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Life Lessons: jazz pianist and educator Lee Shawby Peter Aaron

Leonard Cohen didn’t release his first album until he was 32, ancient by pop music standards. It took Al Jarreau until he was 35 to do the same. Composers César Franck and Leoš Janácek didn’t get their breakthroughs until they were in their 50s, while Anton Bruckner didn’t even enter the field until he was 40. But when it comes to being called a late bloomer, at 84 jazz pianist and educator Lee Shaw has them all beat.

Although she’s had a glowing reputation among her peers and with in-the-know jazz lovers for almost half a century, Shaw didn’t fully emerge as a leader and active recording artist until the early 2000s, which have seen a full-on renaissance for the Albany-area resident. With her top-flight trio of Saugerties bassist Rich Syracuse and Shokan drummer Jeff “Siege” Siegel, the pianist has recently found a welcoming second home on the European circuit and has released a string of acclaimed albums. To say Shaw puts her largely rut-treading, stay-put local jazz compatriots—even those half her age—to shame would be obvious. So, then, to what does the piano stylist attribute this later-in-life resurgence?

“Well, the real reason it began to happen is because of [Syracuse and Siegel],” Shaw says with characteristic modesty, also crediting her record label and publicist. “Rich and Jeff worked on us getting over to Europe and getting a label, and it’s been wonderful. We’re like family, the three of us. I feel so lucky.”

Shaw was born in the dust-blown town of Ada, Oklahoma, in 1926. Surprisingly cultured for its size and remoteness, Ada hosted concerts by visiting symphonic orchestras and even a local opera group, which, along with her school’s excellent music program, inspired Shaw to learn piano. With the help of lessons she was soon able to read music and play by ear the Great American Songbook standards she was hearing on the radio “in the 1930s, when they were new.” She left for Chicago to attend the American Conservatory of Music with the aim of becoming an accompanist for classical singers. But before that could happen, her musical life took an unexpected turn.

“I had studied [cocktail pianist] Cy Walter and could play in that style, but I felt that something was still missing,” Shaw says. “Then my agent took me to hear Count Basie, and I knew I had to study jazz.” At first it was difficult to find a jazz-sympathetic teacher among the conservatory’s classical faculty, but soon she was performing in a piano/bass duo. In 1961 she talked a club owner into also hiring a young drummer just in from New York, Stan Shaw, who would marry Lee only six months after they met, remaining with her for the rest of his life.

After a year in Puerto Rico and a brief return to Chicago, the two headed to Stan’s hometown. Although it would be decades until it recorded, the Lee Shaw Trio, which at different times featured such bass greats as Slam Stewart, Richard Davis, and Major Holley, became a hit at Manhattan’s jazz temples. By now Lee was also making a name for herself as a pianist, taking lessons from the great Oscar Peterson and even being offered a job by Lionel Hampton (not wanting to be away from Stan, she turned it down). Unfortunately for the Shaws, however, by this time the landscape was about to change.

“When the Beatles came along club owners were less interested in jazz,” recalls Lee. “And the [late ’60s] race riots made Harlem clubs unsafe for us.” So in 1971 the couple relocated to the Capital Region, were they became the royalty of the local scene by booking and backing imported horn players like Dexter Gordon, Al Cohn, Pepper Adams, Al Gray, Zoot Sims, and Frank Foster. In order to take care of Stan’s ailing parents, they moved again in 1976, to Florida, where Lee taught piano. There, she met a teenaged, classically weaned player who would become her best-known student: John Medseki of Medeski, Martin & Wood.

“As a musician I couldn’t have gotten a better foundation than the one I got from Lee,” says Medeski, a Woodstock resident. “She’s a living musical encyclopedia, she knows hundreds of tunes. And she’s just as hungry now to grow and learn herself as she’s ever been.”

By the early ’80s the Shaws were back in Albany, debuting with 1984’s live-in-Oklahoma Lee Shaw OK (Cadence Jazz Records) and working until the early ’90s, when Stan became ill and could no longer play. As she cared for Stan (who would eventually pass in 2001) Lee remade the trio to include Hudson Valley guitarist Mike DeMicco and Syracuse for 1996’s Essence (Cadence Jazz). As Stan’s health declined the unit backed away from recording until 2002, when a new lineup of Shaw, Syracuse, and Siegel cut A Place for Jazz (Cadence Jazz). The newfound, steady stream of releases picked up again with two self-released sets, 2006’s Little Friend and 2007’s Originals, getting the trio attention overseas and leading to yearly European touring.

“[Playing with Shaw] is really inspirational,” says Siegel. “She’s incredibly driven, and she lives for every single note. She’s really taught me a lot.”

2008’s CD/DVD Live in Graz (Artists Recording Collective), which captures Shaw and band in Germany, introduced many to her fleet, effervescent, and always surprising music; the studio set Blossoms (ARC) followed soon after. So well received has she been that in 2009 Art Gallery Reutlingen held the two-day Lee Shaw Jazz Festival, which resulted in a live album named for the venue and featuring saxophonists Johannes Enders and Michael Lutzeier. Her newest release, the exquisite Together Again: Live at the Egg (like Live at Art Gallery Reutlingen, on ARC), which finds her reunited with Medeski onstage in Albany, is a master class in elegant improvisation.

So what’s the best part about being a teacher-musician who’s finally getting her due? “Learning!” says the 1993 Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame inductee without missing a beat. “But I most look forward to playing. It doesn’t matter if it’s a club or a concert—I just wanna play.”

John Medeski and Lee Shaw’s Together Again: Live at the Egg is out now through Artists Recording Collective. The Lee Shaw Trio plays at 74 State Street in Albany on second and fourth Saturdays and the Stockade Inn in Schenectady on second Fridays; the Lee Shaw Duo performs at One Caroline Street in Saratoga Springs on third Sundays; Shaw plays a solo jazz brunch at Justin’s in Albany on third Sundays.

www.myspace.com/leeshawmusic.



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