In one form or the other, Keith Killgo has been immersed in music his whole life. First, as the son of a professional musician growing up in the nation’s capital, then later as an original member of the DC-based Blackbyrds and now, in conjunction with being the bandleader, as a music teacher in the school system.
Formative Years Filled with “Happy Music”
“I knew that my life would revolve around music as a young boy. I watched my father play with other musicians and wanted to do just that,” said Killgo. “I never had any thoughts of doing anything else like being an astronaut or fireman.”
Killgo was mesmerized by his father, Harry Killgo, who played piano, practiced at their Barry Farms home and performed on the road. The elder Killgo was a drummer and a member of the J.F.K. Quintet produced by acclaimed jazz artist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley in 1960. The group got its name in honor of the then-newly elected President John F. Kennedy and his ambition to change the status quo of African Americans and increase investment in the arts.
The sounds he heard inspired the young Killgo—a combination of bebop and a free, nontraditional version of jazz that was aptly dubbed “the New Thing.” That sound in the mid-1960s catapulted jazz and the music scene to the next level and offered audiences an innovative music experience.
“I’ve been around many great artists and musicians who would come to the house regularly. They became like family. I’d listen intently and watch them practice…people like Shirley Berkeley (a fourth-generation Washingtonian who later became the Minister of Music emeritus at the First Baptist Church of Glenarden) and James Cleveland (the music icon and composer who was known as the King of Gospel).”
While accompanying his father at appearances, Killgo witnessed a Who’s Who in the jazz genre including the likes of Freddie Waits, Ben Riley, and Miles Davis. Sometimes these jazz experts would allow the young Killgo to sit and play with them.
With Donald Byrd at the ‘Mecca’
Another one of the elder Killgo’s friends was renowned jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd. The influential and incredibly talented Byrd had the distinction of performing with John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, and later Herbie Hancock. He stayed at the Killgo home whenever he was in the nation’s capital. That was where the foundation began for the teacher-student and mentor-protégé relationship with the younger Killgo.
That relationship was strengthened when Killgo transferred to Howard University in his junior year. Byrd was the head of the university’s Institute of Jazz Studies, and it was here that Byrd conceptualized the Blackbyrds.
The Blackbyrds—Allan Barnes (flutist), Joe Hall (bassist), Pericles “Perk” Jacobs, Jr. (percussionist), Killgo (vocalist and drummer), Barney Perry (guitarist), and Kevin Toney (keyboardist)—were all Howard University students. Notable member Orville Saunders (guitarist), along with Steve Johnson (saxophonist and flutist) and Jay Jones (flutist and saxophonist), joined a little later. They elegantly fused jazz with soul sprinkled with just a touch of disco. They epitomized a new funky sound nationally and made an indelible mark on the local scene. The year was 1973.
The students, now recognized as (Donald Byrd and) the Blackbyrds, left the cozy confines of the campus and signed with Fantasy Records, recorded their debut album, and began touring globally. The album was simply entitled, The Blackbyrds. They were in full flight with eight tracks on the album, including the popular “Do It, Fluid.”
“That first album was recorded at Fantasy Studio in California after we had conceived the band’s name in the backseat of a car,” Killgo, 68, vividly recalled.
The “Flying Start” was their second release and featured the Grammy-nominated song, “Walking in Rhythm” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5y3CBI260Z8) which sold more than a million copies and was dubbed a gold record.
Arguably the Blackbyrds most popular album was their third studio album entitled “City Life.” The singles “Flying High,” “Happy Music,” and “Rock Creek Park”—the unofficial Washington, DC anthem about the park created by an Act of Congress that stretches across the Northwest quadrant of the city—were featured on it.
The chorus of the catchy song (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2wn167MG-x8) with the few lyrics, “doing it in the park/ doing it after dark/ oh, yeah/ Rock Creek Park” is sung at cookouts, barbecues, festivities, and other outdoor events throughout the city.
“I would have to say that Soft and Easy is my favorite song out of all the Blackbyrds compositions,” Killgo admitted. “It is a ballad but then it is really not. I love Mysterious Vibes too.”
Time Is Moving On
During the peak of the Blackbyrds’ success, the group recorded seven studio albums and appeared on the soundtrack of the movie, “Cornbread, Earl & Me” that starred a young Laurence Fishbourne, along with Bernie Casey, Rosalind Cash, and Moses Gunn.
“One of our biggest memorable events at that time was when we played at the Belle Isle, outside of Detroit. We played with one of the first black orchestras in the country. That was special.”
The group disbanded around the early 1980s. Byrd had stopped producing after the “City Life” album and moved on to other projects. Some members were engaged in a battle with the record company about royalty rights and money they felt they were due.
“The most difficult time that I remember was when I was working in Philly at the Bijou and having to take the train back and forth to New York to fight in court about our royalties. I was on the stand for two days,” Killgo laments. “We finally ended up making a deal.”
What We Have Is Right
The Blackbyrds are preparing for their 50th anniversary celebration in 2023 with a world tour that will span into 2024. Killgo re-established the group in 2012 with new members that currently include vocalist Paul “Jus Paul” Spires, trumpeter Thad Wilson, saxophonist and reeds player Marshall Keys, keyboardist Harold Barney, percussionist Sean Anthony, guitarist Charles Wright, trombonist and keyboardist Tom O’Grady while keeping mainstay Joe Hall on bass.
Killgo learned a lot from his longtime and later mentor—Byrd. Part of the lessons learnt was to share his vast knowledge with the next generation as a music teacher first at Anacostia Senior High School and now at Friendship Charter School Tech Prep Campus that is located off Martin Luther King, Jr. Ave, SE. He serves as chair of the Fine Arts Department. Killgo started teaching in 1989 and remains resolute although the system sometimes frustrates him.
“They (the school system) never made the arts a priority. They are chasing these test scores. It is all by design. Music has never been seen as a career. They spend money on basketball and football,” he said.
In 2014 Killgo founded his nonprofit organization called Artz 4 Kidz that brings his STEM-centric approach to enlighten students interested in music education. He uses techniques and references to demystify the often-illusive music industry giving former students a direct path to become viable players in the business.
“I like soul music better than any other genre because soul is fusion. It is literally live music. It is getting somebody’s soul through instrumentation,” said Jus Paul, 33, the youngest member of the Blackbyrds and Killgo’s protégé—just like Byrd was to Killgo. Everything has come full circle.
“I was a senior at Anacostia when I met Mr. Killgo. I was skipping my painting class to sneak into his class. One day he gave me a CD and told me to write music to it and if he liked it, I could record the song. That song turned out to be ‘I Need Your Loving’ and it became the first single on the (2012 Blackbyrds’) album ‘Gotta Fly’,” said Paul.
Besides Jus Paul, Killgo has helped cultivate students into fine musicians and upstanding citizens like vocalist Tailaha Bell, a North Carolina State student, and Jerrell King, a trombonist at Yale University. Jameal Humphries is another student, living in southeast, that has benefitted from his tutelage.
Killgo will always be associated and remembered for being part of the Blackbyrds and rightfully so. But his greatest legacy may be the impact Killgo has as a DCPS educator and honing the skills of hundreds of students. He sees each student’s gifts and challenges and meets them exactly where they are, empowering them to see themselves in the brightest light.