Composing American history through jazz

Talking The Harlem Nutcracker and Echoes with alto saxophonist Jaleel Shaw

3 minute read
Shaw poses for a portrait-style photo, holding his saxophone.
Jaleel Shaw will perform with the Philly POPS in 'The Harlem Nutcracker.' (Photo courtesy of Jaleel Shaw.)

As we return to in-person live music events for the holidays, jazz enthusiasts will be especially excited about this iconic, high-spirited performance as part of the Penn Live Arts series at the Annenberg Center. Jaleel Shaw will be one of the featured alto saxophonists along with Dick Oats and the legendary Charles McPherson in a tribute to Charlie Parker’s 100th birthday. This is a unique dual program because it embodies two important musical experiences in American history.

Know your roots

The first set, performed by the Philly POPS Jazz Orchestra led by artistic director Terrell Stafford, highlights “The Harlem Nutcracker Suite.” Recorded in 1960, it features jazz interpretations of the 1892 ballet The Nutcracker by Tchaikovsky, arranged by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. The second set will meticulously highlight the works of Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, the American alto saxophonist, composer, and bandleader, an artist considered one of the greatest jazz saxophonists and most influential soloists of the bebop era.

Shaw is a serious talent who encompasses all of the musicianship of classical and contemporary jazz. He grew up in the Oak Lane section of Philadelphia and is a graduate of George Washington High School. Shaw has an expansive list of live musical experiences that have shaped his artistic expression. As a student, he studied at local institutions such as Settlement Music School of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz. Shaw says that growing up in Philadelphia offered him unique opportunities to study and to be mentored by world-class musicians at the height of their careers such as Grover Washington Jr. and John Blake Jr. Shaw earned an undergraduate degree from Berklee School of Music in Boston and a graduate degree from Manhattan School of Music in New York City.

Whether performing with living jazz legends or composing commissioned works, Shaw’s sound is intricate, melodic, and powerful. In 2006, Shaw joined the Roy Haynes Quartet and was featured on the legendary drummer’s Grammy-nominated album Whereas. Shaw says “playing in the presence of Roy Haynes gave me the rare opportunity to witness the greatness of a true master and architect of modern jazz.” These experiences not only enabled Shaw to hone in on his craft on a higher level but also taught him the history and the politics of the music and equally important: the business. In addition, Shaw has played with the Mingus Big Band and has also performed with Christian McBride, Jason Moran, Stefon Harris, Roy Hargrove, Chick Corea, Dave Holland, and Jimmy Cobb to name a few.

There’s no question why Shaw was chosen as a featured solo by long-time collaborator and artistic director Stafford. Stafford says that Oats, Shaw, and McPherson each are “able to embody the spirit and playing of Charlie Parker like few others can. And as someone who has influenced almost every modern jazz musician, it’s an honor to celebrate Bird on his 100th birthday.”

Shaw says he truly appreciates the opportunity to play Philadelphia projects, especially collaborative efforts such as the Philly POPS Jazz Orchestra. “I look forward to coming home to play Philadelphia; the performances are so energetic and responsive.”

Vibrations in the Echoes

Shaw’s melodic sounds create unique, intense vibrations within his classic interpretations for true lovers of musicianship. He brings that same intensity to his own compositions and isn’t afraid to draw from challenging topics and events. Shaw shares that intensity in an inspiring performance dedicated to Tamir Rice, a young boy with a toy gun who was tragically killed by the police: “I wrote that piece after the verdict was announced and I realized that this young child would never get to experience the joys of life or get to fulfill his dreams.” Shaw says the feelings of helplessness, numbness, and common occurrences of these types of killings inspired him to create this music.

Shaw’s latest release, Echoes, is a solo saxophone digital album released on his independent label Changu Records and is available on Bandcamp.

What, When, Where

The Harlem Nutcracker. Arranged by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. Conducted by the Philly POPS Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia, with Charles McPherson, Dick Oates, and Jaleel Shaw. $30-$99. December 18, 2021 at 8pm, at the Annenberg Center’s Zellerbach Theatre, 3680 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. (215) 898-3900 or


Penn Live Arts accommodates the needs of individuals with physical disabilities. View their accessibility information online.

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