Blackbyrds Take Flight for Group's Founder

Stacy M. Brown | 4/3/2013, 2:27 p.m.

The 'Byrd' flies again.

Songs like "Happy People," and a Washington, D.C., favorite, "Rock Creek Park," are certain to get audiences on their feet when the legendary Blackbyrds celebrate the life and legacy of their founder, Donald Byrd.

"Donald Byrd got us off the ground and taught us a lot," said Keith Killgo, a District native and the group's lead vocalist and drummer.

"We feel it is our responsibility to carry Byrd's banner," said Killgo, 59, a Howard University graduate.

Byrd, the famed jazz trumpeter who collaborated on scores of records with some of the most notable musicians of the 20th century, died in February at the age of 80.

"Let's remember Donald as a one-of-a-kind pioneer of the trumpet, and of the many styles of music he took on," said keyboardist and nephew of the celebrated musician, Alex Bugnon.

While collaborating in the early 1970s with some of his students at Howard, where he was founding director of the university's jazz studies program, Byrd formed the Blackbyrds in 1973 and the group immediately turned out hits like, "Walking in Rhythm," and "Rock Creek Park," a nod to the District's urban park that extends several miles from the Potomac River to Maryland's border.

The song was celebrated in the District and toasted nationwide with its catchy lyrics, "Doing it in the park, doing it after dark, oh yeah. Rock Creek Park, oh yeah."

Rap music artists such as Public Enemy and LL Cool J count among the many to sample "Rock Creek Park" and other Blackbyrd hits.

"What makes The Blackbyrds music so different is its timelessness," said WHUR-FM radio disc jockey Joe Gorham. "Before we had go-go music, Byrd had a sound that was this R&B and D.C.-oriented vibe. As a group, they blended R&B and jazz and Byrd mixed in this jazz-funk flavor that was just great," Gorham said.

Byrd, the son of a Methodist minister, grew up playing music in the churches of Detroit, Mich. Later, he collaborated with such renowned artists such as Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins.

Byrd's given name was Donaldson Toussaint L'Ouverture Byrd II.

His distinguished music career began with Art Blakely's Jazz Messengers, a bebop group that was formed in 1955.

Later, he joined several jazz artists who included Miles Davis to begin fusing jazz with R&B and funk. In 1973, Byrd released a solo album, "Black Byrd," which quickly rocked the Billboard Hot 100 charts and helped Byrd grab the attention of a younger audience.

"Many of the nobles in the music business would come out to work with or see Byrd," said Killgo, who lives in Northwest. "I mean, you had Miles and Monk and cats like that and so, for the rest of us, it was great because we got to see and meet these guys who were our idols. This is what Don did for us."

While it was fun meeting the legends of the industry and playing with Byrd, Killgo compared his mentor to a drill sergeant when they performed.