In the world of chorale music and the arrangement of popular American songs, Kirby Shaw is considered a giant and a genius and — fresh from an April appearance with his Jefferson State Chorale Coalition at Carnegie Hall — his devotees want the world to know it.
For 35 years a singing teacher at College of the Siskiyous and then Southern Oregon University, Shaw has chalked up an astounding 2,500 choral arrangements, including many he composed, and sold more than 21 million copies.
At 5 percent of the sale price of $1.80 (10 percent for original compositions), it's definitely a living, but what Shaw loves most — and what keeps him in small-town Ashland — is teaching, something he does with wit, genius and caring, according to chorale member Barbara Orsow of Ashland, one of a dozen locals who sang under his baton at Carnegie.
"People here may not know about Kirby, but that's because he's modest. He has an amazing reputation and he's sung and he's known all over the world," Orsow said.
Also singing at Carnegie was Ashlander Leslie Adams who said "it was amazing, like a dream, surreal, wonderful how comfortable we felt — and so much history and the sound was outrageous."
At the MidAmerica Concert at Carnegie Hall, Shaw rehearsed an international chorale of 200 members, his own and groups from all over the U.S. and Italy, in songs from American popular music, including "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and "Battle Hymn of the Republic."
Shaw called it "one of the chorale highlights of my life — and to hear the audience start applauding before the music ended, unable to contain their enthusiasm, "very humbling."
Shaw will direct the 45-member Jefferson State Chorale Coalition in "Spring Fling" at 3 and 8 Saturday, May 30 at SOU's Music Recital Hall. It's $5 with students free. It will include swing, 1970s rock, inspirational and other music. For more information, go to www.sou.edu/music, or call 552-6101.
Shaw has won the devotion of students and singers, according to Adams, by his playful and knowledgeable approach.
In melding the chorales for Carnegie, Adams said, "they all knew (his arrangements) but he took it and made something incredible. He taught us how to end the words, do the smears (a jazz technique), to feel the music and have the story in our heads as we sing, so it became kind of like acting."
Shaw, the son of teachers, said he decided on teaching as a career when a junior in high school in Santa Clara, Calif. and soon found that everyone learns differently and "you have to be willing to vary your approach and meet the students needs. I always felt I will find a way," he said.
"I love to see kids learn and realize they have skills. You have to know the subject matter, of course, and comedy helps," he said. "If you don't love people, you'd better not be a teacher."
While leading performances with the COS Vocal Jazz Ensemble early in his career, Shaw was discovered by an agent from Leonard Publishing Co., in Milwaukee, Wis., and encouraged to submit arrangements. This is a relationship that has flowered through his life — and nourished his genius with arranging and composing.
"I was born with music in my blood. My mother used to say I was singing recognizable melodies before I could walk," Shaw said. "Music is so deep and powerful a part of human nature. You hear it in the way the voice rises and falls when someone is excited. I want to make music more human and reachable and as real as possible."
Shaw's Web site, www.kirbyshaw.com, notes that he has "scatted" with such noteables as Bobby McFerrin, Al Jarreau, Chris Calloway, Jon Hendricks (who once told Kirby, 'Man, you don't make mistakes!'), Mark Murphy, legendary guitar player Joe Beck and alto saxophonist Brandon Fields.
Shaw has overseen the creation of hundreds of educational recordings, five college-university albums and two solo albums. He's a member of Just 4 Kicks, a four man a cappella ensemble specializing in Jazz. Kirby and his wife, Markita have written an original musical, "Scroogical," based on Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol."