Students enrolled in the Washington Jazz Arts Institute (WJAI), a program for young musicians ages 14-21 housed operating at Peoples Congregational United Church of Christ in Northwest. (Courtesy of WJAI)

Second of a two-part series

Two music industry veterans have done it all in their careers. As musicians, composers, producers, band leaders and educators, drummer/vocalist Keith Killgo and saxophonist/flutist Davey Yarborough remain committed to teaching students who seek to develop their musical skills.

Both men attended D.C. Public Schools (DCPS), graduating together from Calvin Coolidge High School in Northwest. Each has spent decades teaching in DCPS during which they have incorporated their experiences from college, playing gigs on the road and recording into their lessons.

Killgo was featured in Part One. This week, the second in a two-part series, we look at Yarborough’s long public school tenure, most notably at Duke Ellington School of the Arts. 

Davey Yarborough Welcomes Every Child 

Yarborough, like Killgo, loves teaching music to his students. A few years ago, he retired from what many saw as his most impactful teaching role, leading the music program at Ellington that he began in 1986. Getting to lead that music program took an interesting route. First, Yarborough was a student-teacher at the school. He was then hired as Ellington’s truant officer for two years.

“I already knew the students at Ellington,” Yarborough said about his comfort in taking on the music program role. “Some of them were there when I did my student teaching and now they were getting ready to graduate.”

Yarborough’s teaching approach has been to give students the same thoughtful guidance he received from his college professors and mentors. Two of his mentors have been musicians and educators Bobby Felder, former director of instrumental music at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) and Dr. Andrew Dawkins, a music educator in jazz programs at both UDC and Howard University. Another mentor who Yarborough counted on was pianist, composer and jazz educator Dr. Billy Taylor, who was also artistic director at the Kennedy Center. Taylor also hosted music segments on CBS Sunday Morning and won an Emmy for his profile of Quincy Jones.

“Dr. Taylor would call me whenever he came to town. I would spend time with him just catching up,” Yarborough said.

While on the faculty at Ellington, Yarborough and his wife, jazz vocalist Esther Williams, opened the Washington Jazz Arts Institute (WJAI), a program for young musicians ages 14-21. Peoples Congregational United Church of Christ in Northwest is the home of WJAI. 

Yarborough, president and artistic director of WJAI, instructs the students in the rehearsal room at the church, where they receive a comprehensive music education experience. If a student does not have an instrument, Yarborough finds or repairs instruments and then gives them to students in need. Together, Yarborough and Williams have created a music education program that supplements what is not available in public schools.

“These kids can take our instruments home. If a parent can get their child an instrument by the time they graduate from high school, they turn in the one they were using to pass to the next kid,” Yarborough said. “If the family can’t purchase the instrument, they can keep it.”

Yarborough stands on the shoulders of many jazz luminaries he has worked with or been counseled by throughout his career. As a performer, bandleader, composer and arranger, he has worked with Sir Roland Hanna, Keter Betts, Billy Eckstine, Buck Hill, Lena Horne and Joe Williams, to name a few. He has also collaborated with trumpet virtuoso, composer, teacher and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, Wynton Marsalis, performing on his “Making the Music” series on National Public Radio (NPR).​ Marsalis is also on WJAI’s advisory board.

Recognition of Yarborough’s accomplishments as an educator has come in many ways. In 2018 he was inducted into DownBeat Magazine’s Jazz Education Hall of Fame. His image is included on two D.C. mural projects in “Jazz Heroes” at 624 T Street, N.W., across from the Howard Theatre and another on the side of a facility at 301 New York Avenue, N.E. Yarborough also performs with a quintet he leads along with Williams, his wife and vocalist for jazz vespers at Peoples Congregational. He is also a sideman for gigs at the White House and as he did recently at the funeral for former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

A beautiful black piano that belonged to the late jazz pianist, vocalist and native Washingtonian Shirley Horn greets you upon entering WJAI’S rehearsal room at Peoples Congregational. Horn was a respected artist by her peers and followers because of how she could effortlessly blend her piano skills with her singing. Horn followed and admired Yarborough’s nurturing of up-and-coming young jazz talent. The piano was donated to WJAI by Horn’s family following her death in 2005. The presence of Horn’s piano in the rehearsal room at Peoples Congregational means Yarborough’s mission for WJAI is in good hands.WJAI is now accepting applications for its Summer Program 2022 at https://wjai.org

Brenda Siler is an award-winning journalist and public relations strategist. Her communications career began in college as an advertising copywriter, a news reporter, public affairs producer/host and a...

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