Shevlin Plays Jazz On 88 Keys


John Shevlin's distinctive jazz style includes all 88 ivories, from the bottom A note, to the top C note.

"I would break my fingers on a smaller keyboard," Shevlin said.


Pianist John Shevlin

The classically trained pianist moved to Payson a dozen years ago and was part of the first Payson jazz concert Oct. 27, 2001, when a group of musicians decided to get together and jam at the Payson Senior Circle.

Tuning pianos is another of Shevlin's talents. The old upright piano, that was given to the Senior Circle by the Presbyterian Church, badly needed tuning prior to the show. It had been in storage for some time.

Shevlin tried, but notes were still sour and some of the keys would not depress.

He finally took the whole keyboard, called the "action," out of the piano.

"It was full of acorns, probably from a squirrel," Shevlin said.

"We filled a huge brandy snifter with acorns and put it on the piano those first few concerts," Carole Shevlin said.

Jazz in Az is a statewide program and, the concerts in Payson grew out of that first impromptu concert.

Shevlin is the featured performer in March's Jazz in Az concert.

He grew up in Minneapolis, Minn. and Marin County, Calif.

His 9-year-old sister was taking piano lessons when he asked his mother, "Why can't I take lessons?"

It was 1938, in the middle of the Great Depression and piano lessons were $5 each.

Shevlin took lessons from the time he was 7 years old until he graduated high school. He played on the family's spinet and grand piano.

"I guess my mother figured she was making the investment and, she would make it stick," Shevlin said.

He began with classical pieces of music, but his second teacher was of an avant-garde nature, so Shevlin learned to play the theme songs of 40 or 50 colleges.

Living near San Francisco enabled Shevlin's parents to expose him to plays, ballets, concerts and operas.

"I heard Ethel Merman and people like that," he said.

His gift allowed him to hear a song and play it.

"I never had any trouble picking up different sounds," Shevlin said.

Why jazz?

"I'm basically lazy. Jazz comes easy to me," Shevlin said.

Boogie-woogie jazz did not appeal to Shevlin. Fortunately, jazz has many forms, so the field is wide open. He plays a variety called "stride form," a bass style with tenths.

"There are not many performers on keyboards (which often do not have 88 keys) or piano that play all the keys," he said.

The world around him fades away as Shevlin places his large, gnarled, but soft hands on the ivories and allows 70 years full of music take over his psyche.


John Shevlin and Gerry Reynolds were two of the four jazz musicians who decided to jam at the Payson Senior Circle seven years ago. Shevlin provided this photo, although he did not recall all of the people who played, but they included Ken Hales and Jerry, of Jerry's Clock Shop on Main Street.

His eyes are closed much more often than open when he plays.

People ask him all the time how he can play with his eyes closed.

If a vocalist is singing, whether or not he is playing, it is the notes and the chords Shevlin hears.

"All the time I've been playing, the keys have never changed," he said, and then laughed gently. "Pretty soon you know where they are," he added.

While some people are hobbled by only being able to play from sheet music, Shevlin refers to himself as "blessed to go way beyond that."

Art Tatum is the jazz musician who influenced Shevlin the most.

"Tatum had a lot of runs (think of the song ‘Kitten on the Keys') that were interesting to me," he said.

Shevlin made his living first in the timber industry then as an engineer, at one time making computer keyboards.

He has never played in a band, although he has given many solo performances for friends, civic groups and jam sessions over the years.

When John Horton Cooper took nights off at the Matador, "a kind of sniffy night club" in San Francisco, Shevlin sometimes played.

A bit of numbness in his fingertips from carpal tunnel surgery more than two decades ago has barely slowed Shevlin down.

In fact, he has been serenading Carole, his wife of 20 years, in the evenings before sleep.

When he is not playing the piano, photography, woodworking, travel and his family fill his life.

"We've had a lot of fun. That's what life is all about," Shevlin said.

While playing in the piano's bass range as a solo jazz artist enriches the music with a more orchestral sound, Shevlin admitted he would have to make some adjustments Sunday.

"When you have a foursome, you have a stand-up bass, so you don't usually play bass," Shevlin said, so playing with a quartet will be a style adjustment.

John Darst on guitar, John Willis on bass and Gerry Reynolds on drums complete the quartet.

"Gerry does a magnificent job staying with my rhythm changes. It might be a little bit harder with a couple of other people, but we'll make music and it will be fun," Shevlin said.

"The Very Thought of You," Gershwin's "Our Love is Here to Stay" from "An American in Paris" and, "Ain't Misbehavin'," are three of the songs jazz fans can look forward to at the concert.

Once in a while, patrons of the Strawberry Lodge can catch Shevlin between jazz sets with keyboardist Bob Smolenski, guitarists Howard Brown and Joe Drummond, and drummer Gerry Reynolds, between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays.

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