Bowing to Pop

Jawad is the kind of cat who can go anyplace -- a coffee shop, a church social, a frat mixer, a middle school demonstration, maybe even a balls-to-the-wall punk club -- and pop open his guitar case, pull out his ax and play an impromptu set that audiences can feast on. The dude is the very definition of eclectic.

How eclectic? Well, let's break down an average set: Aside from three or four originals, he'll likely offer up a little Stevie Wonder, a couple of Sting tunes, a Burt Bacharach number for the swingers, some Emerson, Lake & Palmer or Steely Dan for the old-school hipsters, some definitive Dylan or Neil Young, a shot of Curtis Mayfield or Babyface and maybe, just maybe, if the audience seems primed for it, a version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "My Favorite Things."

"I do a little bit of everything: jazz, blues, folk, pop," explains Jawad. "That's because I listen to a little bit of everything, and everything comes out of me. What I do when I take someone else's song, I try to maintain the essence, yet put my mark on it. I always do a different interpretation of the song without, you know, taking it somewhere else."

Jawad's full name is Jawad Abdul-Jabbar; his birth name is Jarrett Andre Shears. But he prefers to go by Jawad, instead of his full Muslim name, perhaps because of the complications that arise from a musician who's also a believer in the Islamic faith.

Jawad likes to play down his significance -- he's a telecommunications technician by day -- but his life story betrays his modesty. His tale echoes the folksy, rambling, peripatetic lives of such legendary migrant guitarists as Robert Johnson or Woody Guthrie and Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter.

As a kid growing up in Chicago, Jawad was weaned on such guitar virtuosos as Wes Montgomery, Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King, Albert King and so on. When his mother bought him an acoustic guitar at age eight, the young musician started to put all those pieces together.

Jawad ran headlong into two new influences when he attended Montana State University in 1974; this rhythm-and-blues-loving brother soon became exposed to country and bluegrass. In fact, he formed a trio with his roommate, who could play mandolin, banjo and guitar, and his roommate's friend, a damn fine fiddle player. They would travel around, playing festivals and competitions, which they often would win. It was all a trip for Jawad, playing country music for the alabaster masses.

"Every time they saw a black man in Montana with a guitar, the first thing they thought about was Charley Pride, especially back then. There was no Hootie & the Blowfish. A brother unplugged was a rarity, to say the least," he says.

Jawad did not graduate from Montana State, but found his calling. He traipsed all around looking for gigs -- in Nebraska, Colorado and eventually back up to his native Chicago. He finally found his way to Houston in 1978, when a guy who was riding a freight train hipped Jawad to Texas's largest city. The musician moved to Montrose, where he lived not too far from a masjid, a place of worship for Muslims. Jawad became intrigued by the teachings in the Koran and, within two weeks, converted to Islam. "To me, the questions and missing pieces in the Bible were something that used to concern me," says Jawad. "When I found out there was a book that had not been altered, then that was attractive to me."

With his new religion, everything seemed right with the world, except for one thing: Muslims kind of frown on the practice of music. "You have like these three schools of thought," says Jawad. "You have those who say that it's forbidden. Then you have those who say that it's okay, depending on how you use it -- 'cause you can use a hammer to bust someone's skull or you can use a hammer to build a house. And then there are those who ride in between, that say it has harmful effects, and you should stay away from it -- but it's not a sin. That affected me to the point, for a while, that I stopped playing music, I think, for about three years."

But as somebody profound once said, you can't keep a good man down. Jawad realized that playing music is what he's here for. He got back behind his guitar in 1985. "It's in me," he says. "As a child, I grew up with that in me. So why should I deny my nature? For me, that's unnatural."

These days, having recently parted with his fourth wife ("They say Muslim men can have four wives -- I didn't have them at the same time," he jokes) and seeing his 20-year-old daughter excel in her third year of college in North Carolina, Jawad is now focusing on more creative endeavors. He has recorded an album of original songs, The Collected Soul, which he distributes and sells at his gigs. He does periodic shows at Borders bookstores and Diedrich coffee shops, and not long ago he completed a weekly residency at the Red Cat Jazz Café. He also performs around town with Kenjawa, a supergroup he formed with two locals, drummer/percussionist Kenya Shabazz and rapper/ poet ZIN.

But his proudest accomplishment is something he started doing a year ago: teaching music in public schools. After performing at various schools throughout the years, he joined the Texas Institute for Arts in Education to teach after-school music programs. Explains Jawad: "We come into the classroom and use music to hopefully enrich the academic program."

Jawad's not boasting here. There's no room in his humble persona for such unattractive behavior. He's just another musician trying to make a dollar out of 15 cents. "I'm just doing what I am," says Jawad. "I'm just doing what I am."

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Craig D. Lindsey
Contact: Craig D. Lindsey