Khalil Shaheed, Jazz Musician and Educator, Leaves a Legacy Enshrined in His Students

Categories: Jazz, Music, R.I.P.

​Khalil Shaheed had unflagging dedication as a trumpet player, composer, and jazz educator. I knew him in all three roles. His death on March 23, at age 63, followed a long battle against lung cancer. His absence leaves a hollow space in the Bay Area's jazz scene, and particularly in the world of jazz education.

Originally from Chicago, the forty-plus years Khalil lived in the Bay Area produced a career in which he recorded with Jimi Hendrix and Babatunde Lea, and toured with Buddy Miles and Taj Majal. He founded Oaktown Jazz Workshops in 1994, and worked as an educator for the San Jose Jazz Society and other organizations. Through all of this work, Khalil's aim was to extend the legacy of jazz, draw connections between its disparate styles, and to invest his students with a sense of its history.

When I worked at the San Jose Jazz Society from 1999 to 2005, Khalil was one of many Bay Area musicians who served as a performer, teacher, and clinician for the organization's jazz education programs. These consisted primarily of appearances at schools, a student jazz competition, and a multi-week summer jazz camp. Khalil not only participated, but helped shape the curriculum. Far from being a mere hired hand, he was a committed partner in the organization's programs.

Khalil was quiet, and had a sharp but dry sense of humor. My first week working for the Jazz Society, I was 22 and just out of college. I liked jazz, but knew nothing about it in technical terms. Nonetheless, I was charged with overseeing the set up for a weekend concert featuring Khalil's combo.

I had hoped that the musicians would take charge in preparing the stage, since I knew that they were in the best position to assess their needs. However, they logically assumed that I had been sent to the venue because I had some expertise regarding things like monitor levels. After stalling awkwardly for some minutes as the band readied their instruments, I confessed to Khalil, "I'm sorry. I know nothing about this stuff."

He smiled with his eyes and kindly suggested I go get myself a coffee.

​Khalil's way with his students was characterized by a similar patience and good humor. But he took the music seriously. He wasn't afraid to discuss the intangible, non-technical aspects of music, and encouraged students to feel what they were doing and not just think about it. Channeling great energy and concentration into music is what brought you to the joy of it -- it was all part of one experience.

And Khalil was dedicated to the idea of jazz education as something that isn't a simple matter of classroom learning. He knew that it was really all about grand and complex traditions being passed from one musician to another, a much more intimate and emotional thing than the way we are often taught in school.

The Oaktown Jazz Workshops are designed to supply a specific type of environment necessary for jazz education: somewhere between the nightclubs of yore and the cookie-cutter formality of the classroom. In this environment, professional jazz musicians are the teachers, and Khalil set the example himself: his typically quiet, gentlemanly demeanor would give way to great enthusiasm and energy when the teacher connected with his students -- when serious music was being made.

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Steve Green
Steve Green

I saw him perform several times over the years and what always struck me beyond the virtuosity and warmth of his playing was his way of engaging the audience, particulary how he would find and establish some kind of contact with young people.  I feel blessed to have heard him play and have the brief contact with him that I did.  He is missed.

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