Family Portrait: Shayne Frederick

When I was in my 20s, I was running around trying to find the latest disco hit and stuffing my size-10 feet into bad platform shoes.

Thankfully, Shayne Frederick is more mature than I was. The young Frederick is a businessman and musician who keeps his audiences happy by playing the jazz standards and classic tunes that have stood the test of time. A delightful guy who revels in sharing the music he fell in love with, Frederick took a moment away from tinkling the ivories to talk with PGN.

PGN: Why do people seem to still enjoy this type of music after so many years? SF: Standards are always so reachable for people. They can come out and the songs are instantly recognizable. They’ll remember a song they heard Ella Fitzgerald or Nat King Cole or Frank Sinatra sing and it automatically resonates. I love the songs of Duke Ellington or Gershwin or Cole Porter: They’re songs that are going to stand the test of time. When the pop music of today is long gone, people will still know those songs.

PGN: What makes them so great? SF: The melodies are beautiful and the lyrics can be quite profound, and when they’re not profound, they’re clever. There’s no more witticism in most contemporary music. It saddens me because there are a lot of brilliant people out there today who are doing mediocre stuff. There are people doing incredible stuff, but they’re usually not on the forefront.

PGN:So were you born in this area? SF: I was born in North Carolina. My mother’s family is there and my father’s family is here, so I pretty much grew up with both the city life and the country life.

PGN: What were the best parts of each? SF: There’s a simplicity that comes along with country living, which truly is a virtue. If you ever need to find peace of mind, it’s only so far away. You don’t have to get caught up in the hustle and bustle that makes up the crazy high-voltage urban life. That also can be the bad part if you let yourself get too drawn into the monotony of things. For city life, what was great was the availability of resources, especially cultural resources. There’s also a freedom that comes with living in the city. As a child, my family allowed me the freedom to go explore things and, in the city, that meant going to the library, taking in a museum or a historic site. They trusted me, so I was able to go find things on my own and it was all at my fingertips, unlike the country where you had to drive 100 miles for the nearest museum.

PGN: I was the same way. I wonder about this next generation that is constantly under supervision from adults. I think it is going to change their psyche. SF: Yes, because along with freedom comes certain responsibilities. You become accustomed to making better choices because the decisions and consequences are in your hands. These days, we’re closed in, we’re packed in on top of each other and we’re constantly under surveillance from somebody, be it a parent or store camera, there’s always someone watching. So the first chance kids get to be on their own, they burst at the seams and go crazy — boys and girls gone wild.

PGN: Are you an only child? SF: I have a half-brother through my mother, but I kind of grew up as an only child. I had the space and the freedom and the attention that an only child would get.

PGN: First or favorite book? SF: Oh, I was a bookworm. I read everything. I started reading at a very early age and even got a job at the library as a kid. I remember I was really into the “Encyclopedia Brown” series. He was a young boy who was curious and liked to solve things. I loved the mystery and intrigue of the stories.

PGN: What do you read now? SF: I still read anything and everything, but I love Toni Morrison. She writes a lot about relationships, especially those concerning African-American women, but her themes are universal. And the way she pulls you into a story is genius. I definitely appreciate her craftsmanship as a writer.

PGN: So how did you get into music? SF: Both my parents are musicians. My mom is a church musician and has been since before I was born. At 14, she was the minister of music at her church in North Carolina and I grew up, along with my half-brother, sitting beside her on the piano bench at church. She was a self-taught, play-by-ear kind of woman and she had, still has, a spectacular voice. Very touching, and I enjoyed watching people respond to her and seeing how she inspired people through her voice. My father played saxophone and we still play together on occasion here in Philadelphia. He was more a contemporary jazz player, along the lines of Grover Washington Jr. It wasn’t until I was about 13 that I started really getting into music. Like with books, I took in everything, not just the gospel from my mother’s side or the R&B from my father; I started listening to all kinds of music. I think it’s vital to learn about multiple styles of music to be well-rounded. When I was 18, my father bought me a keyboard and I taught myself how to play. I took some classes in music theory when I was at Dartmouth, but I was mostly self-taught. I also joined the Jazz Ensemble in Philadelphia under the direction of Trudy Pitts.

PGN: What’s the craziest aspect of your work? SF: Well, especially when playing at happy hours in bars and restaurants, you often come across someone who’s gotten a little inebriated and is a little too happy. They’ll grab the mic and try to sing or want to sing along with me and it doesn’t always go well. As a performer, my job is to keep it going and especially in jazz, you have to improvise, but when the unexpected variable is alcohol, sometimes people fall flat and there’s no way to recover. I had a woman last week who was celebrating an event a little too much. She decided to sing “At Last” by Etta James and halfway through the song, she just blanked out for a good 15 seconds. That’s a lot of dead space, and there’s no real way to fix that, but the crowd is understanding. They know a piano bar is all about debauchery and merriment. It’s all in good fun.

PGN: Do you play any other instruments? SF: My mom had a band with her family and I played a little drum for them in the studio. I’m in the process of teaching myself acoustic guitar right now. My father would probably like me to follow in his steps and play a horn but … now, don’t tell anyone. [Laughs.] I don’t like the sax: I secretly despise it!

