Friday night at Schenectady’s Stockade Inn, and people sit in elegant, high-backed chairs by the fireplace.
Others chat on dark green sofas near the front of the room, legs tucked behind long coffee tables. More people are at the bar, sipping cosmopolitans and martinis from conical glasses with long stems.
Some conversation stops when Lee Shaw is ready at her piano. She and her longtime companions, bassist Rich Syracuse and drummer Jeff “Siege” Siegel, begin a Dave Brubeck composition; you can feel the reverence and respect in the room, from people who want to see sure hands in action and hear sure jazz swirl throughout the room.
Cohoes resident Shaw has both. She’s spent 40 years with her own trio, and her career behind ivory keys has taken her to clubs, concerts and festivals throughout the United States and Europe. She has been described as the Capital Region’s first lady of jazz.
“It’s very flattering,” she says of the title. “And I think that name was used to refer to Marian McPartland for a long time. It does have a nice ring to it.”
Shaw, dressed this night in a bright red jacket and black slacks, is generous with her time — spending nearly an hour answering questions about her life, even as the 7 p.m. appointment with the piano ticks closer.
Thinking as one
She answers quickly about retirement.
“Why?” she asks. “What’s better than what I do, to learn and grow? My bassist and I have been together coming on 18 years. Jeff, the drummer, has been with us for nine years. I think both of them are extremely talented and creative, and sometimes it’s almost as though I’m listening to them tell me where to go. One of the things many critics have noted is we seem to be a family, we seem to think as one person. And that is very rewarding and stimulating and wonderful. It’s like when you fall in love with somebody and that person is able to read your mind.”
Shaw’s life has been full of the rewarding, the stimulating, the wonderful. She was born in Cushing, Okla., in 1926 and was raised in Ada, Oklahoma’s Bible Belt country.
Music was an early love. Shaw began playing piano at age 5, studying classical methods and graduating from the Oklahoma College for Women with a bachelor’s degree. She later received a master’s degree at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago.
Her only exposure to jazz as a teenager was on the radio, where she first heard Art Tatum and a cocktail pianist named Cy Walter. By the 1950s, she was working as a cocktail pianist in clubs all over Chicago.
The joy of jazz
“My booking agent took me to hear Count Basie one time and my line is, ‘I died and went to heaven,’ ” she said. “And I started all over again because I knew absolutely none of the vocabulary. But the swing, the joy! I was going to be a professional accompanist. I was a dynamite sight reader and I’d done a lot of accompanying in my life. The only jazz I ever heard in Oklahoma was big band and I didn’t even consider that to be jazz.”
She began to listen to pianist Oscar Peterson, and that led her to pianist George Shearing. “This would have been in the late 1950s, early 1960s, so all the people who were around at that time were people who influenced me.”
Music consumed whole days, week after week.
“I had so much to learn,” Shaw said. “I was working five nights a week solo in Chicago. I’d get up in the morning, 10 o’clock, have a cup of coffee, go to the piano and sit there until it was time to have my dinner, dress and go to my gig at night. And I did that over and over. I had some help, there was this bassist who helped me a lot. He’d bring his bass and try to teach me the vocabulary and voicing. I also studied for a little while with a man named Alan Swain.”
The musician wasn’t on her own after meeting drummer Stan Shaw in Chicago. They formed a piano trio and, after a 1962 wedding, a personal duo.
The Shaws moved to Puerto Rico shortly after their marriage, where Lee studied at the Conservatorio de Musica de Puerto Rico. The couple were in New York City a year later, filling the stage at The Embers, Village Vanguard, the Half Note and other places. The Shaws moved to Albany in 1971 and made fans. The fans and friends connection is one of the nicest things about the music business.
“It’s very gratifying and you get to know them, some of them,” Shaw said. “Many of them become friends, so it goes beyond being fans.”
Sometimes, friends suggest opportunities.
“When my husband and I . . . had been here maybe three or four years and we met someone who became a devoted fan and he said ‘How would you like to spend six weeks in New Orleans?’ He arranged it. There was somebody playing at a hotel called the Chateau LeMoyne, right on the edge of Bourbon Street, and this pianist wanted to leave his gig for six weeks. We spent six wonderful weeks there, so sometimes fans become friends and very, very helpful.”
After each jazzy song at the Stockade, Shaw and her partners received applause from the 40 people watching and listening. That’s something musicians always appreciate.
“What they’re giving you is approval and sometimes, depending on the degree of it, love,” Shaw said. “It’s very satisfying . . . I think I’ve always been very critical of myself, which is not a bad thing to do.”
Maybe too critical. Shaw said she believes she has become a “novelty” in jazz clubs. She thinks some people come to her shows to see a woman in her 80s play the piano.
“I can’t tell you how many women walk up to me and say, ‘You’re such an inspiration,’ ” she said. “I shouldn’t be an inspiration. There should be lots and lots of people like me.”
But people have better manners than they used to.
“It’s been about 30 years since I’ve heard, ‘Gee, you play good for a girl,’ ” she said. “I heard that all the time, so did all of us. The women’s movement in the ’70s obliterated a lot of that.”
She keeps playing. And keeps learning.
“I am very interested in the music, and I’ve done a lot of research on the music,” Shaw said. “I would say I know who wrote every song that I play but I look things up. Today I looked up the composers of two tunes, and I do this all the time. I’m interested in not just the music, but how did the music get to be the music? That is one way of communicating with an audience; the teacher in me comes out.”
Learning means books. Shaw has always been happy to read and develop understanding, and not only for music. When she and Stan were first married, she didn’t know much about cooking.
“I would bring books home,” she said. “We couldn’t afford to eat in restaurants to eat the things I’d read about. I learned how to make bagels. For many, many, years every Sunday morning, I made a dozen bagels. I learned to sew. I gardened. I used to love to look like a mud pie gardening.”
Shaw has seen changes in musical tastes, and not all of those changes have been good for jazz players.
“The big change in jazz, I think, came in the 1960s when the Beatles arrived,” she said. “All of the young possible fans said, ‘I don’t want to listen to my father’s music. I want to listen to this music.’ We were living in New York at the time, and it was a very bad time for jazz musicians. Clubs, many of them, removed the pianos and removed the sound systems because the rock musicians had their own stuff.”
But things change. And life in 2010 is easier for people who appreciate jazz pianists and experts on brass and woodwinds. In the Capital Region, places like the Stockade Inn and Justin’s in Albany offer jazz on a regular basis.
“This area is so rich in opportunities for musicians, and you wouldn’t really think so,” Shaw said. “I think part of the reason is there’s Albany, Schenectady, Troy, Saratoga, Ballston Spa, all these places crowded together and it seems to offer more opportunities.”
Ahmad Jamal, Billy Taylor, Cole Porter and Howard Arlen are all on the Shaw set list. “I’m always looking for new ways of doing old material,” she said.
Favorite songs? All of them.
“Burton Lane, from ‘Finian’s Rainbow,’ wrote ‘When I’m Not Near the Girl I Love, I Love the Girl I’m Near,’ ” Shaw said. “That’s my answer. Whatever tune I’m playing is my favorite one. I’m looking for things, what can I do that’s different, what can I do that I’ve discovered that still sounds good that I can do?”
Shaw said she’s at the gym three times a week. She loves dark chocolate, but not lately.
“I’ve been saying no to myself when I go to the grocery store,” Shaw said. “For the past three weeks I’ve come home with no chocolate because I gained a little weight and I don’t like to gain a little weight. That’s one of the benefits that the arts give, I think, to learn so much about how to live.”