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Allan Barnes, legendary Detroit jazz artist, dies at 66

The saxophonist was a founding member of The Blackbyrds and was beloved by Detroit's next generation of artists.

Allan Barnes, a jazz multi-instrumentalist who was a founding member of The Blackbyrds, went on to front his own band and enjoyed a late-career resurgence fueled by Detroit indie hip-hop’s scene, has died, according to comments on the musician's Facebook page. He was 66.

Barnes was born in Detroit and enlisted in the Army, attending the U.S. Naval School of Music. He found his way to Washington D.C., answering a requst from fellow Detroiter Donald Byrd, who was scouring Howard University's music department to form a band. Joining five other musicians, Barnes and his new Howard cohorts became The Blackbyrds under Byrd’s tutelage, where they scored crossover hits like “Walking in Rhythm,” “Happy Music” and “Rock Creek Park.”

Though primarily known as a saxophonist, Barnes played many reed and woodwind instruments, including playing the flute solo on “Walking in Rhythm.” In its prime, The Blackbyrds released seven albums between 1974 and 1980.

Barnes forged on after The Blackbyrds stopped recording, going on to form his own band, Allan Barnes and Primetime. He had a cameo in the 1988 film “Bird,” a biography of Charlie “Bird” Parker starring Forest Whitaker. Barnes created and hosted “Jazzland,” a five-episode jazz documentary airing on Michigan PBS affiliates, and remained active in Detroit jazz scenes, playing regularly at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge and Bert’s Marketplace. He also wrote music for commercials, scoring tunes for ads with Larry King, Brenda Sykes, Sugar Ray Leonard, Leslie Nielsen and Muhammad Ali.

While having played with or collaborated with a number of who’s-whos, including Prince, Gil Scott-Heron, Nina Simone, Robert Guillaume, Mary Wilson, Martha Reeves, Regina Carter, Wilson Pickett and several others, a new generation of hip-hop pioneers introduced Barnes to young listeners. The hip-hop collective Detroit CYDI and funk-hip-hop band Gorilla Funk Mob were among his later collaborators, and the saxophonist also was tapped to play over several J. Dilla beats for other projects.

A cause of death was not immediately known.

UPDATE: The family of Barnes has created a GoFundMe to cover memorial expenses. Find out more here.

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