three Blackbyrds songs, but skips past “Rock Creek Park,” which (as the Times does point out) became a D.C. anthem. All those fusion and funk songs would bring Byrd to the attention of yet another generation, as The New Republic says: “Byrd is the greatest American musician to become best known as a source of samples.” He’d go on to record with rapper Guru. Byrd was also named a jazz master in 2000 by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Requiem for a Mensch

Promoting pluralism amongst the truest believers of any religion isn’t easy. But Rabbi David Hartman, who died Sunday at 81,did just that, founding an organization in Jerusalem dedicated to “a unique philosophy which positioned man at the centre of Judaism, opening the door to a more tolerant approach that took personal choice and experience into greater account,” the Independent writes. The New York Times, in a dispatch datelined Jerusalem, says Hartman “promoted a liberal brand of Orthodoxy and created a study center that expressed his commitment to pluralism by bringing together leaders from all strains of Judaism,” noting that the Shalom Hartman Institute the rabbi founded and named for his father brings thousands of Jews to Israel every year, helped along by an $18 million budget and staff of 125. “Hartman’s progressive, universalistic approach was embraced more in the United States than in Israel, where some challenged his status as Orthodox and shunned his open-mindedness as heresy,” the Times notes. Hartman had lately “been highly critical of the growing influence of the ultra-Orthodox on public life” in his adopted country, where he moved in 1971, inspired by the Israeli victory in the 1967 Six Day War. “I don’t want the length of the sidelocks to be the determining factor,” the Times quotes Hartman telling Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharanot in 2010.

The Moral Constitution

One of the great legal scholars of our times, Ronald Dworkin, died Thursday in London, at 81, and within hours, a few obits had already appeared. The New York Times calls Dworkin a “public intellectual of bracingly liberal views who insisted that morality is the touchstone of constitutional interpretation,” and quotes Judge Guido Calabresi, a former Yale Law School dean, calling him “the primary legal philosopher of his generation.” The animating philosophy behind Dworkin’s philosophy? Liberalism. “He remained an unapologetic, indeed proud, liberal Democrat, unshaken in his loyalty to the New Deal tradition set by his hero Franklin D. Roosevelt, even as such ideas became less and less widely held,” says the Guardian. Philosophy is often mocked as the prototypical field you can’t make any money in, but the Guardian points out that Dworkin managed to have two homes, one a townhouse in London, the other “an unusual 19th-century mews cottage just off Washington Square in New York, as well as a third home, on the island of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, where he enjoyed sailing.” The Times notes Dworkin’s role in elevating New York University’s law school: In 1975, he turned down a job offer to teach at Harvard in favor of NYU, “whose law school was not then, as it is now, among the best in the nation,” helping to raise the New York school’s profile. 

All Death is Local

The Philadelphia Inquirer writes up Edith Grace Houghton, who died at 100, and “in the 1940s worked for the Phillies as the first female scout in the major leagues.” “In 1922, as a 10-year-old tomboy growing up in North Philadelphia, Ms. Houghton spent her days playing baseball at 25th and Diamond Streets. She was known as ‘the Kid’ for her skills on the diamond. That year, she tried out for the Philadelphia Bobbies, a new professional women's team, named for the popular ‘bob’ hairstyle of the 1920s.”

The Los Angeles Times goes long on Manuel Rojas, whose El Tepeyac Cafe “gained legendary status for the gargantuan, chili-spiked pork burritos” even “in a city of thousands of humble taco stands and family-run Mexican restaurants.”

The Miami Herald runs an appreciation of Carole Taran, 72, “a British-born vocalist who became a glamorous fixture in the lounges of South Florida’s beachfront hotels in the 1960s and 1970s” and sang the national anthem “in front of 76,000 football fans at the old Joe Robbie Stadium during the Miami Dolphins’ undefeated 1972 season.”

Quote of the Week

“Technically speaking, he had a devastating forehand attack.” — Judit Farago, chief executive of the International Table Tennis Federation, on Zhuang Zedong, who died Sunday in Beijing at 72. Zhuang was the perhaps serendipitous inventor of “ping pong diplomacy,” helping to open relations between China and the U.S. by defying instructions not to speak to westerners and welcoming American table tennis player Glenn Cowan when Cowan accidentally boarded the Chinese team’s bus at the 1971 world ping pong championships in Nagoya, Japan. He was the three-time world champion at the time. Thanks to close ties with Mao Zedong’s wife Jiang Qing, Zhuang wound up China’s minister of sport in the mid-1970s, but spent a combined eight years under house arrest and in internal exile after Mao died.