Lee’s 88 Keys: Love what you do and share it

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Documentary of jazz pianist Lee Shaw to be screened at the Orpheum in Saugerties

You meet pianist Lee Shaw, you love her; it’s as simple as that. When I met her in the early 1990s, I was impressed by her passion for music. I admired the warmth, wisdom and strength of her spirited ways, and her commitment to keep music at the forefront of her life. She’s a powerful force on the keys, delivering her music with buoyancy, clarity and tasteful dynamics.

Opportunities to hear Lee play piano or tell stories about her life as a jazz musician are fewer now – nearing 90, she occasionally plays at Capital Region restaurants or for retirement home guests – but Lee’s 88 Keys, a documentary by first-time filmmaker Susan Robbins, is the next-best thing. It’s showing at Woodstock Film Festival on Friday evening, prefaced by a trio performance (featuring longtime bassist Rich Syracuse and drummer Jeff “Siege” Siegel, with special guest pianist Pete Levin) from 5 to 8:30 p.m. at Love Bites in Saugerties. The gig is just around the corner from the Orpheum Theater, where the film shows at 8:30 p.m.

The April 2015 premier of Lee’s 88 Keys drew a standing-room-only crowd to the GE Proctor Theater in Schenectady. Lee left her hospital bed to attend the showing, and to accept the 2015 Jazz Hero Award from the Jazz Journalists’ Association. She performed and shook hands with all who wished to meet her. The film has since been shown at a growing list of film festivals, including the LA Cine Fest, the Florida Movie Festival, the Long Beach International Film Festival, the Orlando Music and Film Festival, the Humanitarian Awards in Jakarta, Indonesia, the Lake Placid Film Forum and others, and is under consideration for the Global Music Awards. I’m not surprised: Lee’s 88 Keys is a lovingly polished gem.

Filmmaker Susan Robbins met Lee in 1998 at an Albany arts and education program. Robbins went to Lee’s gigs and visited her home to meet Lee’s husband, Stan, and their dog, Domino. A friendship developed. Then, a series of career moves (Robbins studied acting and was an actor until 2012) and family needs pulled Robbins away from the Capital Region, until one night when she was celebrating her mother’s birthday at Provence Restaurant in Albany. “Lee was playing, and was on oxygen and using a walker. She was much more frail. I said, ‘I have to make a film about her.’ When approached on a gig a couple months later and asked if she’d be willing, Lee said, ‘Let’s do it.’ I started filming in January 2013,” Robbins recalls.

The film includes interviews with Lee, Syracuse, Siegel and one of Lee’s best-known students, John Medeski, as well as jazz critics and others. Conversations are interspersed with live trio performances at Provence and archival photographs from the pianist’s remarkable career. Throughout, Lee recounts career highlights, talks about her life and conveys her joy for performing and teaching music.

One of my joys in writing about Lee’s 88 Keys has been listening to Lee’s recordings and revisiting her alternately playful and powerful intensity, and the myriad ways she interacts with the piano keys that she loves so much. She’s got a fearless sass about her, and, as a woman in a career dominated by men, it’s part of her power as a jazz player.

Lee was learning to play music when our most influential composers were writing the enduring standards that have become the jazz repertoire. Born in Oklahoma in 1926, she steeped herself in the American Songbook at a time when the tunes were brand-new. Following graduation from the Oklahoma College for Women, Lee’s already-voracious musical appetite led her to pursue a Master’s degree in Piano at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. There, the jazz club scene energized and welcomed her, and she was soon playing in clubs all over town.

She met and married her husband, drummer Stan Shaw, and the young couple moved to Puerto Rico in 1962. Lee studied with Jesu María Sanroma at the Conservatorio de Música de Puerto Rico, where Latin music put its stamp on her music. The Shaws returned to the States, this time to New York City, and their trio performed widely at the City’s most famous jazz clubs (the Village Vanguard, the Half Note, Minton’s Playhouse and other Harlem clubs). They performed at the Apollo Theatre at a benefit to raise funds for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s March on Washington.

Lee studied with Oscar Peterson, and passed her knowledge along to countless students, including John Medeski of Medeski, Martin and Wood. The list of accomplished jazz artists with whom she performed includes Arnie Lawrence, Pepper Adams, Zoot Simms, Frank Foster, Al Grey and bandleader Lionel Hampton, who asked her to tour with him. But Lee turned Hampton down with no regrets because, as she often says, “I would have lost my soulmate, Stan.”

“There is nothing I would rather be doing than music – not eating, sleeping, making a million dollars or driving a Cadillac. There is nothing that’s more important to me than playing the piano,” Lee often told Robbins, who added, “She has lived it her entire life. Lee has made music more important than money, than comfort; and [yet she] has always lived a life that is abundantly rich.

“Richness isn’t about money. The Dalai Lama will tell you that. If you go on a spiritual retreat, you’ll embrace it. Our society and culture, though, really don’t honor that. Lee’s always known what’s really important: loving what you do and sharing it. It’s a very big message, but it’s very rare, too. People need to be reminded of it,” says Robbins.

With 30 hours of footage, Robbins now hopes to create a feature film. “Lee’s stories are so fascinating. I loved hearing the musical history, from the early 1900s to the present,” says the filmmaker.

“Through making the film, I certainly learned much about filmmaking, which has been a great learning experience,” says Robbins about envisioning and producing her first film. “But I got so much more than I ever thought I would. Lee is not only immensely talented and hugely knowledgeable; she is wise.”

Meira Blaustein, co-founder and executive director of the Woodstock Film Festival, says, “I’ve known Susan [Robbins] for a long time, love her. I’m so happy for her. She did a great job on the film, and she’s been bitten by the bug now.”


Lee’s 88 Keys screening, Friday, October 2, 8:30 p.m., $15, Orpheum Theater, 156 Main Street, Saugerties; (845) 246-6561, (845) 810-0131, www.woodstockfilmfestival.com.

Lee Shaw Trio performance, Friday, October 2, 5-8:30 p.m., no cover, Love Bites Restaurant, 69 Partition Street, Saugerties.

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