[JPL] Jazz Pianist’s Muse: His Jailed Brother

r durfee rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com
Tue Mar 6 18:29:57 EST 2007

March 6, 2007
Jazz Pianist’s 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

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

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

“We know the guards can hear us scatting and singing
away, and they probably think we’re both crazy, or
talking in code or something,” said Mr. Dowdell, 49,
who uses his brother’s left-behind collection of sheet
music and handwritten practice exercises to help teach

He says his brother’s 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. 

“All my life I studied the piano, but I was never able
to play what was in my heart,” Mr. Dowdell said. “I
could never make the piano cry, maybe because I
couldn’t get in touch with the blues. But seeing
what’s happening to my brother — his music and his
life unfairly taken away — I feel an urgency now to
play his music for people. It’s like they took the
jazz musician from my family and I have to fill that

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 brother.

“It’s like he’s teaching me what he can no longer
play, and I’m playing for him now, playing his pain,”
Mr. Dowdell said, pulling out some handwritten sheets
of music in his Harlem apartment recently. “Here’s
some stuff he wrote for me from jail.”

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 “slow
and soulful.”

The work’s long title is “I Don’t Have a Clue: A
Chorus of Blues Permutation When I Don’t Even Have a
Bass or a Leather Shoe.”

Also written was a note to his brother: “Dear 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.”

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 “Jazz in the Joint.”

“For all these months Tarik has heard no music, but
it’s still in his mind, and he doesn’t want to lose
it,” she said. “You 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. It’s a strange thing to see in that visiting
area, but for that small window of time Tarik can feel
like he’s free.”

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 “Shah of
Harlem” in uptown Manhattan clubs like St. Nick’s 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. 

“I watched him grow up, and I know his heart,” he
said. “He’s a New Yorker who loves his family and
someone who has devoted his life to the greatest
American art form, and now he’s being called

Near the piano in Mr. Dowdell’s apartment was his
brother’s 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.
Shah’s 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 “doodling.” He urged him to study
chord progressions and to emulate Monk and Bud Powell,
and in particular the spare style of Ahmad Jamal. 

“I go back to see him,” Mr. Dowdell said, laughing,
“and the first thing he says: ‘Did you listen to Ahmad
Jamal like I told you?”

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

“He told me, ‘If you can’t sing it, you don’t know
it,’ ” said Mr. Dowdell, who returned two weeks later
and greeted his brother by scatting “Oleo” 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. Shah’s mentors, Ron Burton, who was Rahsann Roland
Kirk’s pianist in the 1960s and played steadily with
Mr. Shah around New York for years.

After a recent lesson in Mr. Dowdell’s 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 Washington’s “Blue Gardenia,” from
1955, copying the lush Quincy Jones arrangement.

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

“For that short time we’re playing together and he’s
no longer locked up,” he said. “But just when we’ll be
peaking musically, a guard will say, ‘O.K., your
time’s up.’ Then I go home to practice, and Tarik goes
back to his cell.”


Roy Durfee
P.O. Box 40219
Albuquerque, New Mexico 87196-0219
rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com

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