Jan Shapiro is not only a great voice teacher—she’s been on the faculty of Boston’s Berklee College of Music for the past 28 years—but is also a world-class practitioner of the art of jazz singing. That fact is particularly evident on the exquisitely intimate Piano Bar After Hours, her fourth CD (and third for her own Singing Empress label), on which she applies her glowing, pitch-perfect three-octave pipes to a thoughtfully chosen program of old standards and pop songs of more recent vintage.
She knows more than a thing or two about piano bars. Before coming to Berklee in 1985, she spent more than a decade on the road singing with bands five nights a week on the hotel circuit, from St. Louis and Chicago to such points east as Atlanta, New York City, and Washington, DC. By the earlier Eighties, however, changes in the economy had forced many of the venues at which she worked to employ her with a full band only on weekends. On weeknights, it was just Shapiro and a pianist.
Six of Shapiro’s favorite piano players—Daniela Schachter, Bob Winter, Tim Ray, Russell Hoffman, John Harrison III, and Adriana Balic—took turns supporting her on Piano Bar After Hours. Ten of the 11 tracks are voice-and-piano collaborations. For the 1984 Al Jarreau song “Tell Me,” she and Balic were joined by Joey Blake on vocal bass and Bob Stoloff on vocal percussion. Both men have taught at Berklee and have worked with vocal innovator Bobby McFerrin.
“I had this vision of recording with different pianists that I’ve had a chance to work with in my lifetime,” Shapiro explains. “It took me a year to do due to the availability of the studio and when they were available.”
The set opens with a tender reading of Frank Loesser’s “On a Slow Boat to China,” originally a hit for Kay Kyser’s band in 1949. Shapiro takes it at a somewhat slower pace than usual. She and Daniela Schachter had never worked together before as a duo, but Daniela worked as an accompanist for the Berklee voice department while she was a Berklee piano student and later on staff.
The singer chose another Loesser composition, “If I Were a Bell” from Guys and Dolls, for the album because, she says, “I needed a more up-tempo tune.” John Harrison III, who had played on her second CD, 1998’s Not Commercial! , is the pianist on that selection and on Chick Corea and Neville Potter’s “Times Lie.” “‘Oh, my God! That’s a hard one. Send me a lead sheet,’” Shapiro recalls Harrison demanded when she first asked him to record “Times Lie” with her.
“The trick is to make the melody line sound like it’s simple,” she adds. “The melodic line is really rangy.” She and he managed to nail the song quite nicely.
Shapiro is supported by Bob Winter on “You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me,” an Al Dubin-Harry Warren composition from the 1933 motion-picture musical Forty-Second Street. “He’s like his own one-man band,” Shapiro says of the pianist. “He’s the rhythm. He’s the melody. He’s everything.” Winter also plays on the Gershwin brothers’ too-seldom-performed “Who Cares” from the 1931 musical Of Thee I Sing! Shapiro and Winter had previously worked together on a few occasions on live radio spots for WGBH.
Tim Ray was the pianist on Shapiro’s previous CD, 2007’s Back to Basics, and returned to join her for Irving Berlin’s “They Say It’s Wonderful” and Alfred Johnson and Rickie Lee Jones’s “Company” on the new one. The Berlin song is from the 1946 musical Annie, Get Your Gun and was a huge hit that year for both Frank Sinatra and Perry Como. The other one first appeared on Jones’s 1979 debut album.
“Right when I came to Berklee in the Eighties, a student brought me that song,” Shapiro says of “Company.” “I was so touched by the lyrics.”
The singer first recorded the Mark Winkler-Eddie Arkin tune “I Keep on Loving You” with 10 musicians and backup singers on her debut album, 1998’s pop-oriented Read Between the Lines, produced by veteran arranger Richard Evans (with whom Shapiro is currently writing his autobiography). Shapiro and Schachter give the tune a much more intimate reading on Piano Bar After Hours.
