“Y’all nailin’ this. There’s nothing for me to do,” Khalil Shaheed tells 10 high school musicians following a run-through of the George Wallington composition “Godchild,” made famous by Miles Davis on his monumental 1949-50 “Birth of the Cool” recordings.
It’s the band’s third Saturday morning rehearsal at Oakland’s Studio One Art Center in preparation for a performance at 8 p.m. on Monday, May 25, at Yoshi’s in Oakland in celebration of the 60th anniversary of the classic jazz album, as well as the late trumpeter’s 83rd birthday.
Veteran jazz educator Shaheed, himself a trumpet player, has assembled some of the most gifted student musicians from schools throughout the Bay Area, including his 15-year-old daughter Savannah Harris, a freshman at San Francisco School of the Arts. She kicks the band along nicely with her solidly swinging drums on “Godchild” and other tunes, and her improvised, cleverly syncopated fills and brief solos bring to mind Max Roach, the drummer on two of the three sessions that yielded “Birth of the Cool.”
“I’m definitely inspired by a lot of things that he does, ‘cause he’s really melodic as a drummer and that’s one of the skills that’s hard to gain,” Harris later says of Roach.
“I would like you to know whose part you’re playing,” Shaheed says before counting off “Boplicity,” written by Davis’ friend Gil Evans for the “Birth of the Cool” sessions. “Play their entries to the solos, ‘cause that’s what people will recognize; then you can play what you want.”
Two trumpeters switch off playing Davis’ parts, a baritone saxophonist fills in for Gerry Mulligan and a trombonist blows solo choruses originally taken by either Kai Winding or J.J. Johnson.
Although all tackle their tacks with a level of professionalism unusual for players of their age, Gubir Dhillon, a 17-year-old senior at Acalanes High School in Lafayette, succeeds especially well in capturing the spirit of Lee Konitz with his fiery alto saxophone solos. Konitz, now 81, is one of the few “Birth of the Cool” players still living, and Dhillon actually had a chance to meet him, two years ago at the Stanford Jazz Workshop.
The dozen selections that became known as “Birth of the Cool” were recorded in New York City for Capitol Records between January 1949 and March 1950 and were originally issued as 78-RPM singles. It wasn’t until 1957, when Capitol compiled them for a 12-inch album, that a company executive titled them “Birth of the Cool.”
Davis previously had recorded as a sideman with Charlie Parker and others and cut a few records under his own name, but the Capitol sessions marked his stepping out as a major artist in his own right.
“This music really is ageless,” Dhillon says when asked why he enjoys playing jazz of such vintage.
“You never get tired of hearing albums like ‘Birth of the Cool’ and ‘Kind of Blue’ by Miles Davis and ‘Blue Train’ by John Coltrane,” Shaheed adds. “They stand the test of time.”