Piano poet unbound

When Omar Sharriff fingers the ivories at the intersection where blues and jazz meet, magic happens

Omar Sharriff, in a moment of communion with his muse.

Omar Sharriff, in a moment of communion with his muse.

Forty minutes into it, the lanky man on the electric Roland has flirted with 59 songs, in what must now hold the record for the longest piano medley in local history. To second-guess Omar Sharriff’s seamless stream-of-consciousness segues is to be dazzled by his unconventional, creative spins. The cavalcade is classic—from jumped-up jazz to lowdown Delta blues, Cole Porter to Hoagy Carmichael, Art Tatum to “Ebb Tide,” Al Green to Bobby “Blue” Bland and Chopin’s Funeral March to a rousing New Orleans second line send-off. He calmly ends with the old NBC sign-off tones.

If Jazzman’s Art of Pasta, where Sharriff has played regularly for seven years, or the Blue Lamp Lounge were open to suggestion, a blitz promotion for the weekly Omar Sharriff College of Musical Knowledge Social and Pleasure Club might be just the thing. Pass out pen and paper at the door and award prizes to the highest-scoring patrons. Sacramento could stand more music regulars as voluminously knowledgeable and tasteful as Sharriff.

But Sharriff is one complex man. People in the 1960s called him revolutionary. “I used to hang out with Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland,” he says. “I was for them. The police were so brutal on black people. If a black man was caught with a white woman in Oakland in the 1950s, the police would have beat him to death. That’s why I left the South. So I heard Huey, I did benefits for him, for Angela Davis. My name was big in the Bay Area. ‘Omar Sharriff the revolutionary,’ they called me.”

Unfortunately, as American society reflected more violence, so did Sharriff’s personal life. In 1968, his wife shot him after he arrived home early from a gig and found her with another man. His life was saved by Black Panther Party members patrolling the apartment building he stumbled out of. His song “Love Is Just for Fools” tells that story. In 1973, his second album for Arhoolie Records was titled Dirt on the Ground. That song was about the unsolved murder of his brother in Oakland.

Clearly, Sharriff launches into subjects most people at parties avoid—death, politics, racism, poverty, sex, union building, religion. His exceptional songwriting, not always comfortable, could find comparison with Gil Scott-Heron, a firebrand poet who influenced the entire hip-hop generation. So on a stormy night, just days after the September 11 attack, Sharriff’s perplexed thoughts on an insane world felt more than normal.

“I took on Islam in 1960 in order to do good,” Sharriff explains. “I am Imam Omar Sharriff, which means I am capable of being a teacher of Islam. And nothing in my Book [the Qur’an] says none of that stuff [bin Laden] is doing! He is just using [Allah] as a name, just like the Christians in the Crusades used the name of Jesus to kill people and take their land. Like the Americans did here with the Indians and the Mexicans. Every religion does that. Ever since I found out there was a mosque in the WTC, I say, ‘Kill that motherfucker.’ My book says an eye for an eye. If Mr. Bush needs me to help him, I’m an old man, but I’m ready to sign up! And every Muslim from Muhammad Ali to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar would say the same thing.” No one has given Sharriff any grief for his name or his religion, but he is ready. On his piano sits an American flag.

Sharriff was born David Alexander in 1938 in Shreveport, Louisiana; he grew up across the border in Marshall, Texas. He played drums in high school, but his first worldly revelation came after hearing boogie-woogie piano great Albert Ammons on the radio in 1945. “Ammons, Lloyd Glenn, Floyd Dixon, Ray Charles, Oscar Peterson. Those are the guys,” he says. Sharriff’s buttery, conversational baritone is reminiscent of another pioneer piano hero, blues balladeer Charles Brown.

Alexander joined the Navy in 1955, and afterward, headed to Oakland, California, a more progressive place than the Gulf Coast. Where Texas gave him a musical freedom with its dual tradition of jazz and blues, a second revelation came when he arrived west. In 1960, Alexander committed to Islam. He became Omar Hakim Khayyam, going onstage as Omar the Magnificent, playing benefits throughout the 1960s for the Black Panther Party. In 1968, he made his recorded debut—alongside singer L.C. Robinson and guitarist Albert Collins, the latter credited only as the “Texas Twister,” for contractual reasons—on Oakland Blues, which came out on the World Pacific label.

Sharriff’s flinty eyes smile for a bit, remembering. “I played blues in Oakland from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.,” he says. “Then I’d leave there and head over to San Francisco and play jazz jam sessions from 2 a.m. until whenever. Sometimes I’d play until time to go back across the bridge at night! Then, clubs started disappearing: The Jazz Workshop, the Matador, the Kit Kat. What I signed up for was what that city was, and it ain’t that.”

The Fillmore District, once known as “Harlem West,” fell apart. “Jazz clubs turned gay in the early 1970s,” Sharriff notes. “We used to play after hours, around-the-clock at Fisherman’s Wharf, Ghirardelli Square. In North Beach, they took all the bandstands away, put in jukeboxes and put girls up there. And we didn’t look as good as them girls do!” He retreated to Oakland, cheaper rent and the “ham-hock & lima-bean circuit.” Some club owners were happy when Sharriff departed the Bay Area in the early 1980s, ostracized for daring to organize musicians to get paid minimum wage for jam sessions.

Sharriff has his own small office in Jazzman’s. Stacked with sheet music, books and composition paper, it provides solace in a tough world. Early on he taught himself to read music, studying books on harmony, theory and music composition. “I don’t have a mind like Art Tatum,” he says. “He and Bird had photographic minds. I’m not gifted; I’m just a piano player with a psychotic problem about music. Somebody said I write like I am compelled by some unseen force to write. So I keep playing, in Sacramento eight years. It’s been a nightmare.” Compared to the heady days of the 1960s, Sharriff’s words sound harsh, but honest.

“I try to look at the good side, but it’s rare,” he says. “At the Jazz Jubilee here, now, those people are outta sight. They come from all over the world. Last year, I sold 20 CDs in one hour. And when I played in San Francisco recently, the women actually talked to me. They’d say, ‘Wow, you great! When are you coming back? Come sit down here … ’

“When I play in Sacramento, they avoid me like I got cancer. I go through five hundred years of music when I play! I go from Beethoven to Scott Joplin. Them motherfuckers just sit there. Occasionally someone comes up and says ‘Hey, that was great!’ and I say ‘Where you from?’ They say ‘Kansas City or New York.’ I know they were from somewhere else ’cause these people here, their souls are dead. San Francisco is home, but I ain’t got the money to go back.”

Sharriff and local blues entrepreneur Big Mike Balma have released three strong albums on Balma’s Have Mercy! label, beginning with Black Widow Spider in 1994.With each disc, 1995’s Badass and 1998’s Anatomy of a Woman, Sharriff’s lyrics give artful expression to his keen topical eye and take-no-prisoners psyche. The music is stellar too, ranging from classic shuffles to James Brown-styled funk-R&B, to Sharriff’s favorite Coltrane tunes.

This summer, the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission awarded Sharriff a “New Works” grant. He’ll premiere four new pieces 2 p.m. Sunday, October 21, at the Heritage Festival’s “Blues Is the Healer” event. The Sportsman’s Club triple bill features Sharriff with his quartet, plus Arkansas guitarist Michael Burks and Texas singer Roy Gaines. Sharriff promises classic new songs about men and women—“If God Is a Man,” “What’s In That Thing?” (“It’s about sex,” he says.) But the one to listen for is the song he’s readying right now.

It’s called “Osama bin Laden: The Plague.”