I cannot begin to express my sadness around the passing of Brother Khalil Shaheed so soon. It leaves a gaping hole in our extended Oakland community, as well as in my heart. He was a wonderful friend, colleague, father, mentor, and human being — a grand soul. Khalil Shaheed (born Tommy Hall on 1/19/49) came to the Bay Area from Chicago in the mid-’70s. I met him shortly thereafter when he was a member of a spankin’ funk group called Kingfish. Tommy, as he was known back then, was a solid trumpeter with jazz and blues roots, and played a vibrant and integral part in solidifying the San Francisco Bay Area musical scene that cut across several genres, particularly funk, soul, and Latin.
He converted to Islam and changed his name in the ’80s. This was the major force in his rebirth, and he dedicated himself wholly to his art, his understanding of the world, and to community service. It instilled in him a contagious joy and enthusiastic attitude that he kept to the end. He was a peaceful man on a mission and was exemplary for all of us in his focus on his spirituality, his family, his music, and band — and last but not least, the kids in Oakland.
In 1994, Khalil founded the Oaktown Jazz Workshop with the intention of giving the youth of Oakland the opportunity to know and celebrate jazz, and draw from its history and wisdom in their own creative ways. He also understood that jazz is essential to teach life skills, not only in Black and working class communities, but anywhere in this country. He frequently brought in jazz greats to teach and play with the kids, such as Branford Marsalis, Ellis Marsalis, Jason Marsalis, Gene Harris, Art Farmer, Terrence Blanchard, Nicholas Payton, Arturo Sanduval, Joe Zawinul, and Michael Brecker, to name just a few. Many of his kids have gone on to become professional musicians, teachers and stars in their own right. It was a constant struggle, but he saw it through, eventually convincing all doubters and procuring sponsorship from many sources.
He was a tireless warrior for jazz and for our kids, bringing jazz to schools throughout Oakland, the greater San Francisco Bay Area, and Northern California. The city finally gave Oaktown Jazz a beautiful space in Jack London Square across from Yoshi’s in 2010. I hope it can flourish as it deserves to — the way Khalil dreamed. Before Oaktown Jazz got its own space, he’d bring many of us in to work with the kids at the Church on International Blvd., and give them a well-rounded perspective of where the music is coming from and how to participate, appreciate, and honor it. This is the neighborhood in which I live and I can tell you beyond the shadow of a doubt that his work is directly related to what sanity still exists between the shootings that happen here every day or two. In that regard, Khalil was a great blessing and saviour for countless kids and their families — truly a local treasure.
I last saw him a few weeks ago, and he looked tired and swollen from the chemo, and was obviously in pain. But his warm smile showed through just the same. His hug was weak, but his heart was irrepressible.
I know of few others who are as loved and respected by their peers and as well as community members of all ages. Khalil was fearless and spoke up in any setting on behalf of all of us — a real giant in our village. He was seriously funny with a wicked sense of humor, but also dead serious about his business. My family and I love that man and will forever be grateful for having him in our lives as a positive force and inspiration. I know that many of us will continue to carry him in all we do, as we attempt to honor his legacy of generosity, love, and goodwill. Much love and strength to the beautiful family he leaves behind. Much gratitude and light to your spirit good brother Khalil — asalam malecum.
John Santos, March 24, 2012, Oakland, California
Photo by Chuck Gee.