By Brenda C. Siler
Two music industry veterans have done it all in their careers. As musicians, composers, producers, band leaders and educators, drummer/vocalist Keith Killgo and saxophonist/flutist Davey Yarborough remain committed to teaching students who seek to develop their musical skills.
Both men attended D.C. Public Schools (DCPS), graduating together from Calvin Coolidge High School in Northwest. Each has spent decades teaching in DCPS during which they have incorporated their experiences from college, playing gigs on the road and recording into their lessons.
In this feature, the first in a two-part series, we take a look at Killgo’s impressive career.
On the Road with Keith Killgo
At Friendship Tech Prep Academy in Southeast, Killgo serves as the head of the Fine Arts Department. His innovative approach to teaching approach recently garnered him the distinction as “Teacher of the Year” at his D.C. Public Charter School.
We found him working with students in his classroom as they dissected the theme from “Phantom of the Opera” during which they shared their views about the soundtrack’s mood in a robust, musical exercise. Killgo then challenged them with an impromptu singing encounter. While Killgo played the music for the song, “Everything Must Change,” on the piano, Talaian Ball, a senior who lives in Ward 8, delivered a vocal interpretation.
While steeped in jazz, Killgo, an original member of the chart-topping group The Blackbyrds, exposes his students to a variety of musical genres. He emphasizes learning as much as possible about all kinds of music, often moving the classroom beyond the four walls into concert halls located throughout the District.
“You can make a living in music but it can’t just be playing,” he said. “You have to combine it with education.”
Killgo’s father, Harry Killgo, served as a pianist who recorded albums in the 1960s with the JFK Quintet – a group produced by internationally-acclaimed jazz saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Killgo began playing piano at the age of four, encountering a host of jazz musicians during his formative years. After graduating from high school, he attended Bradley University in Detroit, then Howard University, where famed trumpeter Donald Byrd served as the head of the jazz studies program.
Through his father, Killgo met Byrd years before he returned to Howard to teach. Their reconnecting resulted in Killgo becoming one of the original members of The Blackbyrds in 1973. Considered a jazz/R&B group, chart-topping hits for The Blackbyrds included the Grammy-nominated “Walking in Rhythm,” “Happy Music” and a favorite among D.C. residents, “Rock Creek Park.”
Killgo has performed and recorded with artists including Stevie Wonder, Joe Williams, Gary Bartz, Milt Jackson, Carla Thomas, Gerald Albright, Roland Hanna, David “Fathead” Newman, Stanley Turrentine, Wynton Marsalis, Dianne Reeves, James Moody and Patrice Rushen.
He said because he has performed with so many artists in his career, he has learned that there’s a stigma associated with jazz.
“It’s because of the name – as soon as you say it, the money goes down,” he said. “Jazz has not been fused into being just amazing, That same “G” note is in classical, gospel, reggae, country – whatever you want to call them. The labels only dictate the money and exposure.”
The current lineup of The Blackbyrds still performs in the D.C. area and worldwide. Killgo also performs with his band, the Thad Wilson Quartet, and other local jazz artists.
On April 30, the Capitol Hill Jazz Foundation recognized him as a “D.C. Leader in Jazz.” Meanwhile, he’s also working on his autobiography.
And while he juggles a lot of gigs, he said his passion for inspiring youth to learn about and appreciate different forms of music remains his top priority.
In part two of this series, we speak with Killgo’s longtime friend, Davy Yarborough, former head of the jazz program at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, and co-founder of the Washington Jazz Arts Institute.