Niagara’s music community is mourning the loss of drummer, pianist and singer Peter Shea this week.
The co-founder of the TD Niagara Jazz Festival lost his battle against prostate cancer Sunday morning with his wife Juliet Dunn at his side at their north St. Catharines home. Tributes began to pour in online almost immediately.
Toronto singer Heather Bambrick, who played a Music Niagara Festival show at St. Mark’s Church last Friday night, spoke of losing her friend and former University of Toronto classmate during her daily shift on radio station Jazz-FM Monday.
“Everyone is devastated,” she tells The Local. “Everybody loved him. He was just ‘that guy’. I don’t know anyone who ever met Pete Shea and didn’t just completely fall in love with him. He was warm, kind, funny and engaging. He could put a smile on your face no matter what kind of hell you were going through.”
Described by Bambrick as open-hearted and lovely, she recalled first meeting him in the jazz program at U of T.
“Singers and drummers always got the bad rap,” laughs the frequent performer at the Niagara Jazz Festival. “But he was always so fun and hilarious. He could have been a stand-up comic. He was one of the first to ask me to sing at his graduation recital. That was such an honour, and I’ll never forget it.”
Dunn says she and her husband first saw signs that something was wrong back in 2018, but doctors found nothing. As Shea’s health declined and he began to lose weight, the couple continued to search for answers.
In March, 2020, pain in his spine prompted a trip to the emergency department in St. Catharines. A CT scan was called for, but the lockdown meant that the appointment couldn’t happen. He finally had the scan when things opened up a bit that summer. Then, on June 22, 2020, his urologist called to tell him he had stage four cancer that had spread to his lungs and his liver.
Shea went through radiation and chemotherapy treatments, and had a hip operation to relieve the pain. He continued to stay positive and made many Jazz Festival appearances at the piano, including on Canada Day this year in Simcoe Park. He was even at the Meridian Centre in St. Catharines Aug. 6 to cheer on Juliet as she sang the Franco-Ontario anthem at the opening ceremony of the Canada Summer Games.
Niagara-on-the-Lake saxophonist Jim Gay has been a friend and colleague of Shea’s for over 30 years.
“He was a very, very kind individual, always upbeat, positive and encouraging,” Gay says. “He was always willing to share his musical knowledge. He was a fantastic musician, a true triple threat if you want to call it that. To see him go so young, it’s so sad.”
Gay recalls spending the previous Monday afternoon at Peter’s home.
“We had a great time,” Gay says. “He was very lucid. He played me a bunch of music that he had recorded with Brent Setterington. The two of them were going through some old recordings they did in the 1990s, and they sounded great. I hope those songs come out as a legacy project for Pete.”
Dunn says she hopes to eventually enlist a number of Shea’s friends and collaborators to complete that project some time in the future.
Fonthill-based pianist and bandleader Mark Lalama may be one of them. Lalama marvelled at Peter’s positivity, even in the face of his struggles against cancer.
“I never heard him complain or play the victim,” Lalama says. “We had an epic hangover coffee about a month ago. He ended up eating supper at my house. The last time I saw him was when (Lalama’s duo) Dizzy and Fay opened the Jazz Festival (July 20). Our eyes met and he had this big smile on his face. I was so happy to see him that night.”
Lalama remembered playing some gigs with Shea where both of them played keys, trading tunes back and forth. He is another of Shea’s friends who spoke of his energy and sense of humour.
Toronto-based drummer Davide Di Renzo first met Peter Shea when they were in high school, Shea in St. Catharines, Di Renzo in Guelph. They connected at music competitions called Musicfests.
“We immediately became thick as thieves,” says Di Renzo. “I fell in love with him the first day I met him. We laughed more than we spoke, we just became brothers right then and there. He just cracked me up, and man, was I ever a big fan of his drumming. He had beautiful technique at such a young age.”
Di Renzo moved to Los Angeles after high school to further his career in music, but when his visa ran out and he was pondering his next move, a chance encounter with his old Musicfest friend at a gig in St. Catharines put Di Renzo on a course that he continues to pursue today.
“He had just finished his first year in the brand new jazz studies program in Toronto,” Di Renzo says. “He encouraged me to apply, asked me to fire him a demo tape, and he gave it to the director of the program. Sure enough, I auditioned and I got in.”
Di Renzo says all roads in his life lead to Pete, adding that they had a deep, deep connection.
“I don’t think I would have stayed in Canada had it not been for him,” he says. “ Within that first year I started working with so many people and I got really lucky. I always thanked him for that.”
An emotional Di Renzo says he saw Shea about a month before his death, and cried about 80 per cent of the time because he could see how much his friend, whom he calls a deep, deep soul, was suffering.
Shea’s 50th birthday was this past Feb. 3. Di Renzo tried to make it down from Toronto to Spirit in Niagara Distillery for the party, but a big snowstorm meant that many who had planned to attend could not.
Niagara-on-the-Lake business person Maria Mavridis also hoped to attend that party.
“Peter and Juliet still went, and a handful of people made it out,” she says. “Juliet texted me to tell me that he played all night long on that piano.”
Mavridis first met Shea and Dunn when her family was operating Maria’s Seafood Restaurant in Port Dalhousie. They hit it off immediately, impressed as she was with what she calls Peter’s cheesiness and sarcasm. She attended their wedding in Mexico and was there to help the couple build their jazz festival.
“He was such a pure soul,” she says. “Anyone that knows Peter knows what I am talking about. And he and Juliet balanced each other so well.”
Dunn had been working with Mavridis to organize a Sept. 12 party at White Oaks dubbed “RE: Pete”, a second chance to hold Shea’s 50th birthday party. Mavridis started a GoFundMe page to raise funds to offset the cost for Dunn, and at press time it had raised $15,390 toward a goal of $10,000.
“The party is definitely still on,” Mavridis tells The Local. “It was Peter’s idea, that was where he wanted it. The food I ordered is all of his favourites, including the mash-tini buffet. Peter was going to play for four hours straight, but this will become the celebration of his life.”