Sir George Shearing - June 2007
George Shearing, blind from birth, played in an all-blind band before becoming Britain's leading boogie-woogie artist. In the U.S., he hit on a jazz formula that established him in the jazz world and made him one of its leading artists for half a century.
George Shearing, the elegant pianist who expanded the boundaries of jazz by adding an orchestral sensibility and a mellow aesthetic to the music, has died. He was 91.
Shearing died Monday of congestive heart failure at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, said his manager, Dale Sheets. Shearing had been inactive since taking a fall at his New York City apartment in 2004, according to Sheets.
A prolific songwriter, he once introduced “Lullaby of Birdland,” written in 1952 in celebration of the fabled New York nightspot and its radio show, by saying: “I have been credited with writing 300 songs. Two-hundred-ninety-nine enjoyed a bumpy ride from relative obscurity to total oblivion. Here is the other one.”
Born in 1919 in the Battersea district of London to working-class Cockney parents, Shearing was one of nine children and was blind from birth. He started playing piano and accordion at age 5 but didn't receive formal musical education until he spent four of his teenage years at the Linden Lodge, a school for the blind.
It was there that he learned Bach, Liszt and music theory. It was also during that time that he became interested in jazz by listening to recordings by American pianists Meade Lux Lewis, Earl Hines, Art Tatum and Fats Waller.
At Linden Lodge, Shearing showed enough potential to earn a number of scholarship offers from universities. But after graduating, he went to work in a local pub where he earned about $5 a week and tips for his playing.
Within a year, he had joined Claude Bampton's big band, a 15-piece unit made up of blind musicians who played compositions by Jimmie Lunceford and Duke Ellington.
In 1937, Leonard Feather, the jazz critic, composer and producer, discovered Shearing playing as a swing accordionist in a London jam session. He quickly arranged for Shearing to record for English Decca and, although that recording date was not Shearing's first, it was the one that set his career in motion.
With Feather's help, Shearing got a regular radio program on the BBC. He had his own Dixieland band and was also his country's leading boogie-woogie pianist. Soon he was being called Britain's answer to the great American pianist Teddy Wilson, and for seven consecutive years he was chosen his country's most popular jazz pianist by Melody Maker magazine.
During World War II, Shearing toured military bases in Britain, playing for the troops, and worked frequently in groups led by French violinist Stephane Grappelli, who spent the war years in London.
Shearing met his first wife, Beatrice Bayes, known to friends as Trixie, while playing in an air-raid shelter. They married in 1941 and had one daughter, Wendy Ann, before divorcing in the early 1970s. He later married Eleanor Geffert, who survives him as well as his daughter.
Encouraged to go to America after the war, Shearing first visited New York City in 1946 and moved there permanently the next year. He became a naturalized American citizen in 1956.
Shearing's career in the United States, where he was unknown, started slowly. His first job was intermission pianist at a New York club during a Sarah Vaughan engagement. He filled the same role at another club during an Ella Fitzgerald engagement and sometimes filled in for her pianist, Hank Jones.
He continued as a struggling, scale-earning unknown until early 1949, when—again with Feather's help—he hit on a jazz formula that would establish his musical identity and make him one of the leading jazz artists over the next half a century.
Feather suggested that Shearing add a guitarist and a vibraphonist to the standard rhythm section to make up a quintet. The personnel in that first group was diverse both in race and gender and included John Levy on bass, Denzil Best on drums, Marjorie Hyams on vibraphone and Chuck Wayne on guitar.
The group went into the recording studio and came out with “September in the Rain,” which sold nearly a million records. Their first New York engagement came in April 1949 at the Café Society Downtown. They then went out on a national tour, and by the end of the year, Shearing's group was voted the No. 1 combo in Down Beat magazine's reader poll.
With this group, Shearing developed what came to be known as “the Shearing Sound,” which involved not only the makeup of the band—vibes and guitar generally were not both found in quintets—but also the style in which he played the piano. He used the “block-chords” technique to create a big, lush, orchestral sound. In his book “The Jazz Years: Earwitness to an Era,” Feather wrote that Shearing “developed a new and unprecedented blend for his instrumentation.”
In that technique, a New York Times writer noted some years ago, “both hands play melodies in parallel octaves with a shifting cloud of chords in between.”
Shearing worked primarily with his quintet for much of the next three decades. The personnel shifted but over the years included some of the finest names in jazz including Cal Tjader and Gary Burton on vibes and Joe Pass and Toots Thielemans on guitar (though Thielemans was better known as a harmonica player).
From the early 1950s on, Shearing had steady work in the recording studios, first with MGM, where he was under contract from 1950 to 1955, and then Capitol Records for 14 years. With Capitol, he recorded albums with some of the best singers of the day, including Peggy Lee, Nancy Wilson and Nat King Cole, and achieved substantial chart success in the late 1950s and early '60s.
Though his bread and butter was with the commercially successful quintet, Shearing in time began to feel limited by it and grew tired of life on the road. At one point, he told New Yorker jazz critic Whitney Balliett, his quintet did 56 concerts in 63 days.
“George drives himself harder than you notice,” bassist Al McKibbon once told Feather. “One night in Oklahoma City, I saw him literally fall asleep in the middle of a chorus of 'Tenderly.' He woke up with a start and carried right on.”
Shearing disbanded the group in 1978. For most of the rest of his career, Shearing appeared mainly in solo, duo or trio settings.
His work in duos and recording contracts with Concord Records and then Telarc in the 1980s seemed to revitalize him. He recorded five albums with singer Mel Torme that were critically and commercially successful. He and Torme won Grammy Awards in 1982 and 1983.
His autobiography, “Lullaby of Birdland,” was released in 2004.
Over the years, he played for three U.S. presidents—Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan—and Queen Elizabeth II. An anecdote he related to Feather about his brush with royalty said much about his sharp wit.
“When we were preparing to be received [by the queen], I was told that the directive is: Do not extend your hand until the queen extends hers. I said, well, either somebody's going to have to cue me or she'll have to wear a bell. But somebody did cue me,” Shearing said.