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Jazz Band Born at Howard Celebrates 50th Anniversary at the Howard Theatre

The Blackbyrds, a jazz band formed at Howard University in 1973, celebrated their 50th anniversary with a performance at Howard Theatre.

The Blackbyrds opening performance at the Howard Theatre. From left to right: Roberto Villeda, Marshall Keys, Thad Wilson, Charles Wright, Keith Killgo, Paul Spires, Joe Hall, Sean Anthony. (Keith Golden Jr./The Hilltop)

On a night when temperatures dipped to 19 degrees, a crowd made up of couples out on a date night, class reunions, D.C. natives, and jazzheads huddled into the Howard Theatre. They were there for a night of jazz and funk, courtesy of The Blackbyrds.

After 50 years, The Blackbyrds were back. The group concluded their anniversary tour on Jan. 20 with an electric performance at the Howard Theatre. 

The funk-jazz band was formed at Howard University in 1973 by legendary jazz trumpeter and former Howard faculty member Donald Byrd. 

The group is known for their hit records like “Walking In Rhythm,” “Mysterious Vibes,” and “Rock Creek Park,” an upbeat tribute to D.C.’s historic national park that peaked at #37 on Billboard’s R&B chart. 

Keith Killgo, one of the founding members and drummer and vocalist, penned many of their hits. Although a D.C. native, he came to Howard University in 1973 to major in jazz studies at Byrd’s urging. Before the band’s creation, jazz was a controversial subject at Howard University.

“When I got to Howard, they were still fighting with this classical thing versus contemporary music and jazz,” Killgo recalled. “At one point, you couldn’t practice jazz in the practice rooms. It was all crazy. We definitely did not agree with it,” he said.

That all changed after Howard’s historic 1968 student protests when over 2,000 students held a sit-in at the Administration Building and demanded that the university’s curriculum offer more Afrocentric courses. 

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The protests resulted in the creation of the Department of African Studies and the creation of the Jazz Department in 1970. Howard became the first historically black institution to offer a Bachelor’s in Jazz Studies. 

Although the University developed the program with the guidance of Donald Byrd, Killgo says there was still a negative connotation against the jazz genre.

“For instance, when I did my undergraduate recitals, they wanted me to play Grieg, Haydn, and Handel. And I wanted to play Bobby Hutchinson and Milt Jackson…I get it, the classical music, understanding the notes and the intonation, but it just seemed like we have so much to offer musically from Coltrane and Charlie,” he continued. “That’s today, and just as important as Bach and Mozart.” 

Byrd started working at Howard University in 1968 as a jazz studies professor. He was a major part of the push for legitimate jazz education and even resigned at one point. 

“I think Donald Byrd, when he got there, kind of disrupted this whole concept. Donald really didn’t care about any of that, which really made them mad at him, as he could care less.” Killgo said. 

The trumpeter wanted students to be able to experience the music industry. Despite Byrd going against cultural norms, he did not go against the academic expectations of the group. 

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“Byrd made us [know] that we were students always. We had homework on the road. We had to write up solos. We had to do some work. We couldn’t just be there,” Killgo said.

After signing a deal with Fantasy Records in 1973, the band traveled and recorded their albums and served as a backing band for artists like Roberta Flack (Killgo’s piano teacher at Howard), Gladys Knight and the Pips, Herbie Hancock, Richard Pryor, and Sister Sledge. 

“It was challenging. I mean, say we’d leave out on a Thursday, fly to LA, play someplace in California, fly back Monday morning, and I’d be sitting in class like brains fried. [My teacher] Miss Hopson would be like, ‘Mr. Killgo, to the board,” Killgo said.  

Their first two albums reached the top 20 of Billboard’s R&B chart. “Walking In Rhythm” from their second album, Flying Start, received a Grammy nomination and hit number 6 on the Billboard’s Hot 100. Three of their albums have become Gold records, selling over 500,000 copies.

Founding member and Blackbyrd drummer Keith Killgo performing for the 50th-anniversary tour. (Keith Golden Jr./The Hilltop)

The group has been sampled over 300 times by artists like 2Pac, Nas, MF Doom, and Wiz Khalifa. “Mysterious Vibes” was recently featured in Netflix’s “They Cloned Tyrone.” “Rock Creek Park” appears in the video game, “GTA: San Andreas,” and on the fictional radio station, Master Sounds 98.3. These placements have solidified and continued the Blackbyrds’ legacy.

Griffin Beronio is a D.C. native attending the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He learned of the group via Spotify. 

“Rock Creek Park was suggested to me because of other music that I had listened to. They determined that I would be into that. And they were right. Then I realized they were from D.C. I was like, oh, no way. There’s all this history attached to them. And the rest of their discography is amazing,” he said.

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The Jan. 20 show celebrated all things Blackbyrds. It marked the band’s first time playing at the Howard Theatre. Donald Byrd Ⅲ, Donald Byrd’s son, introduced the band. 

“They are one of the pioneers of this thing that we call contemporary music,” Byrd Ⅲ said. “Donald and the Blackbyrds, they put together jazz and R&B. So they’re the ones that made you dance, they made you sing. If you didn’t know that, you now know it,” he said. 

A seven-piece band that included original members Killgo and Joe Hall and one of Killgo’s former students entertained a diverse crowd. “Rock Creek Park” brought the crowd to their feet and turned the concert into an all-out dance party. 

Joe Webster, a graduate from Howard in 1976, is a longtime fan of the group. “I heard about the Blackbyrds being here, and of course, my memory went back to the early 70s, early mid-70s when they were really hot. I happen to love ‘Rock Creek Park’ anyway, and of course, love that song and love some of their music.”

Beronio emphasized the band’s impact and influence on many generations. 

“In my opinion, they’re one of the best bands from D. C. of all time. I mean, their music is just incredible,” he said. “And as you can see here, it’s kind of spanning different generations already. I was really excited to get this opportunity to come out and bring my [younger] brother and some of his friends out here, too.”

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Killgo says that now that the band’s vast discography of music has matured, performing is fun. 

“Even though the Blackbyrds are not, you know, on the top– I don’t care about that piece. I like the fact that here we are, still alive. Still, with our facilities, able to play, able to perform, able to travel, able to enjoy all the hard work we put in. The song is never written, so to speak. I feel blessed to have this opportunity,” Killgo said. 

In the words of Killgo during his speech on stage: “The Blackbyrds have come home.”

Copy edited by Alana Matthew


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