During the 1960’s many American jazz musicians settled all across the Europe. Some of them left the US to avoid prejudice, some looked for work and others found a new home. Sahib Shihab was an American reed player who ended up in Europe while touring with good friend Quincy Jones’ ”Free & Easy” show. Shihab’s lifelong career began when his mother gave him a saxophone at a young age. From 1959 to his passing in 1989, Shihab spent most of his time in Copenhagen, Denmark, which considering it’s size had a very vibrant jazz scene. In 1969, Shihab married Maiken Gulmann, a Danish native. They met through mutual friends after a Duke Ellington concert at the legendary jazz club Montmartre in Copenhagen. Shihab, born Edmond Gregory, was among a group of jazz players converting to Ahmadiyya Islam in the late 40’s – early 50’s. The name Sahib Shihab, meaning ”Possessor of a Meteor,” was given to him by Talib Dawud, an Antiguan trompet player and muslim convert.
The following is an interview with Sahib Shihabs wife, Maiken Gulmann, conducted in 2011:
How did Sahib end up living in Denmark?
He left the US because he was tired of being kept down as a black man. He was always being confronted with being different. Sahib decided to settle down after the second tour with Quincy Jones’ Free & Easy show. He travelled back and forth between Denmark and Sweden from around 1959.
Do you know what made Sahib decide to convert to Islam?
Sahib’s parents were Catholics. Sahib thought that it was only due to political correctness that they were Catholics. He really didn’t like it too much. When Sahib was around 19 years old, a Pakistani missionary based out of Washington DC came up to New York. The missionary made contact with several jazz musicians. They had some meetings where they studied the Qu’ran. Some of the musicians ended up converting because they percieved the Qu’ran as non-racist. In the beginning of the Qu’ran it talks about how we are all created equal and that all slaves should be freed. There were many statements in the Qu’ran that corresponded with the political movements during those times. There were a handful or more that converted at the same time as Sahib. It was Yusef Lateef, Art Blakey and several members of the Jazz Messengers, Dizzy Gillespie and several others. Some of the convertees later departed ways with their new found religion, but that is another story.
Sahib’s mother died when he was 14 years old. His father never accepted Sahibs decision about converting.
Prior to this interview you stated that there actually could be benefits to being a Muslim in the US at that time. Do you mind elaborating on that?
Well, when Sahib was touring the South, during segregation, he was among the few who could walk into a restaurant and buy food for the other musicians. If you had a name like Sahib Shihab you probably weren’t African American but something else. It was absolutely a plus to be Muslim in the US during that time.
How would you describe Sahib as a person?
He was a very deep thinker and a very meditative person. His hobby’s included photography, chess and Tai Chi which he practised from around 1970. He was very spiritual. The music was a part of that. He sometimes lacked some humility. He was a real perfectionist. He demanded a lot from his fellow musicians.
Sahib had this funny saying that his first love was his God, his second love was his music and his third love was his wife. That was the order and I needed to respect it. It actually suited me fine because without his spirituality he wouldn’t have been the human that he was.
Copenhagen had a pretty lively jazz scene in the ’60’s-’70’s, with several prominent American musicians living there. Did you socialize with any of them?
Sahib wasn’t a social person. He didn’t care about going out but he did it because it was neccesary in his line of business. He was a real family man. We went to quite a few parties in Denmark when our children were still young because the comraderie among American jazz musicians was really good. In the end though it was just too much drinking and we couldn’t really participate because we didn’t drink. It simply became boring in the long run.
Kenny Drew was one of the musicians that Sahib got along really well. They had a record label and a publishing company together. Horace Parlan was our music teacher. He taught our daughter Marisha piano. Ed Thigpen was also someone Sahib liked a lot. Ed was a Catholic but they were both very spiritual. Thad Jones also lived in Denmark and we were close. Oscar Pettiford died before I got to know Sahib but they were very close friends too. Brew Moore and Al Heath were also two people that we saw while they lived in Denmark.
One of the Danes that was closest to Sahib was Anders Stefansen. He had a booking company called SBA and he booked all the big shows in Denmark. He had a jazz pub in Tivoli Gardens called ”Sluk Efter”. It was also Anders that got Sahib to Denmark the first time around through Quincy Jones.
