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.
TJG: Also, now you have your associations with people whom you’ve been playing with for years; you have your own projects; you’ve seen the world—and when you were growing up, you hadn’t done any of that yet.
JS: Right. Well I think, as far as that goes—still, as an adult—those things are very, very important. It’s important to continually have that connection. And I definitely think New York has culture. That’s why I’m here. I feel like it’s where I need to be.
I just got a lot of that in Philly. And a lot of it is, like I said, from having a mom that kind of exposed me to everything—not just African and African American cultures, but all kinds of cultures. She exposed me to art—I’ve taken different art classes and gone to art museums. She exposed me to different musical instruments and classical music. I think, for me, there was just a lot of exposure. I got exposed to great things.
TJG: Speaking of exposure, you have had a long association with Roy Haynes. As a result of that association, would you say that the way you take charge of the direction of your playing on the bandstand has changed?
JS: I’ve been playing with him for a long time, but I’ve also been leading my own band for a long time, too. When you’re going through the fire as a leader, there’s some stuff that you just have to do. Regardless of your experiences, you just have to take some kind of control of things. And I think it’s important to hire people who are going to help you do that. It’s important to surround yourself with musicians that ultimately want your message to come across. That comes with playing with musicians that understand your goal as a musician and as an artist.
I think the one thing that I have gotten from Roy—and I might not be able to do it this performance, because this performance is a special thing with specific music I’ve created, all of which I hope to be performing—was to go with the flow. Roy goes with the flow. What I mean by that is, we don’t even know what we’re going to play when we get up on stage with Roy. We never know. I mean, we have an idea based on the songs we’ve played in the past, but from song to song, we’re always feeling out the vibe of the audience.
Honestly, I didn’t quite understand it at first, because I always thought that once you picked the set, you didn’t deviate from that. But playing with Roy, we would go places, and we would be on tour going from gig to gig, different towns. We would talk about what we wanted to play, and sometimes some of the other band members would call out tunes. He would say, “Well what do you want to play first?” and we would call out a tune, and sometimes he would say, “No, we can’t play that because of the vibe of the audience. This isn’t that kind of audience.” I didn’t get it. I always felt like, “We don’t really know what this audience is or wants” But, over time, I started to understand. And it’s not only the vibe of the audience; it’s the vibe of the band, the energy that’s out there—the vibe of the day, the weather. He was always feeling that out.
So from that I learned that it’s okay to deviate from your set completely, if need be. I used to call a set and that was the set, and we’re not playing anything else but these tunes. But now, if the mood isn’t going the way I want it go, I might change something; or, I might just improvise in a spot where the band wasn’t expecting me to improvise; or I might try to have the band come up with something on the spot, just based on the vibe that we’re at.
TJG: This project reflects some time you spent in a different environment. Can you talk a little bit about that environment, and how it has shaped your vision for this project?
JS: Part of this commission included an invitation to spend time at the Marcel Breuer house on the Rockefeller Estate in Tarrytown. I went up there this summer and stayed for about a week. It was a beautiful house on a beautiful estate—different from what I’d expected. I thought I’d be staying in a house in an actual neighborhood where I could go outside the house, walk down the street and go to a coffee shop or go get something to eat. But this was a house in the middle of a park, basically. It was a gated estate that had guards and everything—and I was the only one that was there at night, other than the guards. It was just a huge, huge, huge space. It seemed maybe half the size of Central Park, or something like that. That’s how big this estate was.
There were no lights outside of the house, so at night it would be pitch black. In the daytime, you could see nothing but trees and grass. And there were many different kinds of birds flying around. Just being able to walk around in nature every morning was beautiful. I saw things that I hadn’t seen or maybe paid attention to in a while. I saw a blue jay, and different birds that I don’t really see that often. It was a beautiful thing to wake up to every morning, but I wasn’t used to being so isolated, and not having all my stuff with me—and just being able to have a clear mind. I realized how cluttered my brain was.
I had so many things on my mind, from everything that’s going on in our country right now. The division, the hatred—I knew I was thinking about it. But I didn’t realize my brain was completely swamped—and I was stressed out. The one thing I realized was, as a musician and an artist, I feel like my creativity was kind of limited because of it. I felt like I really wasn’t able to express myself fully. I have a big imagination, and I wanted to get back to that. I wanted to get back to using my imagination and creating music based off of things that I pictured in my head and my dreams—not only based off of things that were going on in the world or things that were happening to me. Composing and expressing yourself based on those things is great and important, but imagination is great, too.
I think the other thing that I thought about was, just with art these days, there is sometimes pressure on the artist to explain in detail what he or she is doing. And I think that sometimes takes away from the imagination of what the art is, especially music. Sometimes some people or presenters want to know, “What is this piece about; what is this piece about?” I guess that makes it easier to promote the performance, but when you’re forced to explain something like that, it can sometimes limit your creativity or imagination.
One thing that attracted me about being a musician, in the beginning, was that it allowed me to express something I was feeling or imagining that I couldn’t explain in words. I could give a piece a name, and I could sit and explain to you what the piece is about, but at the end of the day, it still might not really explain it. And [that explanation] takes the imagination away from the listener, because different music affects us in different ways. Something that may inspire you in one way, may inspire another listener in another way. I can honestly say even my own music means different things to me at different times.
TJG: If you’re just playing something that’s not attached to any words or titles or labels, there’s a good chance both you and the audience are going to be open for it to go different places.
JS: Exactly. That’s exactly what I mean. And it depends on the music. It depends on what it is, because there definitely have been times that I’ve composed music that I wrote based on an experience, an event—love—and that’s all there is to it. Those songs I’ve basically described it in the title. But I have songs that I can’t even give a title to. These are the compositions that have evolving meanings to me. Compositions like these are important too, I think. I think it’s ok to be vague sometimes. I feel as though, emotionally, this music sometimes moves me in ways that maybe a song with a title wouldn’t. And I feel like maybe if I gave those songs a title, it would put it in a specific place, so a person listening would think, “Oh, this is what the song is about,” and now that’s the image that they have in their head.
But we all have different images in our heads when we listen to things or when we see things. So I’ve been thinking about how important imagination is. When it’s somehow limited or controlled, it really limits what the music is. There’s always music that has a story that you can verbalize and put into words—but when you can’t, that’s okay, too.
The Jazz Gallery presents Jaleel Shaw’s Fellowship Commission, the Images Project, on Friday, November 2 and Saturday, November 3. The band features Mr. Shaw on saxophone, Lage Lund on guitar, Lawrence Fields on piano, Joe Martin on Bass and Kush Abadey on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved table seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.