PGN: Tell me about the family band. Were you like the gospel version of the von Trapps? SF: Actually, we were more old-school R&B. It was really my uncle’s band. They were called The Hesitations. They played little events and spots in rural North Carolina. When they would go into the studio, they would let me join them doing some percussion. It was fun; I was only 7 or 8 at the time and I got to watch these professional-caliber musicians at work.

PGN: What’s a favorite moment performing? SF: When I was younger I used to go down to Ortliebs Jazzhaus. I had just learned to play and would go down and listen to the musicians play. I finally got the guts to ask to join in. I downloaded some charts and brought them in to sing. A bunch of the musicians asked me if I was studying at the University of the Arts and I said no. They couldn’t believe that I didn’t have a vocal teacher or formal training. That’s when I started singing.

PGN: So how did you come out? SF: Well, it wasn’t a big dramatic experience. I went to Dartmouth College but left after two years. My father had some questions about what was going on in my life. At the time, I remember I was thinking about going into writing and I’d written a letter to some potential employers, one of them being the PGN. I showed him the letter to get his feedback. He looked at the letter addressed to Philadelphia Gay News and said, “Hmm, that’s interesting. OK, the letter looks good, son.” It was one of those moments where nothing was said and everything was said in one moment. As I said, he’s always trusted me and my judgment and always respected me as a man. The relationship never changed; in fact, it actually got better when he bought me the keyboard. I think my father bought it so that we could do some father-son bonding over music. It worked.

PGN: Other interests? SF: I still like to write. I write a lot of poetry. I’ve had people urge me to publish it, so hopefully one day soon I’ll pursue that. I like all creative energy. I do keep a day job too, working for the [city] Department of Health, and there’s some creativity within that job as well.

PGN: Song you’re embarrassed to admit you like? SF: Well, I like really sad music, the kind that makes people want to jump off a bridge. There’s something really poignant about them that I love. When I play, I try to play happier music for the crowd, but for me, there are songs like “Misery” by Carmen McCrae that are grotesquely depressing but have a deep beauty in the emotions expressed.

PGN: Random question: What’s your favorite dessert? SF: Chocolate, chocolate and more chocolate. Like, so much chocolate, it would get me high from the fumes.

PGN: A favorite teacher? SF: My chemistry teacher in 10th grade, Joyce Stubbs. She was crazy in a good way — a little zany. She invested a lot of emotion in the information that she shared with us. A lot of kids hate science class, but she was so energetic and enthralling that she drew everyone in. She was emphatic that everyone pay attention and participate in the science she taught us. She paid personal attention to each of us and I loved her for it. She also had a great anecdote for everything and made a big deal out of the fact that she taught Will Smith at Overbrook High School, which impressed us a lot.

PGN: What school did you go to? SF: George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science.

PGN: Most unusual job? SF: Binding books in the library at Dartmouth. We’re talking needle and thread, cardboard and glue. I hated it.

PGN: Have you traveled outside of the States? SF: Sadly, no. I’m waiting for a rich benefactor to come along and send me on a worldwide tour …

PGN: What’s the most important aspect of what you do? SF: As far as my music is concerned, I love to deliver a song that is touching and loving and that sends out positive energy to people. I’m secretly a hopeless romantic and I think it comes out in my music. I get emotionally invested in what I’m singing. I love for people to come out and have a good time. It’s not pretentious and uptight: We have a jazzy juke-joint feel where people can join in the fun.

PGN: What are some romantic lyrics you’d like to share? SF: There’s a Portuguese song called “Estate” that was translated into Italian, then English. The end goes: “Always feel you near me, in every song the morning breeze composes; in all the tender wonder of the roses, each time the setting sun smiles on the sea. And when you sleep beneath the snowy cover, I’ll keep you in my heart just like a lover and wait until you come again to me.”

PGN: As a professional musician, what advice would you give to the you of 10 years ago? SF: Well, I’m only 26, so I would have been 16 10 years ago. I actually went to college in New Hampshire at 16 under an early-admissions program. Looking back, was I equipped for it? I don’t know; I think I made some crazy choices and then had to pull myself out and regroup. At that point, I had the world in the palm of my hand — or at least thought so. If I could go back and talk to myself, I would have made sure I focused differently. But then again, had I done that, I wouldn’t be where I am now. And I think we end up where we end up for a specific reason. And I probably wouldn’t be getting interviewed by you right now if I’d changed things! I’ll say this, for anyone interested in doing anything musically: The key, before you ever open your mouth or touch an instrument, is to listen. You have to listen to good people at their utmost and learn from them. There are people out there mimicking performers who are essentially not that good, and that will always end up costing you. If you mimic someone who is not the best, you will never excel, but if you listen to the greatest ones at their peak and take in the hard work and genius, you will be ahead of the game. You have to understand what the rules are before you decide to break them and stretch them.

For those of you dying to get your Cole Porter groove on or who find that karaoke players just don’t contain the classic tunes you want to hear and belt out, you can catch Shayne Frederick at the Cascamorto Piano Bar, 1939 Arch St.; (215) 563-4704.

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