Growing up in Philadelphia’s fertile music scene, Jaleel Shaw began playing alto at an early age, and soon would find himself playing alongside Shirley Scott, Grover Washington, Jr., John Blake and countless other of his city’s legendary artists.
Strong identity on the saxophone has served Shaw both in leader contexts, and as a longtime member of the Roy Haynes Quartet and Tom Harrell’s “Colors of a Dream.” But as an artist and a human being, the multi-instrumentalist and composer has gone through many changes. He recently spent some time reflecting on some of those changes—and their related longings—and conceived of a project inspired by the bare essentials of creative expression.
The world premiere of Images Project, Shaw’s Jazz Gallery Fellowship Commission, features Lage Lund, Lawrence Fields, Joe Martin and Kush Abadey, and seeks to recapture—or perhaps rouse—raw imagination in all its permutations.
The Jazz Galley: I like to ask artists who grew up in Philly for their personal interpretation of the Philly sound.
Jaleel Shaw: I’ve always felt like the Philly sound was a pretty open and diverse sound. When I came up on the Philly scene, I was around free artists like Byard Lancaster, hip hop groups like The Roots. I played in big bands; I played in mariachi bands. There was a huge organ presence there with Shirley Scott and Trudy Pitts. There was a soul R&B scene there, too. So there were so many different styles going on at the same time that it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it is.
That’s the thing that I loved about Philly; it was kind of a mix of so many different things, and all the musicians knew each other. All the musicians played together. There was no division amongst the styles—at least, not for me. As a kid, I was playing with so many different groups and coming out of so many different groups that I never really thought of music not being open, or not allowing myself to be inspired by all the different music that was going on, from hip hop to free jazz to R&B—it was all there.
When I was coming up, there was a very conscious presence—black consciousness and African consciousness—a pride of history. So growing up in Philly, I learned the history of the music. And the history of the people was very important.
TJG: Awhile back I was talking with Dayna Stephens, who made the comment that growing up in the Bay Area, playing all kinds of music or “styles” of music was a requirement—to the point where he was shocked when he moved to New York because it was the first time he experienced some of those harsh divisions; did you have a similar experience when you arrived?
JS: Right. Yeah, I feel like New York is a huge city, and I guess I didn’t get to know all of the musicians like I did back home. In Philly, like I said, I basically knew all the musicians. I knew and played with Shirley Scott; I knew Grover Washington, Jr.; I knew John Blake—that’s how I met Johnathan Blake; I knew The Roots. Everything was just mixed. We were all, it seemed, on the same scene. We would go to each other’s shows, and you could call anyone, anytime to ask a question about the music. It wasn’t until I was older that I really realized how special it was to have had that coming up in Philly.
TJG: In past interviews, you’ve described certain sounds from Philly and also Chicago as “Afrocentric.” Can you talk a little bit about your own interpretation of that concept?
JS: Wow. Where’d you see that?
TJG: I think it was in your blindfold test from a couple years ago.
JS: Wow. Okay. Well, yeah. For one, I grew up in a diverse community, and my mom made sure I learned my history. Every time I go home to visit her, I’m always amazed at how many books she has about everything, but specifically about my culture. And I realized she really immersed me in that, and made sure I understood and embraced it. And in Philly there were many African American events going on, from art shows to dance to poetry. And my mom always took me to those events. There was also something called Odunde, which was the African American festival that we had every year.
TJG: They no longer have it?
JS: It’s still happening. That’s a great festival. There’s a great African American museum in Philly, and I felt like the community was very strong. And it was embracing; it was a community of people teaching the music and teaching the culture, and everyone was welcome to learn it.
I’m sure it’s happening in New York, but I just haven’t seen or experienced it as much. But that may also be due to my activities since moving to the area.