The Horace Silver classic “Doodlin’” finds Shapiro in an especially playful mood, scatting at first before delivering Jon Hendricks’s clever lyrics, with her longtime friend Russell Hoffman adding deep blues feeling with his piano. Hoffman returns for “Lost Up in Loving You,” co-written and first recorded in 1975 by Shapiro’s friend Kenny Rankin. She had introduced herself to him at a Boston club two years before his death in 2009 and talked him into coming to Berklee to do a clinic. “There were just as many teachers there as there were students,” she says of the singer-songwriter’s clinic.
Born in St. Louis, Shapiro was raised 35 miles away in Festus, Missouri, a tiny rural town where her father and uncle had a scrap-iron business. Her mother was a singer who also played piano and timpani. “She could sight-read like mad, much better than me,” Shapiro says. “She enrolled me and my sister in dancing lessons when we were very small, and was a great musical influence on me because she would play and sing at home lots. My sister and brother and I loved to listen; we sang harmony together in the car and at home.” Jan studied voice, piano, and flute, taught herself guitar, made up her own songs, played in the school band, and sang in the choir.
Although she showed considerable musical prowess while growing up, her parents wanted Jan to have “something to fall back on.” She attended junior college for nursing and became a registered nurse, but all the while wanted to go back to school for music. When she did enroll at the St. Louis Institute of Music, she supported herself working part-time in the emergency room at a local hospital.
She also earned money singing on weekends, and after meeting a pianist who would become her husband, worked with him for six months at the Playboy Club in St. Louis. Extended engagements, mostly at hotels, followed in Chicago, Atlanta, and New York City. While performing five nights a week at a Hyatt Hotel in Washington, DC in 1975, she enrolled at Howard University and earned a music degree cum laude.
“I was trained in traditional classical technique,” Shapiro says of the influence of her classical music training at Howard. “It was invaluable, but since I’d always had classical training, I sometimes wondered if too much classical training would be difficult to transfer to pop and jazz styles. As it turned out, it was! If you have a Julie Andrews-type voice, as I do, how do you sing pop or jazz? It’s a different aspect of your instrument, and the timbre and delivery of singing jazz is completely different.”
“I don’t know what category to put me in,” she says of her unique style. “I’m not like the expected jazz singer, who would have a lower timbre and hold everything straight. I don’t sound just like anyone. I’m in the category of ‘freak of nature’ or something.”
Jan and her husband moved back to St. Louis in the late Seventies and had two sons—Aaron, born in 1979, and Adam, two years later. She continued performing all the while. “I sang six and sometimes seven nights a week, and I loved it,” she reflects.
Shapiro began doing vocal clinics and teaching voice at Southern Illinois University and Fonbonne College in St. Louis. She and her husband divorced in 1982, and three years later, thinking of her boys and looking for “something to fall back on,” she accepted a full-time teaching position at Berklee.
While teaching there, she also pursued a master’s degree at Cambridge College. She took special interest in jazz vocal history and in 1989 received an NEA grant to research the Boswell Sisters and other early jazz singers. In 2000, she and faculty members Adriana Balic and Lisa Thorson recorded an album of Boswell vocal arrangements titled Boswellmania!
Shapiro served as chairwoman Berklee’s vocal department from 1997 to 2010. Among the many notable students who have passed through her classes over the years are Adriana Balic, Stacey Campbell, Paula Cole, Luciana Souza, and Tierney Sutton. Under Shapiro’s direction, the school’s vocal department tripled its size and emerged as the premier contemporary voice department in the country. She remains a full professor at Berklee and currently teaches a class in vocal history and has 25 private students.
“As a teacher,” she says, “my philosophy has been that ‘not everyone will be a star, but there are practical things you can learn about your instrument.’ I want to make sure that singers become empowered by good musicianship, as well as excellent vocal craft.”
With Piano Bar After Hours, the professor again puts her philosophy to practice through her breathtaking combination of flawless technique and depth of feeling. •
Jan Shapiro: Piano Bar After Hours
(Singing Empress Records)
Media Contact: Terri Hinte 510-234-8781