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Queens’ Marshall, others pay homage to Shaw

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Arvell Shaw, the long time bassist and close friend of legendary Jazz trumpeter Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, was described in a recent personal correspondence by one of my friends and fellow jazz journalist colleagues, “a man who was fabled for his musical genius on bass” and as “the gentle giant of the jazz bass.”

Shaw, who hailed from St. Louis, Mo., relocated to Roosevelt, L.I. from the Big Apple in 1970. During those years he a was also a regular fixture in the neighborhood of Corona, until he passed away at the age of 79 Dec. 5, 2002

A friend of mine, Wilma Dobie, who lives in Florida, is a long-time correspondent (since the 50s) for the famed French Jazz magazine, “Jazz Hot.” She was just one of many of Shaw’s closest friends and admirers who have had words of endearment and reverence for their friend after his death.

Dobie first introduced me to the physically imposing (he had to be easily 6-foot-4) Shaw some eight years ago and again when we were working on an assignment three years ago covering the United Nations performance of the world famous Statesmen of Jazz. Shaw, a touring member of the ensemble, was not only the bassist but also the vocalist who wowed the audience with his smooth baritone rendition “What a Wonderful World.”

I’m prouder then a peacock to report that I had the great pleasure of meeting, greeting and speaking to Shaw on many occasions these recent years. He was very much in demand, including a sold out, standing room only gig as the leader of the Louis Armstrong Legacy Band (formed by Shaw in ‘71 when Satchmo passed) at the Queens Flushing Town Hall just more than a year ago. On the one-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks his band played at the Unisphere in Flushing Meadows Corona Park as part of New York City’s memorial for the terror victims.

On Jan. 19 Arvell Shaw, now playing bass in that great Jazz band upstairs, was still packing them in at St. Peter’s Church in Manhattan. The jazz community gathered to joyously celebrate the life and musical gifts of this American treasure.

Following introductory remembrances offered by Pastor Dale Lind, the spiritual shepherd of the jazz community at St. Peter’s, George Wein, the renowned impresario of the famous Newport Jazz Festival, offered some reflections on his friend Arvell.

Wein told a story of how he was so lucky to have been called in 1954 to come down to Providence, RI from Storyville to play (Wein is a talented pianist) with Louie Armstrong, his All-Stars and Arvell Shaw.

He said “Arvell helped me the entire night and made me as comfortable and as at ease as possible by calling out the keys and the chords on tunes I was not that familiar with.”

“I never knew him except to always have joy and love in his heart,” Wein added.

Other speakers at St. Peter’s included Bob Lappin, the founder of and conductor for the Palm Beach Pops Orchestra.

He spoke of how, through the efforts of composer and producer Danny Holgate, he met Shaw while working on a project to bring American compositions to elementary school children.

Lappin said he consulted with Shaw on the Louie Armstrong arrangements, after he sought him out on Long Island. Over the next 10 years, Lappin and Shaw worked to raise awareness of Armstrong’s compositions throughout Florida’s schools.

The jazz historian and DJ Phil Schaap of WKCR, originally from Holliswood, knew Shaw through his father, Walter Schaap (a correspondent for “Jazz Hot” in the early 50s).

“Shaw was not just a great musician, but a jazz enthusiast, a collector, a discographer, a student and a historian who was not just one of us, but as good as — if not better than — any one of us,” the younger Schaap said.

Michael Cogswell, curator of the Louis Armstrong House in Corona and the archives at Queens College, met Shaw while working on restoring the Armstrong house.

“I did an oral history with Arvell in the winters of ‘94 and ‘95, and the way that I really got to know Arvell best was through our children’s concerts,” Cogswell said.

Every year since 1994, Shaw played the children’s concerts, entitled “Pops Is Tops,” in the garden of the Louis Armstrong house. There are approximately 250 kids per show for three days. It had been expanded to two shows per day due to Shaw’s involvement and the kids come all around Queens, but mostly from Corona and East Elmhurst.

Cogswell read 10 or more thank you letters from some of the children who overwhelmingly said they liked the concerts but liked the man who played the bass the best.

One child wrote: “Yesterday was the first time I heard live jazz. I never knew how cool jazz sounded, but now I do and now I love it. The best player was Arvell Shaw because even though he was blind, he was great. When I heard you play jazz I felt relaxed and happy at the same time. I hope I can come back another time. Sincerely, Orum Shapir, PS 150.”

Phillip M. Smith, the president of the board of directors of Plus Group Homes Inc., spoke eloquently of the circumstance for his, “ first meeting with Shaw 25 years ago.

Shaw and his wife Madeline got involved with the group homes after a meeting with to discuss the formation of an organization to help autistic children. The Shaws had an autistic daughter.

Arvell Shaw , he said, used his celebrity to enlist group home fund-raiser participants, such as cast members from successful Broadway plays, Wynton Marsalis, Lionel Hampton, Doc Cheatham, Ray Mosca and more.

“That meeting 25 years ago was the seminal inspiration for the formation of Plus Group Homes Inc., which today has five group homes that provide a safe and clean home like atmosphere and the best and most appropriate services for these very special children,” Smith said.

George Avakian a music industry mover and shaker told some anecdotal personal stories about Shaw and Armstrong, in and around New York., and how Shaw spoke of Louie affectionately, and Shaw described Satchmo to him one day by saying that “pops was love.”

Dan Morgenstern, a WBGO radio DJ and director of the Institute for Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, said Shaw got the bass gig for Satchmo by accident. He would listen carefully, play meticulously and could sight read the sheet music better then the previous bassist he was substituting for when they were in St. Louis, Morgenstern said.

“The band members all turned around in unison and began looking at Shaw because it was the first time that they actually had heard the bass being played properly,” he said. The regular bass player never came back and Shaw remained with Armstrong and his All Stars for about 25 years.

Queens Borough President Helen Marshall spoke last, and recalled Arvell Shaw as “a major part of the legacy of jazz” and “a special hero for so many of us.”

She praised Shaw as a carrier of the great American musical tradition. She also spoke affectionately of his work in the community as an activist, and how he maintained the important Armstrong tradition of keeping the children foremost in our hearts and minds by bringing them closer to the cultural experience of jazz.

She ended by looking upward toward heaven while speaking to Shaw: “Arvell, please keep on playing that music.”

Posted 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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