Oaktown Jazz Workshop’s Ravi Abcarian inspires a new generation of musicians
Oaktown Jazz Workshop’s founder, Khalil Shaheed, was only 13 years old when he painted a moustache on his face and slinked into Chicago’s jazz clubs to see America’s greatest jazz musicians. It was the 1950’s in Chicago, and the iconic Blue Note jazz club was hosting musicians like Louis Armstrong and “King” Oliver. Soon Shaheed would interrupt his classical music education to tour with the Woody Shaw and the Buddy Miles bands.
After he tired of touring and was ready to settle down, Oakland—which had a thriving African American population—became his new home. Shaheed had a vision to educate Oakland’s inner city kids about their musical roots and uniquely African American art form.
In 1994, Shaheed launched Oaktown Jazz Workshop with funding from Oakland’s Office of Parks and Recreation. Oaktown was a passion realized. “To preserve …America’s Classical Music, Jazz… we need a community of teachers, mentors, and storytellers who know the importance of the next generation to receive this art form,” said Shaheed. Even after being diagnosed with cancer he kept the school going.
Shaheed’s friend and multi-talented musician, Ravi Abcarian was the obvious choice to step into Shaheed’s shoes when he became ill. Abcarian worked closely with Mr. Shaheed as Oaktown Jazz Workshop’s Educational Director and was also responsible for implementing jazz programs for non-profit music education programs and at Bay Area public and private schools.
The Port of Oakland, City of Oakland Cultural Funding Program and Alameda County Arts Commission help keep Oaktown Jazz in operation along with the support of foundations such as The Clorox Company Foundation, The East Bay Community Foundation and the Walter and Elise Haas Fund who provide about a third of Oaktown Jazz Workshop’s support.
And the parents are very involved, always doing things to support their children and the school. “It’s really grassroots, and we make a conscious effort to stay independent.,” said Ron Marabuto, a professional jazz drummer and one of Oaktown Jazz Workshop’s instructors.
The vision that Shaheed had is alive and well, and Ravi continually adds workshops as outreach becomes more and more effective. The program has expanded to offer music theory and improvisation and percussion classes. Its Jack London Square location provides perfect place for Sunday afternoon concerts.
Youth mentors have always been a strong suit for Oaktown. OJW alumnus Anthony Mills-Branch is now a mentor, and summer always brings forth more youth mentors. “We have a great Board of Directors and Advisory Board. Laney’s John Santos presents master classes and has hosted workshops, and the core faculty is the real deal, professional musicians from around the area,” Ravi said as he reflected on the program.
A Q&A WITH OAKTOWN’S Ravi abcarian
Laney Tower (LT): Why is it important for the kids to work with young mentors?
Ravi Abcarian (RA): We might tell them something as their instructors but when someone who’s just six or seven years older than them tells them the same thing it means much more. Alumna, Aneesa Al-Musawwir, after getting her Master’s degree from Michigan State, came out and talked with the kids about her life. She’s done so many things for being that young. It was just a great opportunity for the kids to talk with someone about what their next move might be.
LT: What’s the best idea you’ve had that’s been successful?
RA: We have these workshops that have been around for about twenty years. Sometimes the kids would come in and be very intimidated, so now we have added an improvisation class and we have been successful in giving young musicians the musicianship and confidence that prepares them to enter into our year-round workshops.
At the Oaktown Jazz Workshop, Genius Wesley shows off his skills on the drums as one of the organization’s mentors, Anthony Mills-Branch accompanies him on bass. The program uses jazz to inspire a new generation of musicians through close, personalized mentorship with professional musicians.
Oaktown Jazz Workshops’ saxophone instructor, Richard Howell, leads young musicians as they learn a new tune.