Last month I had a soulful, intriguing and explorative conversation with award-winning, Pianist/Composer, Kevin Toney, who is the founding member of the legendary jazz/r&b group, The Blackbyrds.
In this interview Kevin Toney talks about his trio Kevin Toney 3 and his new release New American Suite. I also had the opportunity to learn about his extraordinary life’s work as a musician and his great lessons and experiences with his mentor and teacher, Dr. Donald Byrd.
Gigi Brooks: You have such an incredible legacy in music. I want to start with your early beginnings and your love for the piano. Tell me about those days.
Kevin Toney: I come from a musical family really. My two older brothers and older sister, played music, so my oldest recollection was that there was a lot of music around the house. My first piano lesson came at age five I could barely reach the piano maybe I was playing at age four. Piano and I found each other very early in life and I took lessons, I had an interest in writing music and I was writing short classical pieces. By the time I was eight years old I added cello and alto saxophone to my playing instruments and I played all three of those instruments essentially throughout high school; piano was always there.
Then I got interested in improvised music in jazz in the seventh grade. I went to junior high school with a friend of mine named Charles Jackson and we were going to do a performance and he said “look man, we should play this song”. So I went over his house and he pulled out Horace Silver’s “Song For My Father.” I fell in love with it and I learned the melody of it and I learned two or three choruses of the solo and that was pretty huge for me to play by memory.
I fast forward to high school, by the time I got to high school in the tenth grade I went to this high school in Detroit named Cass Tech High School, that school is the equivalent to 2 years of college in terms of its concentration in the musical knowledge that you got. There were a lot of great musicians who were there before me like Donald Byrd, who I went to study with at Howard University, Ron Carter went there, so I began a rich legacy. Even Ray Parker, who is a buddy of mine, was there with me. Later, after I graduated people like Geri Allen came there to study and then she came to Howard. So anyway Cass Tech was really a very fertile ground for me. My journey really received a booster there in terms of jazz and improvisational techniques.
I met this other musical mentor named Billy McCoy, a pianist and he worked in a record store and one day I came by the record store after school and I was browsing through some records and he came over immediately and asked what I did and I told him I was a pianist. Then he asked me have I heard of Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, how bout’ this Miles Davis? I knew about Miles Davis, but he was having me check out all of this music that Herbie Hancock was playing with Miles. It really opened up my ears! He turned me on to Bill Evans and Art Tatum…all the ground breaking musical benchmark pianists, Wynton Kelly, Red Garland, these guys from out of that period. He opened up my ears to Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett. When I think about what Billy McCoy did for me it was such a pivotal point.
There was a pianist by the name of Hal McKinney, who was an outstanding pianist. He and trumpeter, Marcus Belgrave ran a Metropolitan Arts program; it was federally funded. After school, kids could come there and learn how to play jazz from the masters.
By the time I was in eleventh grade I was playing with Detroit’s top jazz musicians. What’s interesting is this – people say to me, ‘you’re from Detroit. Did you do much Motown?’ [laughs].
[laughs] Tell me about your experience at Howard University and how your connection with Dr. Donald Byrd came about.
My next section of my development came in D.C., I owe a lot to D.C. besides the fact that I was a founding member of The Blackbyrds; a group that was started by jazz legend, trumpeter, Donald Byrd; Donald really formed that group from his course students.
What did you learn from him? Of all of the best lessons you’ve had in music with other great musicians, what did you take away from your experience with Donald Byrd, because we both know how incredible and phenomenal he is.
Well, there are several aspects and I’ll give them, because this is a very important question. Musically speaking I learned a lot; I learned how to take my style…he was able to take my style and show me how to develop it into a personal style and how to approach my improvisation from a compositional point of view. When I came to Howard I was a jazz studies major and composition major, so he gave me some techniques on how to…again approach my improvisation from a compositional point of view; he gave me the platform to practice and get paid. Me and another student named Barney Perry, began to work with him right away…he took us under his wing right away. We began doing gigs with Donald on the weekends, when he wasn’t teaching and when we weren’t in school. We worked with Donald’s top New York band, cutting edge “A-1” jazz guys and here we were 18 years old just coming to Howard, so we had the experience of being able to play with people of Donald’s caliber and that’s invaluable!
I also learned business wise too…we had the opportunity of being full-time students and the distinction of having a recording career. I learned the ins and outs about touring, of having a record deal and what the relationship of the record company is to the artist. I also learned through the “school of hard-knocks” what not to have in a contract. It is ironic that…with all due respect to Donald, we as The Blackbyrds went to school to study not only music, but the business of music and as we ended our relationship with Donald, we ended up dealing with some things that should have never even went down. The other lessons I got from Donald were paid lessons on how to be a better…how can I say it?
A businessman in music?
Yes, how to be a better businessman in music and how not to pass on unnecessary procedures.
