Jazz saxophonist Ryan Kilgore is no stranger to big stages.
In his second year performing with Southwest DeKalb High School’s Marching Band, he played in the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Olympic Games. And for the past 10 years, Kilgore has enjoyed playing 15 feet away from one of the most legendary performers on the planet — Stevie Wonder.
On May 14, Kilgore will join fellow saxophonists Antonio Allen and Trey Daniels for a Mother’s Day concert in Jonesboro.
The concert is the brainchild of Allen, 44, a soprano saxophonist who has several gospel and jazz CDs to his credit. Allen plays with the group Five Men on a Stool. He performs all over the world, touring recently in South Africa, Amsterdam, London and the Caribbean islands. His latest project, “My Journey,” is a compilation of his greatest Christian hits and some new material.
Of Kilgore, Allen said, “He’s an incredible musician and an incredible guy. When I thought about doing this, I wanted artists that I enjoy. So, it just so happened I called two other saxophone players because that’s what I enjoy. I’ll be on stage not only as a performer but as a fan.”
Said Kilgore: “Here are three guys that are individually doing stuff around the city and around the world, but we’ve never had an opportunity to play in concert together. As instrumentalists, you typically don’t have three saxophonists together.”
A native of Tampa, Daniels has lived in the Atlanta area for five years. He has his own band, the Trey Daniels Band, and has opened for Chaka Khan and Melanie Fiona. His debut album will be released Aug. 1. He is excited to perform with two men he considers to be like big brothers.
Kilgore relishes the chance to celebrate mothers. His mother, Paula Finley, has literally been the wind in his horn from day one.
“My mom has played so many different roles in my life,” Kilgore said. “Outside of being a mother — being a friend, being like a sister. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been able to have more transparent conversations with her.”
Finley, of Decatur, serves on the board of her son’s foundation, the Kilgore Music Foundation (Kilgoremusicfoundation.com). Now in its third year, the foundation promotes music education and hosts instrument drives around the country.
Ultimately, Kilgore, 35, would like to become a worldwide advocate for music in schools. He credits band directors at Southwest DeKalb High School for creating endless opportunities for student musicians.
“You’re in front of hundreds of people at a time, sometimes thousands of people,” Kilgore said. “We did (Honda) Battle of the Bands, and you’re performing in front of your own student body. We got lots of practice. One of the things that I admired about that time frame was that our band directors went after those opportunities for us.”
Kilgore and Allen are among a number of successful horn players from Southwest DeKalb High School.
Now Kilgore has a chance to mentor young musicians. At an April concert at St. James Live in south Fulton, he introduced the crowd to Justice Michael, a 17-year-old drummer and student at North Springs High School. Justice is part of a teen instrumental band called Anonymous Da Band. The concert at St. James was his first time playing with Kilgore. They keep in touch via text messages and phone calls.
“(Kilgore) taught me to always be prepared for any situation that happens,” Justice said. “If something switches or if something is wrong with the sound, you have to keep the show going on while you fix it.”
Kilgore had just turned 25 when one of his mentors, jazz saxophonist Mike Phillips, helped him land the gig with Wonder. Months before, a former band instructor at Clark Atlanta University had suggested to Kilgore that he might want to get a passport.
“When I first got there, I had no idea I’d be as experienced as I was at a young age. But I had no idea I had so much more to learn about life, culture, exposure and travel. There were so many different things I’d never experienced. By that time, I had done plays, but I’d never been on a major tour and it was my first time out of the country and my first time seeing Stevie as a fan.”
Seeing Wonder perform live for the first time was one thing, but being a few feet away from him on stage was “a double whammy,” Kilgore said.
Wonder is a perfectionist, but he’s never unreasonable, Kilgore said. The biggest lesson he’s learned from Wonder is that music has no rules. “Playing with him is like playing in church. There is never one show that is exactly the same.”
Off stage, Wonder, who will soon be 66 years old, “loves to have fun. He’s a practical joker and he loves hanging out with his band. There have been plenty of times when we’ve been at a hotel and someone will say, ‘Stevie is on the way.’ I like hanging out with him overseas in particular. … He just loves his band and he loves the people around him.”
Kilgore is working on new music; and lately has been into an electronic style of music. “It’s just a fun situation, see people dancing and having a good time. You want to participate in helping people feel good. Every musician and artist likes to see people enjoying their music.”
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