Shaw studied with Oscar Peterson, taught piano to John Medeski and worked with Dexter Gordon, Thad Jones, Chico Hamilton, Pepper Adams, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn and many others.
Internationally acclaimed pianist, composer, and bandleader Lee Shaw passed away on Sunday, October 25 in Albany, NY at the age of 89. Shaw — who studied with Oscar Peterson, taught piano to John Medeski, and worked with countless jazz luminaries including Dexter Gordon, Thad Jones, Chico Hamilton, Pepper Adams, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, Richard Davis, Slam Stewart, Major Holly, and Eddie Jones — was one of jazz’s unsung heroines whose late-career resurgence began in 2001 when she began performing with drummer Jeff “Siege” Siegel and bassist Rich Syracuse. Scott Yanow of Jazziz described Shaw’s playing as “lyrical and sophisticated,” and stated of the trio: “Interplay between the musicians recalls the Bill Evans Trio in spots, but Shaw’s chord voicings are her own and she does not sound like any of her predecessors.”
Until the end of her life Lee continued to perform in clubs, nursing homes and for her fellow residents of the Eddy Memorial Geriatric Center where she lived for her final months. Shaw practiced on an almost daily schedule until there were no more notes left to play. A funeral observance later this week will be private. Siegel and Syracuse hope to organize a memorial concert and celebration in Shaw's honor in the coming months.
“Lee Shaw personified love and beauty in every way,” said Jeff “Siege” Siegel. “Her compositions and lyrical, swinging piano playing were direct reflections of the beautiful person that Lee was inside and out. Lee was a role model not only for women, but for any person seeking the life worth living. Her grace, humility, and concern for others will never be forgotten.”
“Lee Shaw was one of the true masters of improvised music,” says Rich Syracuse. “Her vast knowledge of the repertoire, the history, the soul of the music was inspiring and a lesson in what can be important to yourself if you are lucky to find yourself in the middle of it.”
Born in Ada, Oklahoma in 1926, Lee Shaw learned the now iconic “American Songbook” tunes when they were new. At college in Chicago she studied classical piano, but the lure of jazz was overwhelming, and soon she was playing in clubs throughout the city. It was there that she met drummer Stan Shaw, a New York native whom she later married. They formed a piano trio and eventually moved to NYC, where they played at Birdland and other top venues. Bandleaders such as Lionel Hampton asked her to join their groups, but she turned down these offers in order to focus on the trio with her husband. After moving to the Albany area, where she lived for the last five decades, they worked with all the first-call musicians who came through town. After Stan’s death in 2001, Shaw began working with Syracuse and Siegel. These two musicians have a singular devotion to Shaw, and it is partly through their efforts that the myriad talents of this jazz heroine began to earn the recognition she deserved.
The trio released seven highly acclaimed recordings including the 2008 CD+DVD Lee Shaw Trio: Live in Graz, 2009’s Blossom, 2010’s “Lee Shaw Trio Live at Art Gallery Reutlingen” and 2011’s John Medeski & Lee Shaw Together Again on the Artists Recording Collective label (ARC). They performed internationally in Austria, Germany and Switzerland, and nationally at the Kennedy Center, Wall Street Jazz Festival, Albany Jazz Festival, Lake George Jazz Festival, SUNY Albany, Caspe Center in Des Moines, IA, Oklahoma Central University, East Central University, University of Arts and Sciences and Filene Center at Skidmore College, among others.
In 1993, Shaw was inducted into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame, joining Dizzy Gillespie, Chet Baker, Charlie Christian, Barney Kessel, Cecil McBee, Ruth Brown and a host of other jazz heavyweights. In 2008, Shaw was honored by her alma mater, the University of Art and Science in Chickasha, OK (formerly the Oklahoma College for Women), as one of the school’s Ten Highly Successful Women Graduates. In 1999 she was also inducted into the school’s Alumni Hall of Fame. In 2002 The College of St. Rose in Albany, NY, where she’s been on the faculty since 1983, awarded her an Honorary Doctorate. The success of the 2007 concert at the Art Gallery (World of Basses) in Reutlingen, Germany led the gallery to plan a week-long Lee Shaw Jazz Festival which took place in September 2008, and it was so successful that they asked her return in May 2009 to record and perform.
Shaw appeared on Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz program, and NPR hailed her, along with McPartland and the late Mary Lou Williams, as “one of jazz's premier pianists.” Jeff Dayton-Johnson of All About Jazz states: “Bold and strong, her playing lavishes attention on the lower and middle ranges of the keyboard, and – metaphorically – on the architectural and emotional resources of the compositions. Let’s hope that Shaw’s second act is a long one: between the growing Shaw songbook and the hundreds of songs by others that the pianist has played hundreds of times, she quite clearly has a lot to communicate to a wider audience.”