Right, in other words, how not to pass on old school philosophies and steps that aren’t necessary. So, I was able to move forward and take the positive and the things that were negative into fact so that I think it helped me to be the person in how I treat people who I work with now. Let me just tell you this…in saying that if I had to go back in time and I had to do it again from after high school into college I would just really pray that God would bless me again with a situation like that. The situation that I had with The Blackbyrds and Donald Byrd, being a full-time student and studying with him and that experience… I could never buy that. You cannot buy that experience and it was my introduction and it was my start and it still is the core of my entertainment career; so I owe a lot to that experience and I am indebted and grateful for the opportunity that Donald gave us all.
Not only that The Blackbyrds are a legendary jazz, R&B group. For those of us who know and understand our music we can’t think of Donald Byrd without the Blackbyrds; or anytime we think of Bobbi Humphrey, we know The Blackbyrds are going to be on the record.
Absolutely! You know it’s important that I make the distinction, I always try to clarify. Many people remember the group as Donald Byrd and The Blackbyrds, but the fact of it is we were Donald Byrd and The Blackbyrds only on our live shows; on records we were The Blackbyrds. On records we performed and played our own music, Donald was our producer; we had a separate contract and together as Donald Byrd and The Blackbyrds we played his music and as The Blackbyrds he played our music…that’s what the deal was with that.
Yes. I should have made that distinction. Thank you for clarifying that for us.
Sure. Going back about The Blackbyrds, I’m blessed that I was able to write half of that catalog in its capacity. It was a group effort and a lot of our hits were group songs like “Rock Creek Park,” that was written by the band; “Walking In Rhythm,” was written by the guitar player; “Unfinished Business” was a composition I wrote that received a Grammy nomination. It was an ideal situation for all of the members that we were able to contribute songs and get them recorded and produced. It really set the stage for what I’ve done over the last 30 years as a composer, producer and performer.
All the time that I was with The Blackbyrds, I was playing straight-ahead jazz when I was not on the road with The Blackbyrds in D.C., because D.C. was such a fertile ground. I really matured and really got my style together in Washington, D.C.; it was my finishing touches in terms of being a musician.
I used to play with this guy named Andrew White, a lot of people do not know who he is, but he is from Washington, D.C. and one of the leading specialists of the music of John Coltrane. I made at least fifteen or sixteen records with him in the John Coltrane style and original songs from John Coltrane themes. So, when I wasn’t on the road with The Blackbyrds, I’d be in town in D.C. in the clubs with Andrew making records and playing jazz and stuff. Playing jazz to me has been always a part of what I do, even though with The Blackbyrds we played less than the mainstream stuff and more of the new stuff, but jazz has always been the underlying thing.
I’ll fast forward to my first solo release which was called Special K, in the early ’80’s and I was still trying to find myself as an artist and it was a great experience, but that was the beginning of my solo career. People wonder what I was doing in between that time. Well, my next record that came out as a solo was in 1994, twelve years later. That was really when I established my solo career as what was then known as the budding Smooth Jazz market. I had a record called Lovescape, which is still my biggest selling record and most well known piece.
What other projects have you worked on in your career using your talents as an artist?
It’s interesting, because I began to work in musical theatre. Musical theatre found me. I became musical director of shows like Ain’t Misbehavin’, the music of Fats Waller. I was doing shows like Five Guys Named Mo, I did a national tour as one of the music directors; the music of Louis Jordan. I was doing shows like Harlem Suite.
I was able to do so, because God has given me the gift to be able to play anything on the piano. I’ve never been limited to just playing R&B. I found it appealing, especially with black based theatre, because I could go back in time and play all of that stride piano stuff. I love the history of our music and to know it so that I can move our music ahead.
You’ve recently written a book called The Virtuous Man- Breaking the Men’s Code. Tell me a little about that.
My music has been a set-up and a journey to now be able to…through my music get another message out there that men need to hear…that young men need to hear as well, about how to break this cycle of infidelity in marriage and remain faithful in your marriage and those tools that you can use to do that based my fallen experience; how God restored my marriage and restored me as a man.
The book is very informative and I wish you the best on that. I have to ask you about the years with producers and song-writers Larry and Fonce Mizell, because they were such talented producers and innovators. What did you learn from them?
Also, I noticed you’ve got Don Mizell as producer on your new release Kevin Toney 3-New American Suite.
Well, actually Don Mizell is the cousin of Larry and Fonce. The Mizells, Larry and Fonce were two of Donald Byrd’s earlier students; they were at Howard University before we came there. Donald’s first success into what you call cross-over jazz really came through the production work of Larry and Fonce and they produced his record called Flight Time. That’s when Donald began to have this new sound…new success into the 70’s, we weren’t The Blackbyrds yet, so we initially as a group, The Blackbyrds, being part of just the Donald Byrd septet began to work with Larry and Fonce on the live shows when we would go off to California and so we had a chance to know them personally and musically.
