The legendary trumpeter may have passed away in February, but his influence flows alive and well in Downing, who clearly remembers how Byrd’s appearance with his 125th Street band at a music class he took at Virginia Union University put him on the road to fulfilling a harmonious destiny.
“Back then, I was actually on the fence as to whether or not I wanted to do this for a living because it was real difficult. And they came and did a concert. He spoke, they did a concert that night and it changed my whole life,” Downing reminisced. “I was studying voice and bass, believe it or not. The bass player that was in his band was singing as well as playing bass. At that time they had a hit called…I think it was called “Love Has Come Around.” That was a big hit for them. I saw them and I said ‘Ok. [laughs] That’s what I want to do. I want to be like that guy right there.”
Byrd’s music wasn’t the only thing that swayed Downing. The jazz icon’s band was also provided the spark for the future producer to try a music career.
“I heard Donald Byrd and he spoke. I think he was teaching at North Carolina Central at the time. He spoke well. That was a big influence on me,” Downing said. “Those people in that band changed my life. The bass player whose name is Ronny Garrett and we became very, very good friends. And also a young lady who played in the band, I think her name is Myra Walker and Myra does gospel stuff now. And we became very good friends…Donald Byrd coming to my school and the band changed my whole life.”
Apparently Downing’s made the right decision as he gained a loyal following, Grammy nomination and 15 studio albums to his credit. The vocalist recently released his 16th album, “Silver,” independently on his own label.
Looking back, Downing is grateful for his success and longevity in an ever-changing industry. Especially when he had no idea he would be around as long as he has.
“I just think that certain things happen in every artists’ life that will take you or not take you to, you know, a particular place. And I’ve seen em come and go and I guess over the years, I’ve been very fortunate and I’ve made a couple of right decisions,” Downing stated as he recalled fighting “many a publicity person, many an A&R person, many a record company president to fight for what I believe musically was right.”
Now that he runs his own label, Downing is familiar with how the Internet has changed the buying habits of many listeners. In short, things have changed.
“These days you really don’t really have that much an option, to be brutally honest with you. You have about as much leverage, about as much power as any label out there. I mean that’s the joy and the pain of the Internet. You can go as far as you can endure but it’s painful. You’re competing against everything. You’re competing against everyone. You’re not just competing against companies. You’re competing against individuals,” he noted. “I think that the big picture is you can’t look at it the way we used to look at it…fortunately I came at a time and I’ve built up a career where I actually have folks that will come regardless whether or not I have a hit. They just have to know you’re still alive.”