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Some people believe “Rock Creek Park” is the official song of Washington, D.C.—-or, at least, that it should be. The Blackbyrds, who co-wrote the 1976 hit, were pushed out the Howard University classroom and on international tour by the late trumpeter Donald Byrd, head of jazz studies at the university. Since then, artists ranging from Public Enemy to Wiz Khalifa have sampled the jazz-funk group’s music.
Blackbyrds pianist Kevin Toney, is returning to the area from Los Angeles tonight to perform with his trio at the Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club and introduce a new artist: his daughter, Dominique Toney. I caught up with the Toneys for a father-daughter talk about their collaboration on Dominique’s debut CD, A Love Like Ours.
WCP: Kevin, since you lived in D.C. for a while, what is it like coming back here?
Kevin Toney: I love D.C. I’ve got fond memories of D.C. I always look forward to coming there to see my friends and family—-and to eat as many blue crabs as I can eat.
What was it like to study under a professor like Donald Byrd, a legend who worked with so many other legends, from John Coltrane to Thelonius Monk?
KT: Coming to Howard was life changing. It shaped me culturally. To study with Donald Byrd—-and the reason why I came there—-was a dream come true. Right away, I became his assistant. I started traveling with him on all of his shows. The foundation of my career and success with the Blackbyrds as one of the founding members carries through to this day. We’re talking 40 years later. I composed about half of their songs. They’re classics now.
During the ’70s and early ’80s, the Blackbyrds had at least a dozen songs at the top of the charts. Do you have a favorite?
KT: Oh my goodness. There’s several for different reasons. “Happy Music” is one of my favorites, because that’s when we were on the top. I play “Walking in Rhythm” in my Kevin Toney show, because that’s part of my history and I remember when I first heard that on the radio. My favorite albums from the Blackbyrds would have to be City Life and Action. City Life was our biggest-selling album. It was our last studio album that was recorded with Donald Byrd as our producer.
How did “Rock Creek Park” come about?
KT: It was a band soundcheck jam. We were in New Jersey getting ready to open up for the Commodores, and this groove was struck up. I don’t know who did it—-whether it was Joe Hall on the bass or Orville Saunders on the guitar. We went in the studio, cut the track and figured out what the lyrics were going to be later. We came up with the chant: “Doing it in the park/Doing it after dark, oh yeah/In Rock Creek Park, oh yeah/In Rock Creek Park.”
What’s it like to work together as father and daughter?
KT: It’s one of the greatest joys—-completely special and unique. And it’s a blessing. We’ve had numerous collaborations. I am the producer on Dominique’s CD. It’s truly a joint venture, released on K-Tone Enterprises. I get to hire her on my shows, and I’ve been the music director on her shows. When the Blackbyrds perform on the West Coast, I hire Dominique to not only be second keyboardist, but also the lead singer. She gets double duty.
Dominique Toney: It’s been a lot of fun. I’ve learned more about my dad than I have at any other point in our lives. And it’s been great to absorb all this musical information and especially the business side. It’s been a creative partnership, but also like a mentorship as well.
Tell us about your CD, Dominique.
DT: My album is coming out August 12, and I’m excited to introduce a new audience to my music. My dad was featured on a song, as well as Ray Parker Jr., the Grammy-nominated guitarist and songwriter. I also have an up-and-coming rapper here in Los Angeles. He’s a Howard University alum, LeBrese Black. We co-wrote a song together that he rapped on. The whole album features a host of A-list musicians—-people like Rob Bacon, who was the guitarist on the Arsenio Hall Show band; Rayford Griffin, who has played drums with Toni Braxton and the Isley Brothers; and the guitarist Doc Powell.
It sounds as if this is a personal CD that’s revealing some of your emotions and experiences.
DT: My writing is very autobiographical. The album is a journey of a relationship that ended two years ago. Some songs are during the period when I was first falling in love. The middle part of the album is when the relationship dissolved. And the end of the album is where I’m standing at right now and just moving forward.
Are you still in touch with that person?
DT: Absolutely not! The album has been a great way for me to close that chapter in my life. I’m really excited to share it all. I’m hoping that my story will also resonate with others who’ve had their hearts broken and give them hope to move through it.
Kevin, you’ve been in the music business for four decades. How has it evolved?
KT: What will always be the same is good, quality, timeless music. We’re creating emotions and melodies and memories. Longevity means to be aware of those things to keep your music at the highest level of excellence and deliver that in a timely fashion.
What has changed, obviously, is the way music is consumed and delivered. With the Blackbyrds, we had these big, old, gigantic albums. Instead of going to a music store, now, you go online and download it. You’ve got it in a moment, and I love that! When you gotta do something quick, it’s great. You can disseminate the music more and reach farther out.
A negative is that anybody can get into the game of creating music. Just because you have Pro Tools or digital equipment to record doesn’t make you a songwriter or producer or musician or record company. You still need talent.
For people like Dominique and her generation, and the people who are coming up behind her, it’s a golden opportunity to separate yourself by knowing your craft and using the current technology to deliver your music to be on top and to be relevant. That’s the key to success.
Dominique, what’s it like watching the evolution of the music industry through your father’s eyes and now your own?
DT: I love the current state of the music industry. As an independent artist, you have complete control over your music. I have many friends who are in the same boat as I am. They’re putting out their own EPs and their own albums, and they’re able to sustain themselves. We don’t need a record label to do that.
What can people expect from your upcoming performance?
KT: It going to be an exciting show. I’m celebrating 40 years as a recording artist. They’re going to get an overview of Kevin Toney’s recorded music as a solo artist for the last 20 plus years—-the songs that I’ve had success on the radio with like “Kings” and “Aphrodisiac.” They’re going to hear my latest CD, which I’m very excited about, called “New American Suite” with Kevin Toney 3. And I’ve got a great arrangement of “The Entertainer” that I’m always excited to play.
And, of course, Dominique will join me to sing some of the Blackbyrds songs and her new songs. The audience will get an opportunity to see a rising star develop before her record comes out. So it’s going to be an exciting trip, and we’re looking forward to it.
Kevin Toney 3 featuring Dominique Toney will perform tonight at 8 p.m. at the Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club, 7719 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda, Md. (240) 330-4500.