Pasadena Weekly Oct. 31, 2002 By Paul Andersen
Steady as a rock
Jazz vocalist Soraya Shaw sings a song of stability
“With its plethora of record labels, recording studios and
interfacings with ancillary media, Southern California can be a Mecca
to those wishing to pursue a career in popular music. The odds
can be daunting, but with a bit of perseverance and luck to go along
with talent, it can be done. Just don’t expect stability
to be one of the side benefits.
But please, don’t tell that to vocalist Soraya Shaw.
When she moved to Los Alamitos five years ago from her native
St. Louis, Missouri, she did so with the goal of finding stability.
Having graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in Fine and
Performing Arts from St. Louis University, she had begun etching out steady
work in her hometown with the Muny, America’s oldest and largest
outdoor musical theatre company. In addition, she was often on
the road with various touring stage productions.
However, as a single divorced mother with two children to raise, she
craved a steadier life. Even though I was an Equity actor, touring
was not a good way to go about that, she said recently by phone from her
home studio, her voice still betraying her Midwestern roots.
Everything I’ve ever done (with my career) has been based on how
it effects my kids â�� after all, it has always just been the three of us.
So I began thinking about what I could do to find stability.
Shaw, who is appearing Sunday evening (beginning at 6 p.m.) with pianist
Mark Massey at Borders Books and Music in Glendale, had been to the
West Coast before. As a young child, she had lived out here for a
short time, and later, 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 here a year.
Afterwards, 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.
A natural soprano, Shaw had grown 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 had been 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, too. 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 â��Stella by Starlight,’ and it clicked.
Pretty soon, she was performing with pianist Ptha Williams, 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
some of my roots; after all, it’s 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 while I saved 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,
â��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 dePaul 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, they have provided her the stable environment
she had been seeking. Finally, last year, she 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 website.
I’d like to get it in stores eventually. I’ve already got
about half the songs together for the next one.
The CD, â��Daydreams,’ features Shaw’s gauzilly ethereal
soprano voice backed by pianist Massey, one of the first people she met
when she moved here, and a small ensemble of stellar musicians running
through a sensuous program of jazz standards. It is already getting
radio airplay, including KKJZ-FM, the local NPR station emanating from
the campus of CSULB.
Between recording and teaching, Shaw has managed to find the
stability she had been craving. Please say that I’m still
available for lessons, she laughed. But the kids are older now,
and I’m okay with going out and performing again. Luckily,
jazz has a long shelf life.
Steady and stable, just the way she likes it.”
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