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Soraya Shaw Performances

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Jazz never forgets     Buy CD

Long Beach Press Telegram - September 19, 2002 By Paul Andersen

Los Angeles has a long, rich and oftentimes heartbreaking history as a magnet for those seeking employment in the field of entertainment.  Millions come from miles around, following their dreams of stardom.  The odds of making it can be daunting.  And the hard work usually outweighs the payoffs.

But don t tell that to vocalist Soraya Shaw.  When she moved to Los Alamitos five years ago from her native St. Louis, she did so with the goal of finding stability in her music career.  Having graduated from St. Louis University, Shaw began working with the Muny, America’s oldest and largest outdoor musical theater company, based in St. Louis and also operating touring productions.

However, as a single divorced mother with two children to care for, she craved a more stable life.

“Even though I was an equity actor, touring was not a good way to go about (raising my children),” she said.  “Everything I’ve ever done (with my career) has been based on them; it has always just been the three of us.  So I began thinking about what I could do to stay stable.

Shaw, who is appearing Saturday with pianist Mark Massey at Borders Books & Music in Long Beach, had been to the West Coast a few times before.  As a young child, she lived here for a short time, and then, as an adult, she traveled west to study classical voice with Elizabeth Mannion.

“She was (opera singer) Jessye Norman’s first teacher, and I had always wanted to study with her, so after doing some theater work after graduation, I had the opportunity to come out to Santa Barbara, where she was teaching at the University of California, she said.  “I was able to stay out there a year.”

She returned home to St. Louis, but it wasn t long before she began feeling restless.  “I felt stifled, like I was in this box, and I wanted to break out of it.

“I had always wanted to be an opera singer, but it just wasn’t gelling for me,” she said.  “My voice was to the point where, in legitimate theater, they considered me an opera singer, though it was just fine for lead roles, but in the opera world, it just wasn’t quite there.

She began looking at other avenues.  A natural soprano, Shaw grew up absorbed in a classical environment, having started piano lessons at the age of four with her grandmother, a composer, pianist and music teacher.  But there was another musician in the house, her older brother Alex, a jazz trumpet player.

“He would bring home these Miles Davis albums and play them over and over,” she said.  “And his best friends were a couple of sax players, and they were always getting together to play.  So though I was really into classical music, I also got interested in jazz.  When I took up flute, I even played in a big band for a while.

“I can remember when I first tried singing jazz.  I had met this engineer who also played jazz piano, and he was really good.  We got together and did Stella by Starlight,” and it clicked.”  Pretty soon, she was performing with Ptha Williams, a pianist who was a major player in the St. Louis jazz scene.

After two years back home in St. Louis, Shaw decided it was time to make a change.  She decided to head back west, and landed in Los Alamitos.

“Sure, I could have moved to Chicago or some other big city, but I knew L.A.  better, and besides, it was a way of exploring where I used to live.  It’s also where my parents first met.

It was tough the first couple of years for the vocalist and her family.

“I had worked in advertising before, so I figured I could find something along those lines, and save up money to record a CD,” she said.  “But I couldn’t find the right job, so I decided to go into teaching.  It was something I could do at home, so I would be there for my children.”

“Running your own business, which is basically what I began doing, can be really rough.  I can remember just feeling like, Please, God, don’t let me be a bag lady.  I did a lot of praying.”

She also did a lot of singing in church, becoming cantor at both Saint Irenaeus Catholic Church in Cypress, and Saint Philip Benizi Parish, home of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society.

Eventually, Shaw built up a steady group of students, many of whom have been studying voice and piano with her for years.  Numbering 30 or more, provide her the stable environment she needs.  Last year, Shaw went in a Glendale studio and recorded her first jazz CD.

“It took a little while to get the money together to actually manufacture it, but I finally was able to release it this year,” she said, laughing.  “Now I’m selling it at performances, and through my Web site.  I d like to get it in stores eventually.  And I ve already got about half the songs together for the next one.”

The CD, “Daydreams,” features Shaw’s gauzilly ethereal soprano voice backed by pianist Mark Massey, one of the first people she met when she moved here, and a small ensemble of musicians.  A sensuous program of jazz standards, the album is getting radio airplay on KKJZ-FM, the jazz station at Cal State Long Beach.

Between recording and teaching, Shaw, 40, has managed to find the stability she craves.

“Please say that I’m still available for lessons, she said with a laugh.  “But the kids are older now (21 and 17), and I’m OK with going out and performing again.  Luckily, jazz has a long shelf life.”

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Last updated: 3 / 5 / 2006.