It was a great experience in that their approach was pretty much the opposite approach of academic; in other words the charts were sketchy, there weren’t any in depth charts kinda’ stuff. It would be more or less “here’s a letter A section, here’s a letter B, and when I say go to it, go to it!”
That was cool as opposed to the academic point of view that we were studying, you know you have charts and the arrangements are written out or there’s a lead sheet. So they were very intuitive and this was a good thing, because again I think and know that both approaches are valid. I mean a musician should be able to not only know the academic stuff, but the street stuff, here’s the bridge, here’s letter “A”…here’s “B”.
It was a great counter to our academic approach and what I learned from them is simplicity in song structures and arrangements. Two or three sections can be played. I didn’t have to write Beethoven’s “Fifth Symphony” or write everything I knew I could write or play everything I knew I could play. So they showed us simplicity, they also showed us… I would call…how to think out of the box in terms of chord changes. From a musical point of view…some of the stuff they had at first listening, I’d say “wow!” This isn’t a 2,5,1 change; this isn’t normal jazz changes. I think because they came from an island beat background and then writing songs for Donald, really gave Donald a whole new approach, because they didn’t come in there with the typical jazz stuff. Yet it was made jazz with Donald’s background and history and of course like ours when we got to work with them.
Back to Don Mizell, many people know him as being one of the producers of Genius Loves Company, Ray Charles’ Grammy-award winning record back in 2005. Don Mizell is an industry veteran. He is a lawyer, confidant and advisor to me. He is our Executive Creative Producer.
Your trio is Kevin Toney 3 and your new release is New American Suite, which is a soulful, sometimes funky, full jazz album with a touch of rag-time; Michael Bradford on bass and Chris Coleman on drums. I read that you wrote this album in honor of America’s music. Where did the concept for this album come from?
We came up with the concept of this album in several ways. First, we came up with the idea that we should get an art piece to put on here from one of my friends, Bernard and Shirley Kinsey. Don and I came up with the song titles in one evening. The music for New American Suite was written first. I joke about this with the band members, Michael Bradford and Chris Common in that when we had these songs; they only had numbers…”New Jazz #1″, “New Jazz #2, all the way up to “New Jazz #8” .
Later, I came up with this concept that the title track should be “New American Suite.” I decided that because it was a suite composition and it was sectional that at first, I should call it “American Suite.” I had this conceptually as a title, but Donald and I researched it and found that Dvorak had a piece called American Suite, so let’s don’t call it that, let’s call it New American Suite. So from there these titles came out. Don has got to be one of the most brilliant people I know.
When I saw another Mizell on the album I thought to myself there’s got to be something here, because we know the great producers that Larry and Fonce were and what they brought to the table; my deepest condolences to Larry and Don on the passing of Alphonse (Fonce) Mizell.
With passion I say that Fonce and Larry have written a chapter in American music.
The end result of what you hear on New American Suite, are really some men who share the same spiritual beliefs. Our music is more than just a bunch of guys who got together to play and get together having a vibe. Our layers of our faith are relevant in these songs. I tell you this is the best band that I’ve ever played with in terms of my own groups. That gets to the point of what’s different about this record, I mean this is my tenth record by the way. I know people will be surprised.
This record is different, because of collaboration. I’ve got collaboration with Michael Bradford and Chris Coleman on the songs, Don Mizell on production. We’ve got collaboration from adding a piece of artwork right here, because if you just wanted to look at the album’s artwork, you can have a conversation about that, because there’s a piece of fine art on there by an artist named Richard Mayhew “Fugue 2000”. The way that we got permission to use this was through my wife’s and my friends, Bernard and Shirley Kinsey, who had the largest collection of African-American and African artifacts in the United States. It has been on display at the Smithsonian and other museums around the country.
The fact that you revisited Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” on this album is very unusual in jazz today. What made you go that route?
Don Mizell. I remember sharing these songs with Don and he suggested that I do a Scott Joplin piece or something and do a modern take on it. Scott Joplin was one of our first great American composers; he was there before Gershwin and a lot of people don’t remember that. So it was our way to say new America lets go back and get something from the old America.
So he said lets pick a song, because there were several songs of Scott Joplin’s that I liked, but there was something about “The Entertainer”… the arrangements fell in place for me just like that! I went to the piano and started playing it and writing it out and God blessed me with what you hear there. Everybody knows it. We wanted to take his masterpiece and put it in 2012. It is suite-like, it starts off with just the piano making a statement, then we bring in the band, we have this reggae-swing feel, we paint our jazz textures over it and finish the piece with a rag-time feel to remind people of where it came from.
The entire album recreates jazz as we know it.
That’s a good way to look at it. Even though we have a lot of different styles here, it really comes together as a seamless thread.