LifestylePosthumous Honor for Kevin Toney at Howard University Jazz Ensemble

Posthumous Honor for Kevin Toney at Howard University Jazz Ensemble

Seven Howard University students’ lives were changed in 1973 when the legendary jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd anointed them The Blackbyrds, the jazz/R&B fusion group. Original members Keith Killgo, Kevin Toney, Joe Hall, Allan Barnes, Barney Perry and Perk Jacobs performed memorable hits worldwide but are always remembered as the pride of Howard University.

This photo of The Blackbyrds includes (clockwise from left) Joe Hall, Keith Killgo, Stephen Johnson, Orville Saunders and Kevin Toney. (Courtesy of the Blackbyrds)
Toney died on March 18 at the age of 69 after a brief illness from cancer, and his alma mater paid tribute to his life and legacy during the Howard University Jazz Ensemble (HUJE)’s 50th-anniversary concert and awards, held in the bandroom of the Chadwick A. Boseman College of Fine Arts Building. 

Toney, a celebrated pianist, composer, arranger, bandleader, and mentor, was posthumously awarded the Benny Golson Jazz Master Award. The award, named after the Howard University alumnus, was created in 1966 to honor Golson, a multi-award-winning musician and composer and a 1995 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master.

Sunny Sumter, president and CEO of the DC Jazz Festival and a previous recipient of the Benny Golson Award, spoke about meeting Toney when she was 13.

“Kevin took me to my first professional jazz performance and gave me my first professional jazz gig when I was 14,” said Sumter, also a Howard alumnus. “He was an outstanding artist in the jazz genre, but he was really beyond categories.”  

Toney’s wife Phyllis and daughter Dominique accepted the Golson plaque. Dominique, a singer and songwriter, acknowledged that receiving the Golson Award was an epic birthday gift for her Dad, who would have been 70 on April 23.

“This is where it all began. Kevin entered these doors with dreams and musical skills beyond his years,” said Dominique about being in the band room. “He expanded his music for the universe to compose for television and film, arranging and conducting orchestras.

Music Artists Connect with Kevin Toney’s Artistry

During Toney’s time with The Blackbyrds, the group was nominated for two Grammy Awards, received the Billboard magazine Award as the “No. 1 Pop Instrumental Group” in 1976 and was honored with an NAACP Image Award for Best Jazz Group in 1977.

Toney worked with many music artists, including Diana Ross, Shirley Caesar, Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Sonny Rollins, Frank Sinatra, Whitney Houston, Kenny Burrell, Bobbi Humphrey, Shania Twain, Isaac Hayes, Carl Anderson, Shirley Caesar, Oscar Brown Jr., Edwin Hawkins, Pink, Ray Parker Jr., and Andrew White. During the Golson presentation, Toney’s wife Phyllis said White gave the toast at their wedding. 

Several unique connections to Toney were incorporated into HUJE’s 50th anniversary concert. The band played “Dolphin Dance,” composed by Herbie Hancock, which Phyllis said was her husband’s favorite song. Also performed by HUJE was “Blackbird” by Paul McCarthy, one of Phyllis’ clients. The song has recently received renewed interest because it is on “Cowboy Carter,” the latest album by Beyoncé. 

Howard University Jazz Ensemble Honors More Jazz Influencers

In addition to Toney receiving a Benny Golson Award, HUJE honored three other recipients. They were posthumously Reuben Jackson, who was a jazz scholar, curator, poet, radio host, educator, and mentor; Larry Appelbaum, archivist, historian, mentor, and host of “The Sound of Surprise” on WPFW-FM in Washington, D.C.; and Camille Thurman, saxophonist, vocalist and educator.

The 50th anniversary of HUJE coincides with the forthcoming retirement of Fred Irby III, the band’s director, at the end of this 2023-2024 academic year. As a Howard University music professor, he coordinates instrumental music and is the trumpet instructor in the Department of Music. 

Under Irby’s direction, HUJE has been featured in performances at the Kennedy Center Honors recognition for Lionel Hampton, Benny Carter, and Tony Bennett. When not working with Howard University students, Irby is principal trumpet for the Kennedy Center Opera House Musical Theater Orchestra.

Learn more about Kevin Toney’s career at Learn more about the Howard University Music Department at

Source: Washington Informer


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