Khalil Simon, who co-founded Brothers of Brass on the streets of Atlanta in 2014 before relocating to Denver the following year, says Azad was instrumental in building the brass band’s popularity. Azad joined the act in 2017. That year, a bandmember had bailed at the last minute before the group's first tour, and Brothers of Brass drummer Jake Herman asked Azad, an old friend from the University of Kansas, to fill in.
Azad also loaned his vehicle for that tour, which included busking in parking lots where Phish was playing in Chicago, Dayton, Pittsburgh and New York City. That tour broadened the Brothers of Brass fan base and even earned the group good money.
“At first it was hard to convince somebody to come on a tour where there's no financial guarantee,” Simon says. “But Azad was totally down for it, and him being down for that helped build the band, because we would definitely go out there a lot and make some noise."
After that tour, Azad, who grew up in Manhattan, Kansas, and was living in Kansas City at the time, became a long-distance member, making the eight-and-a-half-hour drive to Denver for Brothers of Brass gigs. The group would travel the country, busking outside Phish and Dead & Company concerts.
Azad finally moved to Denver in November 2018 and shared a house with Simon for the next two years. Simon says Azad was a musical genius who could write everything from big-band and brass-band charts to film scores and simple jam-band songs.
“He also helped arrange pretty much all of our original music,” Simon says. “He had a hand in all of it, even stuff that needed to be rearranged. Or if we had a question about a chord or whatever, he was going to answer it."
In early 2019, Azad, who was a fan of Australian jazz-funk act Hiatus Kaiyote, jazz pianist Tigran Hamaysan and prog-metal band Animals as Leaders, joined Stop Motion, a local groove-based act that guitarist Evan Lei says combines harmony elements of jazz, the rhythmic elements of funk, soul, hip-hop, and pop melodies.
Stop Motion singer Faith Allen says Azad was an excellent drummer who had studied jazz composition and "had such an amazing understanding of not only time, but harmony and melody and just emotional expression in his playing. And I think that that's a big part of why we all musically fell in love with each other, because we all really love songs. And I think that we all were just on the same page about always serving the song."
Allen says it's not always the case that drummers have opinions about harmony and melody, but Azad "never shied away from weighing in about what he thought, and I think that he was the missing piece in making [us] one cohesive group."
Simon says Azad was a great teacher and had students who loved him.
In addition to playing in Brothers of Brass and Stop Motion, Azad did standup comedy around town.
“He made it a point to make sure that he made everybody laugh everywhere he went,” Simon says. “You couldn't really get one up on him when it came to joking. He would always have a comeback all the time, and you couldn’t really do anything about it. It was just Azad. He was just extremely funny.”
Simon remembers meeting Azad for the first time at a comedy club in Kansas that Herman took him to.
“He was honestly the only funny person there, like the only person that got a reaction," Simon says. "I was like, ‘Wow, this is really good.' I thought that he was doing that professionally at the time because he was dressed nice.”
Allen says it was an honor to be Azad's friend, because he was constantly testing out standup jokes on the Stop Motion bandmembers.
"Even if he wasn't saying like, 'I'm going to pitch this joke,' you just knew, 'Oh, this is something he's testing out, and he's trying to see what we think about it,' and it was just constantly cracking us up."
Lei says Azad also turned him and other Stop Motion members on to comedians he knew about.
"He and I would constantly nerd out about, specifically, John Mulaney," Lei says. "He was the only other person who could keep up or knew more of the obscure jokes not only from his specials, but also the YouTube interviews."
Simon says Azad was a wizard video gamer, particularly enjoying Soulcalibur, the weapon-based game that bandmembers would play after busking on the 16th Street Mall. Lei says the reason he's half decent at Super Smash Bros. is because of Azad.
Simon has set up a GoFundMe page to help raise funds for a memorial show for Azad at Levitt Pavilion for some time in June. While Brothers of Brass and Stop Motion will perform, so will some of Azad’s favorite local acts, including Ramakhandra and Wes Watkins.
“We're thinking about doing a comedy thing, too,” Simon says. “But honestly, with how much love and humor he put in everybody around him, I think that we'll just have an open mic. It's like an opportunity for people in the scene to go up and talk about him and to tell jokes.”
Allen hopes the memorial will be a "big celebration of everything that was him."