How was it to be black and Muslim in Denmark back then?
One has the tendency of staying around like minded people. We got together with musicians and Muslims most of the time. In regards to his faith, Sahib enjoyed going to our Mosque in Hvidovre (a suburb of Copenhagen). It was a place that he loved to go to. At a minimum Sahib would go to the Mosque every Friday and whenever else we could fit it in a visit in our schedule.
Also, we were very close as a family after we had children. We had two children quite quickly after we got married. It was so different to be a Muslim in Denmark back then. It wasn’t until the oil crisis hit Denmark in 1974 that people here became aware of the Middle East. (Laughs). It’s true!
It is unbelievably what has happened politically in Denmark from 1965 until today. I really don’t know how Sahib would have dealt with his life as a black American and a Muslim. He would be all too sensative to repeat his experiences from his time in the US.
What kind of music would Sahib listen to at home?
He never listened to anything at home. Never! (Laughs). He wrote a lot of music. He wrote and wrote and wrote. Nobody could get in contact with him when he worked on his music. He was completely in his own world. Once a project was done and recorded he sort of lost his interest in it. It was finished and he was on to the next.
How did Sahib practice Islam?
It was actually only his name that was Muslim when we first met in 1965. If you asked Sahib then he was definitely a Muslim but he wasn’t practitioning at all. I didn’t really know what it meant to be a Muslim before I met Sahib. I started to read the Qu’ran and at first, I understood very little. I persevered and got a few points that Sahib and I began to discuss. One way or another he began praying. I saw the man I had met beginning to change and turning into something so beautiful. He actually started to pray 5 times a day. We prayed together.
During the period when Yusef Lateef and his wife lived in Denmark, we got very involved in Islam. I converted before our marriage. Sahib and I got married in 1969 at the cityhall of Albertslund and then we had a religious wedding at the mosque. I am still going to the same mosque to this day.
According to Islam everything that has a damaging effect to the body is considered forbidden or haram, as it’s called. That said, I have never heard anything specific about pot smoking. Sahib liked to smoke pot. He didn’t do it on the regular or constantly but he used pot especially when he was writing music so he could shut the world out.
Sahib moved to LA in 1973. You and the rest of the family joined him shortly thereafter. You ended up staying for only three years. Why did you move? And why did you only stay until 1976?
Well, Sahib didn’t feel he was going anywhere musically in Denmark. Quincy Jones also wanted him to come back to the US. Sahib had gotten a permanent job with the gigantic chain of hotels called Ramada Inn. That meant economic stability for us as a family. Sahib bought a house and everything was wonderful.
One day Ramada Inn went bankrupt and we found ourselves stuck between a rock and a hard place. It was really regrettable to live there with our two children while our financial base disappeared. We made it for there three years but it was tough.
In 1976, our daugther, Marissa, had reached school age. In LA they had just started what is referred to as ”bussing” which meant that we couldn’t dertemine which public school our daughter should go to. Instead the students got ”bussed” around and we didn’t want that for our children. I decided to take the childre back home. We still had our house in Charlottenlund (in Denmark). Sahib stayed for half a year longer after we left before he also returned.
Between 1986 and his passing in 1989 Sahib lived between the States and Denmark. What happened when he got sick?
He was living in the States when he got sick. He actually thought that he had gotten a food poisoning. He had terrible stomach pains and had to go to the hospital in New York. The doctors made some tests and found out that Sahib had cancer. The doctors contemplated giving him a liver transplant but Sahib was already too weak at that point. The doctors said though that he was going to live at least half a year past his diagnosis. It was late 1989 when he got sick, he died of liver cancer on October 24th, 1989. He became terminally ill so quickly but thankfully he didn’t suffer. He died in Tennessee, with a daughter from a previous relationship by his side.
Talib Dawud who also gave Shihab his name came down to Tennessee from New York to bury him. It was an Islamic funeral. In Islam, a person should be burried within 24 hours but with Sahib two days went by before he was put to rest.
Maiken stills lives in Denmark but has moved away from Copenhagen. She currently enjoys the life as a grandmother.
Sahib’s son, the internationally renowned photographer, Jamil GS and his partner director Helene Moltke-Leth is currently working on a documentary about his father. You can get more info here:
All Photos Copyright Sahib Shihab Foundation.