Singer and Berklee Vocal Chair Jan Shapiro Releases New CD, "Back to Basics"


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Singer Jan Shapiro has been a mainstay in voice education at Boston's Berklee College of Music for more than 20 years. Since 1997, when she became department chair, she has overseen the dramatic expansion of vocal studies at Berklee and had the satisfaction of building what is now the premier contemporary voice department in the country. But her academic and administrative responsibilities left little time for her own singing.

Last spring, Shapiro finally carved out the necessary time to plan a recording, her first since the late 90s. She tested the waters with a series of gigs in her native St. Louis, trying out material and getting her chops up. She arrived at a carefully chosen repertoire of standards by Gershwin, Ellington, and Berlin. And she enlisted several of her Berklee colleagues--Tim Ray on piano, guitarist John Baboian, bassist John Repucci, and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington--for the Boston session that resulted in her new CD Back to Basics.

The album is a marvelous showcase for Shapiro's three-octave lyric soprano and peerless musicianship. “When I first heard my musicians run through the songs," she says, “I actually became a little nervous; it had been such a long time since I'd been in the studio. But they were there for me, and I quickly relaxed into the music with them." Each song was completed in one or two takes.

Prior to joining Berklee, Jan Shapiro was a life-long, full-time singer. She studied at the St. Louis Institute of Music, and completed her music degree cum laude at Howard University (in the mid-70s), but otherwise “I was on the road," she says. “We did the hotel circuit--the Camellia Room at the Drake in Chicago, the Hyatts in Washington and Atlanta, the Marriotts and Sheratons and assorted smaller hotels. We were pretty sophisticated for a St. Louis band." Jan continued to sing full-time even after her sons were born (in 1979 and 1981), but also began to do clinics, eventually teaching voice at Southern Illinois University and St. Louis's Fonbonne College. She took the teaching position at Berklee when her children were just entering school, realizing that “if I were to keep working nights as a singer and they had school events, I'd never be able to go to them."

After moving to Boston, Shapiro earned a master's in education at Cambridge College, and received an NEA grant, which she used to research early jazz singers and the Boswell Sisters. She became acting vocal chair in the summer of 1996, and by January 1997 she was appointed head of the department - the first female chairperson in Berklee's Performance Division.

“As a teacher, my philosophy had been 'not everyone will be a star,'" says Jan, “but there are practical things you can learn about your instrument.' As a chair, I wanted to make sure that singers became empowered by good musicianship as well as excellent vocal craft."

With an appearance scheduled for April 5 at the Holmes Jazz Series at Washington University in St. Louis, and other bookings in the works, Jan Shapiro is entirely serious about getting back to the basics of singing.

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