Oaktown Jazz Workshops, a Beacon of Youth Music Programs, Turns 25

Oaktown Jazz Workshops' Performance Ensemble at Art & Soul. Photo © David De Hart 2019

Founded by beloved Oakland trumpeter Khalil Shaheed during 1994’s drastic cuts to East Bay public school music programs, the Oaktown Jazz Workshops celebrates its 25th anniversary at Yoshi’s on Tuesday, Nov. 12, with a bountiful display of its achievements.

Providing after school classes in music theory and performance at its Jack London Square facility for young musicians ages 12–18, Oaktown continues to embody the late Shaheed's generosity and faith in jazz as a life-shaping endeavor. Staffed by some of the region’s finest improvisers, the Workshops has been around long enough that many of the instructors came out of the program themselves. 

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The program’s reputation as a creative hotbed has been spread by some of the most celebrated musicians to come out of the East Bay—artists like trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, bassist Aneesa Strings, tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens and drummer Ruthie Price. Now on the Oaktown faculty, Price will be on hand at Yoshi’s to perform with an alumni ensemble the includes fellow Oaktown trumpet instructor Rafa Postel, New York drummer Elé Howell, Oakland pianist Ian McArdle, Los Angeles saxophonist Erica Oba, Oakland MC/saxophonist Ranzel Merritt and New York saxophonist Jesse Levit.

For Levit, Oaktown provided far more than musical instruction. Attending Bishop O’Dowd during a low ebb of the high school’s music program, he found powerful role models in Oaktown regulars like Shaheed, bassist Ravi Abcarian and veteran drummer Achyutan, whose career stretches from his formative years in Kansas City with legendary pianist Jay McShann to recordings with avant garde icons Pharoah Sanders and Sonny Simmons.

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“They didn’t just give us access to a whole other depth of music and improvisation, they modeled how they were living their lives as artists,” says Levit, 36, who also performs at San Jose’s Café Stritch on Nov. 9, San Francisco’s Bird & Beckett on Nov. 14, and Jupiter in Berkeley on Nov. 15. “They treated us like we knew what we were doing and took us on gigs, and we learned by watching them. I learned how to run a gig, how to hire a band, and liaise with the person who hires me, skills I use now in New York.”

Yoshi’s program showcases the organization’s entire array of talent, kicking off with the Oaktown Jazz Youth Performance Ensemble, which features about 15 players enrolled in the Workshops. Pianist, producer and composer Kev Choice, former music director for Lauryn Hill, leads a group of Oaktown Youth Mentors, who are recent Workshop graduates now teaching in the program. Closing out the concert is an all-star combo with Abcarian, percussion maestro John Santos, pianist/trumpeter Marco Diaz and powerhouse tenor saxophonist Richard Howell.

“It’s really a community celebration, and a statement of the kind of community building we do,” says Abcarian, the Workshops' executive director. “Kev began his teaching career at Oaktown Jazz, which is where I met him before he performed with Lauryn Hill. Richard Howell, a long-time instructor, was a dear friend of Khalil's. John Santos has always very supportive, and his son is now playing piano in the program. This concert brings together so many alumni, people who came in as kids and are now some remarkable young adults.”

A graduate of Berkeley High, Abcarian knows first-hand about the formative power that the right mentor can exert on a young jazz musician. Early in his career he connected with Achyutan, pianist Muziki Roberson and Berkeley vocalist Faye Carol, whose band has cultivated generations of brilliant young musicians.

It was through Achyutan that Abcarian met Shaheed. A producer, composer, bandleader and educator who had collaborated with stars in jazz, rock and R&B, Shaheed knew everyone. He brought a regular succession of heavyweights to teach at the Workshops, such as Branford Marsalis, Art Farmer, Terence Blanchard, Nicholas Payton, Arturo Sandoval and Michael Brecker.

Abcarian was already teaching at the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts in Richmond when Shaheed recruited him in 1997. He continued to record and perform, but gradually took on more Oaktown responsibilities, eventually becoming the Workshop’s education director.

From the beginning, the program has been notably effective at nurturing talented young women. Bassist/vocalist Ashanti Johnson, 21, came through Workshops and now teaches as a Youth Mentor, and she finds “the girls are a little bit more focused or hungry,” she says.

As one of those hungry girls herself just a few years ago, Johnson gleaned far more than a musical education from the Workshops. Oaktown supported her development as a professional artist and as a woman with a sense of her place in the world, much as Shaheed envisioned.

“The Workshops helped with my cultural identity as an African American woman,” Johnson says. “I’ve learned about improvisation, about staying on your toes and thinking fast about what you want to say. To play this music you have to be steadfast and consistent.”

Now it’s Johnson’s turn to pass on jazz information and attitude at Oaktown, an invaluable outpost of soul on Jack London Square.

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