[JPL] The Saga of Tarik Shah (and his brother)

Steve Schwartz steve_schwartz at wgbh.org
Mon Mar 5 19:33:13 EST 2007

March 6, 2007
Jazz Pianist¹s Muse: His Jailed Brother

Growing up in the Bronx, Antoine Dowdell and his younger brother, Tarik,
were jazz lovers who spent their allowance on Dinah Washington and
Cannonball Adderley records, to the approval of their jazz-buff parents.

Tarik took up the upright bass at 12 and by adulthood was playing with the
likes of Betty Carter, Ahmad Jamal, Abbey Lincoln and Art Taylor. He also
became a Muslim, changing his name to Tarik Shah.

Though Antoine had taken up classical piano and was a promising recitalist,
he longed to make a career in jazz but was frustrated at his difficulties in
playing it. Lately he has turned to his brother for tutelage, but in a most
unusual setting: in the visiting area of the Metropolitan Correctional
Center in downtown Manhattan, where Mr. Shah, 44, has been held in solitary
confinement since being arrested in May 2005 in New York on charges of
terrorist activity. Federal authorities say he offered to aid Islamic
militants and pledged loyalty to Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. He has
pleaded not guilty; his trial begins on April 23.

While a public drama has played out in headlines and courtroom hearings over
the terrorism charges, a private one between the two brothers has been
occurring every other week in a special isolated visiting area of the jail.
There they enter a booth and sit separated by a wire security screen, their
conversation monitored by correction officers, and Mr. Dowdell takes a
tutorial from his brother during which the two discuss jazz theory and sing
passages to each other.

³We know the guards can hear us scatting and singing away, and they probably
think we¹re both crazy, or talking in code or something,² said Mr. Dowdell,
49, who uses his brother¹s left-behind collection of sheet music and
handwritten practice exercises to help teach himself.

He says his brother¹s inspiration and instruction from prison has helped him
make huge strides as a jazz pianist who now gets paying gigs around the
city, including a regular weekend engagement at the Caravan of Dreams
restaurant in the East Village.

³All my life I studied the piano, but I was never able to play what was in
my heart,² Mr. Dowdell said. ³I could never make the piano cry, maybe
because I couldn¹t get in touch with the blues. But seeing what¹s happening
to my brother ‹ his music and his life unfairly taken away ‹ I feel an
urgency now to play his music for people. It¹s like they took the jazz
musician from my family and I have to fill that void.²

In jail Mr. Shah has no access to an instrument or radio, but he has begun
to write exercises, chord progressions and even compositions for his

³It¹s like he¹s teaching me what he can no longer play, and I¹m playing for
him now, playing his pain,² Mr. Dowdell said, pulling out some handwritten
sheets of music in his Harlem apartment recently. ³Here¹s some stuff he
wrote for me from jail.²

Handwritten in pencil were several jazz cadences and progressions notated
with standard harmonies and also with alternate sets of chords favored by
John Coltrane, and others by Wes Montgomery.

There was also a 12-bar blues with tricky 16th-note passages and wide
melodic leaps, to be played ³slow and soulful.²

The work¹s long title is ³I Don¹t Have a Clue: A Chorus of Blues Permutation
When I Don¹t Even Have a Bass or a Leather Shoe.²

Also written was a note to his brother: ³Dear Tony, Here is the blues and
the two-five chord substitutions we spoke about on our last visit. Love,
your brother, Tarik. Let me know how this blues sounds.²

Marlene Jenkins, 72, their mother, said Mr. Shah joked about writing enough
music that his brother could perform it on a CD and call it ³Jazz in the

³For all these months Tarik has heard no music, but it¹s still in his mind,
and he doesn¹t want to lose it,² she said. ³You should see them in there,
Tony playing his imaginary piano and Tarik playing scales up and down his
imaginary bass, or singing a bass line for Tony. It¹s a strange thing to see
in that visiting area, but for that small window of time Tarik can feel like
he¹s free.²

Mr. Shah was arrested as part of an elaborate federal sting operation that
began soon after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. An F.B.I. informant posing as
an Al Qaeda recruiter approached Mr. Shah and recorded him discussing
sending money to aid Islamic militants fighting American troops in
Afghanistan. Prosecutors say Mr. Shah possessed recordings of Mr. bin Laden
and books on jihad and was recorded swearing allegiance to Al Qaeda and
Osama bin Laden, and talking about enrolling in a terrorist training camp
and using his martial arts expertise to train Al Qaeda operatives. He faces
up to 15 years in jail if convicted.

Mr. Shah, his brother said, was known as the ³Shah of Harlem² in uptown
Manhattan clubs like St. Nick¹s Pub, where he played twice a week and was
known for encouraging and supporting younger musicians. Attempts to set up
an interview with Mr. Shah, which involves red tape and delays, have so far
been unsuccessful.

Mr. Dowdell said his brother studied with the bassist Slam Stewart.

³I watched him grow up, and I know his heart,² he said. ³He¹s a New Yorker
who loves his family and someone who has devoted his life to the greatest
American art form, and now he¹s being called un-American?²

Near the piano in Mr. Dowdell¹s apartment was his brother¹s electric bass
decorated with Arabic inscriptions. The family is waiting for the outcome of
the trial to decide whether to sell it, along with Mr. Shah¹s double bass.

In their discussions in jail Mr. Shah told his brother to develop more
direction to his improvised lines so they sound less like ³doodling.² He
urged him to study chord progressions and to emulate Monk and Bud Powell,
and in particular the spare style of Ahmad Jamal.

³I go back to see him,² Mr. Dowdell said, laughing, ³and the first thing he
says: ŒDid you listen to Ahmad Jamal like I told you?²

On one visit Mr. Dowdell said he could not nail the rhythmic patterns of
³Oleo,² the Sonny Rollins melody, over the song structure of Gershwin¹s ³I
Got Rhythm.² Mr. Shah advised him to practice singing it as well as playing

³He told me, ŒIf you can¹t sing it, you don¹t know it,¹ ² said Mr. Dowdell,
who returned two weeks later and greeted his brother by scatting ³Oleo²
perfectly over a foot-tapping pulse.

Mr. Dowdell, who teaches students classical piano, had years of musical
training, including the High School of Music and Art in Hamilton Heights and
Clark Atlanta University, but in his improvised playing he lacked rhythmic
and melodic direction. So Mr. Shah urged him to learn stride piano and to
get in touch with one of Mr. Shah¹s mentors, Ron Burton, who was Rahsann
Roland Kirk¹s pianist in the 1960s and played steadily with Mr. Shah around
New York for years.

After a recent lesson in Mr. Dowdell¹s apartment, Mr. Burton explained how
playing Scott Joplin and Fats Waller tunes had helped Mr. Dowdell anchor his
playing with a strong rhythmic left hand. He said he then introduced
gradually more rhythmically advanced styles of Jelly Roll Morton and Erroll
Garner before delving into more modern playing.

Mr. Dowdell said he had also taught himself songs he and his brother had
memorized as children. He played a version of Dinah Washington¹s ³Blue
Gardenia,² from 1955, copying the lush Quincy Jones arrangement.

Mr. Dowdell said the jailhouse tutorials were a welcome distraction for his

³For that short time we¹re playing together and he¹s no longer locked up,²
he said. ³But just when we¹ll be peaking musically, a guard will say, ŒO.K.,
your time¹s up.¹ Then I go home to practice, and Tarik goes back to his


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