It’s the end of the week in the River City or one of its adjacent towns. A sharp-dressed, yet unassuming man is at his piano, you are in awe of his obvious skill, yet he’s totally composed. This man is Shawn Pfaffman, and he is more than just a piano man.
At one point in his career, Shawn was proficient in over 40 instruments. With a background in Jazz Studies and Economics from Auburn University, Shawn has parlayed his skillsets into many avenues surrounding music. He says that it was during this time in college that his eyes were opened to music as a language. He was inspired by all the possibilities with harmonies, melodies, and improvisation. During his teeth cutting time at Auburn, and he met many musicians playing in different groups that he continues to perform with to this day. Jacksonville is now his homestead and he has played with various artists including latin, jazz and rock bands alike.
Growing up in Alabama and coming from a musical family, Shawn wanted to be a professional musician from an early age. He taught himself the ropes on how to manage his business and had a few hiccups along the way. He shared his experience of owning a music store in his twenties.
“I saved a little bit of money, created a business plan and got an SBA loan to buy my favorite music store in Alabama. I was 24, with no capital and a lack of experience. I made lots of mistakes without the capital to really recover. I closed that business when my son was born and continued paying for it for years afterward. Even though it felt like a colossal failure at the time, I learned so much from it. In my early 30s, I started a music school here on the First Coast that became very successful. I made sure that I learned from my mistakes. I sold that business in 2019 for a profit and shifted my focus back to being a musician full-time. I still have several businesses including First Coast Piano and 1st Symphony. After a little break, I am teaching again and running those businesses, but mostly focused on performing, writing and recording music full-time,” he tells us.
What he doesn’t say is that First Coast School of Music is responsible for the training of many young musicians that continue to play professionally throughout the southernmost United States as far away as Tennessee.
Shawn says that music is the essence of who he is as a person. For over twenty-five years Shawn has been sharing his love of music with his students. “I see the positive changes that I have helped make in my student’s lives. That is very important to me. I have seen kids’ grades, self-confidence, and physical coordination improve. I see the joy on the faces of all the students: kids, teens and adults, “
So impressive was one of these students that he asked one of them to join SPOT, the Shawn Pfaffman Organ Trio. Evan Sinclair is the band’s lead guitarist. “I have taught thousands of students, but only a couple stand out in the way that Evan does. He was an incredible student. Always attentive and eager to learn. Everything that I taught him, everything, he practiced and perfected. By the time he was 14 or 15, he hit hyper mode. His technique surpassed mine. As he became older, we shifted more to theory and musical styles. He became proficient in jazz, blues, rock, etc. He is truly a sponge that absorbs everything. When I put SPOT together, I asked him to join us. He is an amazing musician and fine young man who now helps me on occasion with difficult pieces of music,”. This writer has seen Evan play in both Jacksonville and as far away as Memphis when he was in his teens. Evan is the real deal.
A longtime advocate for positive change within communities he’s a part of Shawn and is also a world traveler. “I wish that everyone was able to travel to other parts of the world. If you are open to it, it truly expands your mind. I was very fortunate to meet a beautiful Dominican girl when we were 20. Before that time, I had traveled very little and was quite isolated from the world in rural Alabama, but I was eager to see and experience more. I had read so much about other countries and cultures. 27 years later, that beautiful Dominican girl and I are still traveling to experience more. Over the years, I realized that we Americans take a lot for granted here in the US. Our roads here are easy in comparison to other countries. I have experienced some gut-wrenching difficulties while driving in the Guatemalan Highlands, the streets of Santo Domingo, DR or the narrow cliff roads on the Greek Isle of Crete. Still, I would do it a million times over. The people, cultures, landscape, food and so much more are always so inspiring. With that said, I love traveling in the US as well,”
Also, an advocate for change in his community Shawn has used his reach to make an impact. “As a teenager, I helped create the first integrated prom in my hometown in 1992. I didn’t do that as a musician, but as someone who felt the need for change. I have always been active when it comes to injustice. When I have spoken out in my adult life, it was as a response to narratives that I heard that was completely contradictory to my life experiences. I felt compelled to say, “No, that is not true. Here is why.” I don’t know if those things garnered more attention because of my being a musician. I have never thought of it that way. I think that anyone should speak up about injustices if it helps to remedy those things. I understand why people may not because of the backlash that comes from taking a stand against injustice. I have always been willing to accept that consequence. With that being said, I am very cautious with my words and choose them carefully. My activism and vocalness have always been with the intent of helping others and correcting injustices,”
Shawn is a connector and a giver. He organized a surprise birthday bash for his father that included a concert with many generations of the Pfaffman clan in New York City including his son, an accomplished musician in his own right. Whenever there is a charity show or a chance to bring musicians together, he’s always willing to help. For SPOT’s cd release show for the ambitious Monk Funk, he enlisted John and Juanita Parker-Urban and Aaron Lane for a poignant rendition of Black Pumas’ “Colors,”. Even renowned jazz organist Doug Carn is a fan. Imagine that! A musician you are long-time fan of singing your praises and recording with you. He loves meeting his fans and other musicians as well as music lovers.
Whether you are checking out Flo and Grits in Fernandina, making your way through JIA where Shawn volunteers his time, or checking out SPOT downtown, make sure to say hello to the humble man behind the organ.