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Published on Jul 14, 2015
Lee Shaw is 89. She's a wonderful jazz pianist with an amazing story. Roll Magazine called her "one of the unsung elders of jazz." On July 9th she did a duo gig in Schenectady. Normally no big deal - but consider that she nearly died last winter. Take a minute and read the background story below. Then you'll appreciate that after two sets, she didn't have enough breath to introduce her bassist - but she didn't want to stop. The look on her face is amazing! Lee is an inspiration to all of us who make music. Read on:
Lee Shaw, with her long-time bassist Rich Syracuse, did a set in Schenectady, NY at the Stockade Inn. Lee nearly died over the past winter. She was hospitalized in January for pneumonia, a heart attack and a stroke - all that following a long decline due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and beating three types of cancer. Even if she survived, it seemed unlikely that the old woman would ever play the piano again.
"If I'm breathing, I'm playing," Shaw had vowed.
But doctors didn't think she would recover. They took her off oxygen. She defied medical expectations and not only survived, but began to thrive. She spent long hours in rehab, reclaiming her lost memory, learning how to lift her arms and move her fingers again.
In the past few years, she'd been playing regular gigs around Albany, despite being tethered to an oxygen tank and needing a walker and wheelchair to get around. But after a trio gig this past January, she was rushed to Albany Medical Center. Months in rehab and now living in a nursing home, Lee is playing the piano again - and playing well! Every day in the nursing home, she pushes a walker up to a piano in the reception area, put a phone book on the piano bench and launches into one of her own jazz compositions. Word got around, and musician friends started dropping by to jam with her.
Shaw is known for an iron will. Four years ago, waiting to go on stage for a concert at Skidmore College, she suffered a minor heart attack. She played the gig. "I'm a jazz musician. I have never not worked," she said. I'm grateful that I'm still playing."
Jazz has meant many things to Shaw throughout her life, but never more so than now, after her near-death experience. She practices every morning. "I still want to be good. I'm trying to get better each day," she said. She suffers from macular degeneration, but her blindness has not slowed her playing. She has more than 1,500 songs memorized. She can't wait to get the Lee Shaw Trio playing again, with longtime bassist Rich Syracuse and drummer Jeff Siegel.
"It feels like I'm free and we're one when I play with Rich and Jeff," she said. "I really shouldn't be here," Shaw said. "But I'm glad I am."