Jazz pianist Lee Shaw dies at 89

Lee Shaw, known affectionately as the Capital Region’s first lady of jazz, died Sunday at the age of
Jazz pianist Lee Shaw received the Jazz Hero award in April during a concert at Proctors put on by the Schenectady-Amsterdam Musical Union. The award, given by the Jazz Journalists Association, honored Shaw for her support of jazz and education, passio...
Jazz pianist Lee Shaw received the Jazz Hero award in April during a concert at Proctors put on by the Schenectady-Amsterdam Musical Union. The award, given by the Jazz Journalists Association, honored Shaw for her support of jazz and education, passio...

People trying to get to know Lee Shaw had an immediate problem. She was always more interested in them.

“She had this way of turning around the conversation right back at you,” said Jeff Siegel, a member of the Lee Shaw Trio since 2001. “She was completely selfless. She’d meet complete strangers at one of our gigs, and she’d be totally focused on that one person. They wanted to know about her, but she’d be the one asking them where they were from. She was the one asking all the questions.”

Shaw, affectionately known as the Capital Region’s “first lady of jazz,” died Sunday at the age of 89. A native of Cushing, Oklahoma, and a long-time resident of Cohoes, Shaw was under hospice care at the Eddy Memorial Geriatric Center in Troy.

“She was extremely curious about everything in life, and she was very interested in other people,” said Diane Reiner, a long-time friend of Shaw’s, who up until a few short weeks ago was still playing the piano for Eddy residents. “They’d ask her a question, but instead of answering, she’d ask a question about them.”

The Lee Shaw Trio played around the world but had been based in the Capital Region for more than 40 years. Their last performance was in early September at the Grappa ’72 Ristorante in Albany. She began suffering health problems as far back as 2007, when the trio played in Europe.

“She had COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease] for many years, and when the trio first toured Europe in 2007 I traveled with them and it became apparent she had a problem with her lungs,” said Reiner. “She had just stopped smoking then, but the problem got worse over the years. She knew her condition was a result of her smoking, but she told me that it was also because she played in so many small clubs years ago that we’re full of smoke. She remembered having to wave away the smoke with her hand just to get to the band stand.”

Shaw began playing the piano at age 5 and studied classical music at the Oklahoma College for Women before continuing her education at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago where she earned a master’s degree. She began her professional career as a pianist working in the Chicago area where she met her Stan Shaw, her future husband. The couple formed a trio and were married in 1962, and moved to Puerto Rico for a year where Lee studied at the Conservatoria de Musica de Puerto Rico.

Their next move took them to New York City, where they played at The Embers, the Village Vanguard and several other venues before moving to the Albany area in1971. Rich Syracuse, a bassist, joined the trio in 1992, and Siegel came aboard soon after Stan Shaw’s death in 2001. Siegel had been with the Roland Hannah Trio throughout much of the 1990s.

“I had worked with the late and great Sir Roland Hannah, and when I first met Lee her playing was at that high level,” said Siegel. “I remember being so impressed. She’s in the mold of those great, classic piano players, so it was incredibly inspirational to play with somebody, who like Hannah, had that kind of artistry.”

Siegel also remembered Shaw as a warm and caring individual.

“I don’t think I ever met a more gracious and humble person,” he said. “She had this wonderful ability to communicate and relate to people. People would meet her and within a couple of minutes they felt like they were life-long friends.”

Reiner first met Shaw more than 35 years ago.

“We heard there was a piano teacher that moved into the neighborhood so I took my teenage son over to the house to see if we could get some lessons,” said Reiner. “Her husband very gently told me that that she taught jazz for people who already knew how to play the piano. That ended our excursion into music, but began our long friendship.

“She was a very gentile, a very intelligent woman,” added Reiner. “She conducted all aspects of her life in wonderful fashion. All of her friends are just so happy to have known Lee and to have had her in our lives.“

For much of the last 10 years, Shaw had been playing regularly at the Stockade Inn. On most gigs an oxygen tank was at her side.

“You knew that it was obviously getting difficult for her, but she’d come in and play beautiful music for hours,” said Jeff McDonald, owner and general manager at the Stockade Inn. ”She was very passionate about her music, but also a very caring person. She had a close group of friends in the music community that cared for her at the end, and I heard she was still playing the piano for the residents at her nursing home until very recently. She was an unbelievable lady.“

A private funeral service will be held soon, according to Reiner, as well as a special event honoring Shaw’s life and career.

“We are going to announce a public celebration sometime in the very near future,” said Reiner. “We’re going to put on a concert that will include the people who played with her.”

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