OJW Photo by Barbara Butkus
Oaktown Jazz Workshop group: the organization provides regular low-cost classes by veteran players and augments the jazz program in BUSD’s middle schools. Photo: Barbara Butkus

Without a master plan or any grand ambitions, Berkeley bassist Ravi Abcarian turned himself into an essential part of the Bay Area jazz scene, and the keeper of the grassroots flame that continues to burn brightly at the Oaktown Jazz Workshops.

Located steps from the Jack London Square waterfront, Oaktown provides some 40 kids ages 10-18 with weekly, low-cost classes led by veteran players (as well as augmenting the jazz program in BUSD’s middle schools).

The young Oaktown musicians perform Monday at Freight & Salvage with percussion master John Santos at an OJW fundraiser, a program that also features powerhouse tenor saxophonist Richard Howell & Sudden Changes, and the OJW Alumni Group featuring saxophonist Kaz George, pianist Ian McArdle, bassist Aneesa Al-Musawwir, and drummer Savannah Harris.

Oaktown Jazz Workshops founding director Khalil Shaheed and director Ravi Abcarian. Photo: Bob Hsiang 2009

“We ask that most students be involved in the school band,” says Abcarian, who graduated from Berkeley High in 1987. “Oaktown was always meant to enhance what students are already doing. When they come to us it’s more about improvisation and learning to have a musical dialogue. We have musicians who play classical, who are involved in the Young People’s Symphony Orchestra. Some kids have their own bands. They go to JazzCamp West or the Jazzschool. It’s a good way to give them basic musicianship and a sense of what its like to be in a jazz environment.”

Founded in 1994 by the late, beloved trumpeter Khalil Shaheed, Oaktown has helped shape some of the most celebrated players to come out of the Berkeley High jazz program in recent years, including Ambrose Akinmusire, the most celebrated trumpeter of his generation. He was already a budding improviser when he started attending the Workshops, but credits Shaheed and the other well-traveled Oaktown mentors with instilling a sense “that there was no difference between the life of a musician lived and the music they played,” says Akinmusire, who performs with his stellar quintet at Yoshi’s on June 24. (Listen to a review by this reporter of his new Blue Note album the imagined savior is far easier to paint for the California Report).

“The students perceive it as being authentic in terms of learning the tradition,” Abcarian says. “It’s not an all-star band. It’s not something where you’re divided up by level. It’s easily accessible in every way. It’s easy to get to and we’re incredibly affordable. It makes jazz education available to everyone. It’s something attracts kids of all walks of life, from the flatlands or hills, regardless of gender.”

Born in Oakland and raised in Berkeley, Abcarian started getting into the guitar seriously as a young teen. At first drawn to classic rock, he soon found his way to Jeff Beck, which eventually led him to jazz. At Berkeley High, Charles Hamilton coaxed Abcarian to switch to bass to fill an empty chair in the jazz ensemble, and set him up with veteran master Herbie Lewis for lessons. Living in San Francisco, where he founded the jazz studies program at the now-defunct New College of California, Lewis was an esteemed accompanist who recorded with jazz greats like Bobby Hutcherson, Cannonball Adderley, Stanley Turrentine, Freddie Hubbard, and McCoy Tyner.

“The lessons were very unusual,” Abcarian recalls. “The first time I met him I go into the bandroom at Berkeley High and he started speaking Armenian to me. I’m of Armenian descent, but can’t speak it and didn’t understand what he was saying. He was mortified and disappointed.”

Richard Howell: plays Monday at the Freight with Oaktown Jazz Workshops. Photo: Bob Hsiang

Lewis it turned out had studied with an Armenian musician when he was growing up in Pasadena, and felt an affinity for the culture. In addition to instilling in Abcarian the essentials of jazz bass playing, Lewis was determined to help him connect him with his ancestry.

“He started bringing books on Armenian history by my parents house,” Abcarian says. “They didn’t really know what to think. The lessons with him were very intense. He was very perceptive about what was going on in my head. He didn’t want to just give me riffs or lines or anything a 15-year-old wants from a lesson, you know, show me something cool to play. I remember him playing me Clifford Brown and Max Roach. He wanted to get my reaction. When he didn’t really get one he said you need to listen to more modern jazz. I got Wynton’s Black Codes from the Underground and wore out the grooves.”

After graduating Abcarian enrolled at San Francisco State to study biology, but he gradually realized he was more interested in playing music. When the Loma Prieta quake made the commute into the city untenable, he started taking music classes at Laney College. He connected with a variety of mentors, such as East Bay drummer Achyutan and pianist Muziki Roberson, and he started working with vocalist Faye Carol, whose band has served a proving ground for generations of excellent young musicians. Within a few years, he was gigging full time.

“It happened without me noticing. I had a part-time retail job, and one thing that really got me out there was when I met Bishop Norman Williams,” Abcarian says, referring to the charismatic bebop saxophonist who came up on the Kansas City scene in the 1950s. “He got me out on the café circuit in San Francisco and I started meeting a lot of musicians. Music was something I always enjoyed doing, but nothing I sought out aside from practicing. I was fortunate to be coming up when the economy started to boom, and venues and restaurants were booking live music. My phone started ringing.”

It was through the drummer Achyutan that Abcarian met Khalil Shaheed, who had come up on the Chicago scene and settled in the Bay Area in the late 1960s, earning respect as a producer, composer, bandleader and educator who had collaborated with stars in jazz, rock and R&B. His connections meant he was able to bring in heavyweights such as Branford Marsalis, Gene Harris, Art Farmer, Terence Blanchard, Nicholas Payton, Arturo Sandoval, and Michael Brecker to work with the Oaktown kids.

Abcarian was already teaching at the East Bay Center for Performing Arts in Richmond, and welcomed the opportunity to join the Oaktown fold when Shaheed recruited him in 1997. He continued to record and perform, collaborating closely with artists like trumpeter Mark Wright and guitarist Terrence Brewer, but his responsibilities at Oaktown gradually increased, particularly when Shaheed appointed him education director.

“Khalil was happy to focus on the director role,” Abcarian says. “That freed him up to make connections in the community, seek funding and promote events. I was busy tuning the kids up. That worked very well for many years. When we found out that he was living with cancer he was determined to keep working. It was a very challenging time. He founded Oaktown and it was such an extension of him.”

In the months before Shaheed died in March 2012, he stepped back to focus on his health, and the Oaktown board appointed Abcarian interim director, a position that became permanent later that year. He leads an impressive cadre of players who teach workshops at the Oaktown space on Jack London Square and go into local schools.

“We just wrapped up an onsite program at Claremont Middle School, where they didn’t have a school program,” Abcarian says. “And we go in and work with young musicians in the jazz programs at Willard, Longfellow and King, supporting the teachers by leading sectionals and working on improvisation.”

The Oaktown students are busy gearing up for a busy month of gigs. They perform Saturday at KCSM’s free Jazz on the Hill event at the College of San Mateo. Pianist Muziki Roberson features them at a June 22 concert at the Sound Room in Oakland, and the kids open for the Oakland East Bay Symphony at the Craneway Pavilion at a free Independence Day celebration on July 3 (conductor Michael Morgan is vice-chair of the Oaktown board).

Andrew Gilbert covers music and dance for Berkeleyside, the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.

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Andrew Gilbert

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....