Local jazz luminary Dave Shapiro mourned

Saturday March 5, 2011

WEST TOWNSHEND -- David Shapiro, a bassist who played with many of the jazz world's leading lights, died Feb. 16 in his home in West Townshend. He was 58.

Known for his impeccable timing, his clean, steady playing, his encyclopedic musical knowledge and for how hard he could swing, Shapiro shared stages with Woody Herman, Chet Baker, Ray Charles, Anita O'Day and many other luminaries.

But he also shared his talent and time with countless local jazz musicians, relishing his regular Thursday night gig at Rick's Tavern and dozens of performances at the Vermont Jazz Center. The local musicians who played with him felt his loss deeply.

"I learned more from Dave Shapiro than from probably any other musician I've ever come in contact with, both musically and professionally," said guitarist Draa Hobbs, who played three to four gigs a week with Shapiro for nearly 20 years. "On a musical level, I learned what it meant to swing and what it meant to have a real sense of commitment to the music. And Dave Shapiro was my model of professional behavior."

Friends and fans expressed their grief and paid tribute to Shapiro on a Facebook page set up in his honor. One friend wrote "I am crushed with grief." Another called him "an inspirational force who will be missed for how easy he made it look." Another said "we will never forget your groove." Still another wrote "I know he is wearing that suit jacket and swinging hard in heaven."

Shapiro's friends and family will be gathering at the Vermont Jazz Center on Sunday, March 20, from 2 to 6 p.m. Billed as a memorial and celebratory jam session, the event will include performances by some of Shapiro's close musical friends, tributes and remembrances from friends and family, a Quaker meeting-style time of silence and speaking and then an open jam.

"Everybody wants to be able to acknowledge Dave and voice their appreciation. It will be a vehicle to give expression to people's thoughts. It will allow for some sense of catharsis to happen," said Eugene Uman, artistic director of the Vermont Jazz Center, who expressed appreciation for bassist George Kaye for organizing the March 20 event.

"Anybody who gives their life to music, there's no better way to honor them than by playing in his honor," said Kaye.

"That's going to be a special opportunity for everybody to do exactly what Dave loved to do the most ... and that's play music," said Hobbs. "He delighted in musicians at any level."

Few musicians anywhere could play at Shapiro's level.

Born on April 24, 1952, in Brooklyn, N.Y., Shapiro graduated from Brooklyn College in 1973 with a bachelor of arts degree in music. He became a busy New York freelancer, playing regularly with Woody Herman, Chet Baker, Lee Konitz, Howard McGee, Mel Lewis and singers Ray Charles, Anita O'Day and Chris Connor. He performed with Jackie Kane and Roy Kral in the Newport Jazz Festival in Carnegie Hall, under the auspices of Mel Torme. He proved his versatility as a member of the house band at Eddie Condon's (where Dixieland reigned) and the aptly-named Metropolitan Bopera House.

His recordings include "World Class," "The Concord Years with Woody Herman," "Hip To It," "VSOP," "Still Comin' On Up," "Blues For Philly Joe" and "Glass Enclosure" with Danny D'Imperio. He is mentioned in James Gavin's biography of Chet Baker.

Technically, Shapiro was a consummate musician who could play any song in any key and was a master of any tempo, Hobbs remembered. He could, also, it seems play just about any instrument.

Hobbs remembers one Thursday night gig at Rick's that Shapiro played after having been ill for a long time. He chose that night to play the guitar, and though his technique was not sharp his musicianship was.

"In two measures of music he expressed more of what it means to be human and to be alive than I had in my entire life," said Hobbs. "He just had it in his DNA."

A certified genius with a high IQ, Shapiro also seemed to have every verse and every chorus from the Great American Songbook locked away in his memory.

Hobbs recalled one gig he, Shapiro and trumpet player Steve Sonntag played where a busload of "silver-haired old ladies" came in. When the trio dug out a Duke Ellington tune, they ladies were unimpressed -- it was too modern. Shapiro knew what to do. Sitting down at the piano, he took requests from ladies the rest of the night and knew every song they suggested, no matter how obscure.

"He amazed all of us. He knew all of the songs that those ladies knew growing up," said Hobbs.

Shapiro settled in West Townshend in 1987 and instantly became the first call jazz bassist for Vermont and Western Massachusetts, playing and recording with Attila Zoller, Howard Brofsky, Paul Arslanian, Bob Weiner, Mike Mussilami, Jay Messer, Uman, Hobbs, Claire Arenius and Tom McClung. He was also featured at the Vermont Jazz Center as a performer and instructor and co-led a band with trumpeter Steve Sonntag.

"He was a treasure. He's going to be sorely missed," said Brofsky, who not only shared music with Shapiro but also common roots as a fellow Brooklyn native. "He could be one of the funniest people I've ever known. He had a great sense of humor."

"I think Dave was a giant among men. He was so brilliant and so connected to the jazz lineage that it was daunting for most of us to play with him," said Uman. "He came from this whole corps of famous people who really made the music what it is today. He was an archetype. For that reason I was terrified to play with him."

It took almost no time at all for Shapiro to put Uman at ease.

"He delighted in musicians at any level," said Hobbs. "He never had a bad thing to say about any musician. If you were sincere about music, Dave always talked about what somebody could do well, not what they couldn't do."

Shapiro taught reading to adults in Vermont, and instituted his own educational programs. He also taught math, jazz history and conducted jazz ensembles at Westfield State College and Holyoke Community College in Massachusetts. His jazz history classes at the Vermont Jazz Center were legendary. "He knew all the guys he was talking about personally," said Uman.

Shapiro is survived by his sister Susan Barth and his brother-in-law Perry Barth of Staten Island, N.Y., his aunt and uncle Dr. and Mrs. Morton Connor of Aventura, Fla., his cousin, Dr. Caroline Connor and her husband, Dr. Alan Fischel, and their sons, Brendon and Ethan of Eureka, Calif., and Shane and Charlotte Brodie of Burlington. He was predeceased by his wife, Jocelyn Brodie, in December 2009.

Thoughts and condolences may be posted on Shapiro's Facebook page.


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