Making Connections Through Live Music – An Interview with Karen Shiraishi

Posted by Mike Schumacher

You’re probably tired of hearing about those age-old pandemic restrictions by now, but for musicians all around the world, it’s hard to forget just how different life was when live music simply wasn’t allowed. 


It almost sounds like something out of a dystopian sci-fi novel or a prog-rock concept album, but for nearly two years, it just wasn’t possible to put on a concert, at least not in the usual sense. 


Even so, pioneering musicians and organizers found ways to recreate the concert-going experience, at least to a certain extent, through virtual performances. 


And now, long after those restrictions have been lifted, musicians and audiences alike have gone back to live concerts, and they’re loving it. 


Karen Shiraishi, a renowned Japanese-British jazz pianist and composer, has been there through it all, and we asked her all about it: what her live music life has been like lately, both during and after the pandemic. 


Shiraishi was raised on jazz, and she’s been playing it ever since, often with notable artists from around the globe, like Donald Harrison, Jr., Trevor Watkins, Jeremy Davenport, and Shannon Powell. 


That’s really just scratching the surface, but thankfully we have a whole interview here, one in which Shiraishi talks about some of the most significant performances and collaborations of her highly accomplished career.   


Jam Addict (JA): As a performer, has it been exciting to return to live shows following pandemic restrictions?


Karen Shiraishi (KS): Even though the pandemic was rough on musicians, I feel like I made the most of a bad situation. I spent some time at home in London in 2021, and I was grateful to have been able to perform for my audience via live stream at Ronnie Scott’s and at World Heart Beat. Reuniting with my musical community and support system back home helped me get through the pandemic and it made me realize how centering and grounding it is to have music as an outlet. 


Nothing beats performing for a live audience though. I’m lucky that pandemic restrictions were mostly a thing of the past by the time I moved to New Orleans in January 2022, although locals tell me that the music scene has not yet fully recovered.


JA: Do you think audiences have also been looking forward to the return of concerts?


KS: As someone who makes and consumes live music, I’m happy to see that live shows are back. Especially in a city like New Orleans where music is one of its main attractions. Live music listeners in this city are serious about their music. 


I performed at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival last year as part of Trumpet Mafia, who recently won the Offbeat Best of the Beat Award for Best Emerging Artist. It was the first Jazz Fest in two years since the prior festival was canceled due to Covid, and the crowd was going wild. Getting to experience the festival both as a performer and audience member, you could feel just how viscerally excited everyone was about hearing live music again. 

JA: Can you comment on receiving the Countess of Munster Musical Trust Award for Jazz?


KS: I applied for the Countess of Munster award in 2021 during the pandemic to help towards my last year of studies at Berklee College of Music. The award was for an “exceptional jazz musician looking to fund their final year of a performance-based jazz undergraduate course.” The award is meant for those studying at a UK university or conservatoire, but they very kindly made an exception for me. They are a highly regarded trust in the UK with a distinguished panel of trustees, so I’m very grateful to be a recipient of their jazz award.


JA: You also headlined Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London. What was that like? Would you do it again?


KS: Yes, I performed at Ronnie Scott’s while at home in London during the pandemic. The show was part of their “Lockdown Sessions” and was live-streamed since there were restrictions on venues at the time. I’m so glad I got to spend some time playing music with my community back home and that we could keep live music going while everything was shut down. 


It was also just a huge honor and a milestone to headline one of the most renowned jazz venues in the world. I was excited to perform my original music on a stage that’s been graced by some of the biggest names in jazz. I had Jas Kayser, Jazz FM Breakthrough Act 2021 and Parliamentary Jazz Newcomer of the Year 2021, and Tony Kofi, two-time BBC Jazz Award winner, on the gig. 


Tony teaches at the World Heart Beat Music Academy and Julian Joseph Jazz Academy where Jas and I studied music as high schoolers. Then she and I both ended up at Berklee College of Music after that. It all felt like a full-circle moment playing with them both back home in London. I was proud to be one of the few women instrumentalists of color to headline there as part of the Lockdown Sessions. I had so much fun performing at Ronnie’s and I would love to do it again, next time with the audience in the room instead of behind a screen!


JA: Can you tell us the story of how you became the resident pianist of the Davenport Lounge? And how was it performing at Jazz St Louis?


KS: A friend of mine plays a solo piano set in Davenport Lounge at the Ritz-Carlton and invited me to perform. That’s when I met Jeremy Davenport, who the lounge is named after. He had heard about me prior since I was relatively new to town and was playing a lot. He told me he needed a lead pianist for a couple of dates so I made those gigs, then after that, he hired me to be the pianist in his quintet. 

Rashawn Ross, who plays in the Dave Matthews band, sat in with us recently, and Nicholas Payton has also sat in on numerous occasions. I’m at the Davenport Lounge in the Ritz-Carlton four nights a week so come and see me! The band also travels. In November, we went to St. Louis where Jeremy is from and we performed two sold-out shows at Jazz St. Louis, previously known as Jazz at the Bistro. It was my first time in St. Louis, and I was excited to be playing at a venue that’s seen so many well-renowned musicians. I had a blast.


JA: You’ve performed at some big festivals globally, can you tell us about the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival and Jazz at Lincoln Center?


KS: I performed at the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival in Moscow, Idaho last year as part of the Grammy Museum Affiliate Collective. We opened for Dee Dee Bridgewater one night then for Chris Potter another night. I was thrilled to open for such prominent names in jazz. During my week there we also gave some workshops for local jazz students in the area. During our workshops and Q&As, I received a lot of questions from female students about navigating a career in a male-dominated field such as music, particularly jazz, and I was really moved to receive feedback saying that they found my advice helpful. My favorite part about performing in different places is getting to connect with different kinds of people.

I performed at Dizzy’s Club in Jazz at Lincoln Center as part of Ralph Peterson’s GenNext Big Band in 2019. It was for the band’s record release for “Listen Up!” It was a dream come true for me to share the stage with a legend like Ralph, and I’m forever grateful that I got the opportunity to learn from him before he passed away in 2021. The second time I performed at JALC was for the One Hundred Black Men (OHBM) Gala in 2022. 


OHBM is a non-profit that provides scholarships, educational support, economic empowerment, mentoring, health and wellness initiatives, and an overall voice for the African American community in New York. I mentored OHBM students over zoom for eight weeks leading up to the gala, where they also got the chance to perform and apply the things they had learned. I was stoked to play at the iconic Lincoln Center, not least because they’ve always been huge advocates for jazz, culture, and arts education.

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