The Blackbyrds keepin’ Donald Byrd’s and Howard U’s Funky-Jazz Fusion Alive


By Timothy Cox

BETHESDA, MARYLAND — A half-full house paid homage to The Blackbyrds, during a recent Friday night at the Bethesda Blues & Jazz Theater. Though the room was half-full, the vibe was full of excitement and soulful effervescence – especially since it was obviously lots of real Blackbyrds fans in the house.

Considering the group got its start on the Washington, DC campus of Howard University, under the tutelage of the late, great Donald Byrd, it was appropriate that loads of former schoolmates and a large native Washingtonian fan base, showed up to support their home-boys. Bethesda is a DC suburb.

The Blackbyrds laid down a jazzy-soulful-funky groove at the Bethesda Blues & Jazz Club on Nov 8, 2019 (Photo by Timothy Cox)

While the group was originally a quintet, fortunately three of the original members are still performing with the group; namely guitarist Orville Saunders Jr., bassist Joe Hall and drummer/bandleader Keith Kilgo. Former members were keyboardist Kevin Toney and saxophonist Allan Barnes. Barney Perry also played guitar on some dates.

On this Friday Nov. 8, 2019 set, current keyboardist David Robbins, was a show-stopper on electric and acoustic pianos. Though he is a native of Binghamton, New York, Robbins visited the campus as a teenager and was so influenced with the fellas – he chose to matriculate to Howard U. as a music major. Though he wasn’t an original member, he’s played on several dates with the group since the mid-70s and now, at age 62 – is virtually a longtime member of the band.

Reportedly, drummer Kilgo re-organized the band in 2012 – after the group had disbanded for several years. Blackbyrds fans should forever thank Mr. Kilgo for reigniting such a unique flame, as Donald Byrd created a very unique brand of soul generated throughout the Seventies into the early 1980s.

At the Nov. 8 gig, the band’s intro tune was a cool instrumental piece penned by Donald Byrd called “Flyte Time.” Robbins’ acoustic piano, along with trumpeter/flugel hornman Thad Wilson, provided the necessary melodies over Kilgo’s and Hall’s funky riffs. From the laid-back first tune, they offererd a two-part, 90-minute show where they delved into more familiair tunes that separated the Blackbyrds from their funk counterparts of the period, ala EWF, The Commodores, Ohio Players or even Kool & The Gang.   

Dressed in casual clothes and non-uniformed, the group offered a jazzy-like aura but with a funky flavor, thanks to the syncopated structures of Kilgo and Hall. The duo laid-down fantastic groove patterns all evening, and provided hornman Wilson, Robbins and Saunders various opportunities for improvisational exploration.

While Byrd’s ‘70s albums often featured Chuck Rainey on bass, Harvey Mason on drums and James Gilstrap on lead vocals, the current group is blessed to have a more than fully-prepared young DC vocalist named Jus Paul. He provided the good lead parts, and blended with the group when four and five-part harmonies were required.

Jus Paul shined when the group performed “Think Twice” – a Donald Byrd classic. Though the original tune was led by a woman, Jus Paul laid it down correctly by using his upper register falsetto to mimic the original lead vocals. Ah yea – and “Places and Spaces” was stellar, especially with Saunder’s funky rhythm guitar riffs, very signature to the song.

The above link is a rare YOUTUBE clip featuring the late Donald Byrd performing live with original Blackbyrd members Kevin Toney, Allan Barnes and Keith Kilgo at the 1973 Montreux Jazz Festival. Other performers in the video  are Roger Glenn, flute; Jerry Peters, piano; Alphonse “Fonce” Mizell, clavinet; Larry Mizell, vocals; Freddie Perrin, vocals; David T. Walker, guitar; Chuck Rainey, bass and King Errisonn, percussion along with the late Dr. Nathan Davis on soprano saxophone. Dr. Davis was Head of the Jazz Department at the University of Pittsburgh for several years – and was a longtime friend of Donald Byrd, dating back to their many gigs on the Eurorpean jazz circuit. Byrd headed Howard’s Jazz Studies Department when he befriended his young proteges and formed The Blackbyrds in the early 1970s. 

During this Nov 2019 show, during a break in the show, Kilgo gave special props to their mentor Donald Byrd and acknowledged his vision for creating a less traditional jazz-fusion group ready “to sell records and make some money,” said Kilgo in quoting Byrd, during a break in the recent show. He also credited Mizell Brothers Alphonse “Fonce” and Larry for helping Donald Byrd’s Detroit Connection to Motown, considering the Mizells also penned hit tunes for both Marvin Gaye and the Jackson Five.

The above link depicts a rare video clip of Donald Byrd performing his 1975 hit “Change” while accompanied by three gorgeous modern dancers. Apparently, the video appeared on a Dutch TV dance show. Fortunately, the Dutch had foresight to showcase Byrd, considering it’s doubtful that he or The Blackbyrds ever appeared on Don Cornelius’ Soul Train, Dick Clark’s American Bandstand or any other American TV dance shows – at least I can’t confirm that it ever happened.

For this writer, it was a treat to hear such classics as their Grammy-winning “Walkin In Rhythm,” “Rock Creek Park,” “Happy’ Music,” and “Soft and Easy” live, in person – vs. all those days when I listened to all those classics on my LPs.

And I can’t forget their version of “Do It Fluid.” Yes, this was quite a jazz-funky evening for real. And, it would’ve also been nice to hear “Supernatural Feeling,” “Time is Movin On” and “Flyin’ High.” But, perhaps they’re saving those for their next return visit to the DMV.

FINAL NOTES: This reviewer met two young Caucasian women in the audience, who happened to be longtime friends of the band. They expressed how popular The Blackbyrds are when they perform in Europe and how animated their crowds are when they play the same tunes to their American fan-base.

How Interesting!

I also gotta chance to hangtout with guitarist Orville Saunders Jr., his son “Bo” and Orville’s wife of 32 years, Virginia Saunders. Great family-folk, along with bassist Joe Hall, drummer Keith Kilgo and pianist Dave Robbins. No pretentious diva types at all, just plain ole good guys with great down-home vibes – while keepin the Howard U., Donald Byrd legacy alive!

BACKSTAGE INTERVIEWS:  Seventies-Soul-Report Editor Timothy Cox (l) talks shop with original Blackbyrd members Orville Saunders Jr. and Joe Hall at the Bethesda Blues & Jazz Club.  (Photo courtesy of Timothy Cox)


BANDLEADER: Drummer Keith Kilgo has ensured The Blackbyrds flame continues to shine, since re-organizing the band seven years ago. (Photo by Timothy Cox)


FAMILY AFFAIR: Guitarist Orville Saunders Jr. greets his wife of 32 years, Virginia Saunders backstage, along with their son, Orville Saunders III aka “Bo.” (Photo by Timothy Cox)