Sayyd Abdul Al-Khabyyr

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Al-Hajj Sayyd Abdul Al-Khabyyr (born Russell Linwood Thomas; 22 March 1935) [Muslim named adopted in 1971], is an African-American/Canadian saxophonist (soprano, alto, tenor and baritone), clarinetist, flautist (mostly C flute and piccolo) and composer.

Born in Harlem, New York as Russell Linwood Thomas, Abdul Al-Khabyyr has lived most of his life in Montreal, Quebec. He became a naturalized Canadian in 1965 and converted to Islam in 1971.[1]

As a young man he studied clarinet and saxophone in New York City with Cecil Scott and others. In 1954 he traveled to Montreal with trombonist Snub Mosley to play in various nightclubs. While there he met his future wife and decided to stay, working with Al Cowans (1954-1955) and then leading his own band (1955-1957). In Ottawa from 1957 to 1970, he was a member at various times of the Canadian Jazz Quartet (with Richard Wyands on piano, Wyatt Ruther on bass, and Doug Johnston on drums), the Ottawa Saxophone Quartet and also studio/dance bands led by Champ Champagne, Buster Monroe and others.[2] He led his own orchestra at the Gatineau Country Club from 1959 to 1965, except for a short break in 1963 as he recovered from a bout with Polio.[3]

From 1970 to 1980 he returned to Montreal where he was a teacher in the Jazz Music department of the Université de Montréal. His pupils included the flautist Jennifer Waring, trumpeter Chris Place and saxophonists Mary-Jo Rudolf, Richard Beaudet and Rémi Bolduc. During that time Abdul Al-Khabyyr also performed in various contemporary music settings (such as the SMCQ ensemble, Walter Boudreau's Infonie, Dionne-Brégent, TRIO 3, etc.), worked in studio and theatre orchestras, and was heard regularly playing jazz at his own Café Mo-Jo.[2]

Dividing his time between Montréal and New York during the 1980s, Abdul Al-Khabyyr had permanently returned to New York by the end of the decade. He was a member, from 1980 to 1982 and again from 1987 to 1993, of the Duke Ellington Orchestra.[2] He toured internationally with Dizzy Gillespie from 1983 to 1987, appearing alongside Gillespie in the feature films “A Night in Havana” and “A Night in Chicago”.[4]

He is the only person in history to ever perform all saxophone parts consecutively in Duke Ellington Orchestra - Baritone sax, 2nd tenor, 1st tenor, 2nd alto and 1st and lead alto.[5]

He also recorded and performed in New York with the Savoy Sultans, Illinois Jacquet, the Afro-Asian Jazz Ensemble, and the Charli Persip Superband.[2] Abdul Al-Khabyyr also made several appearances accompanied by his sons and other musicians (including Oliver Jones) at the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal.[6] On June 26, 2011 a tribute concert was held during the festival to honor Abdul Al-Khabyyr’s contributions to the Montreal jazz scene.[7]

Personal life[edit]

Married since 1955 (jazz great Charlie Biddle served as best man), Abdul Al-Khabyyr has 5 children. Although all play musical instruments, two of his children, Nasyr (drums) and Muhammad (trombone), have followed in his footsteps and become professional musicians. Also notable, Abdul Al-Khabyyr is the father-in-law of Grammy Award-winning jazz musician Kenny Garrett. In 1971, after reading the biography of Malcolm X, he and his family converted to Islam; Abdul Al-Khabyyr went on to become an Imam.[1] Now living in Montréal, Abdul Al-Khabyyr no longer performs after having suffered strokes in 2001 and 2004.


  1. ^ a b Brunet, Alain (25 June 1994). "Les trésors cachés de la famille Abdul Al Khabyyr". La Presse (in French). pp. D10. 
  2. ^ a b c d "Al-Hajj Sayyd Abdul Al-Khabyyr". The Canadian Encyclopedia. Dominion Institute. Retrieved 18 December 2012. 
  3. ^ Cote, Starr (16 March 1962). "Polio Stricken Musician Maintains High Hopes". Ottawa Citizen. 
  4. ^ "A Night in Havana: Dizzy Gillespie in Cuba" (CREDITED AS SAYYID ABDUL AL-KABIR). IMDb. 1989. Retrieved 18 December 2012. 
  5. ^ Video on YouTube
  6. ^ Al-khabyyr "List of Montreal Jazz Festival shows with Sayyd Abdul Al-Khabyyr". Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. Retrieved 18 December 2012. 
  7. ^ "Time Capsule with special guest Kenny Garrett: A Tribute to Sayyd Abdul Al-Khabyyr". Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. Retrieved 18 December 2012.