Anglo-American jazz virtuoso Shearing dead at 91

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The Independent Culture

Jazz virtuoso George Shearing, who was born blind in Britain to working class parents only to achieve world renown as a pianist and a composer in the United States, died Monday at the age of 91.

"Sir George Shearing passed away in New York this morning at 1:05 am (0605 GMT) of congestive heart failure," his agent Dale Sheets told AFP.

Shearing wrote almost 300 jazz songs, but was perhaps best known for his 1952 "Lullaby of Birdland" in homage to saxophone legend Charlie "Bird" Parker.

"For a long stretch of time in the 1950s and early '60s, George Shearing had one of the most popular jazz combos on the planet - so much so that, in the usual jazz tradition of distrusting popular success, he tends to be under-appreciated," reads his profile on www.allmusic.com.

"Shearing's main claim to fame was the invention of a unique quintet sound, derived from a combination of piano, vibraphone, electric guitar, bass, and drums," it said.

Born in Battersea, London in 1913, Shearing's father was a coal delivery man and his mother cleaned trains at night for extra cash to help raise George and his eight siblings.

Shearing strived to overcome his blindness from an early age, learning to play at the age of three on a family piano that was missing several keys.

In his 2004 autobiography "Lullaby of Birdland," he recalled his early attempts to experiment with music, throwing bottles from an upstairs window: milk bottles for classical, beer for jazz.

Shearing, who admitted being influenced in his eary years by American jazz pianists like Art Tatum and Fats Waller, received some music training as a teenager at the Linden Lodge blind school in London.

Beginning his career as a fill-in at a London pub at the age of 16, Shearing was soon a huge hit. The star was given his own 15-minute BBC show and topped the Melody Maker magazine poll for best jazz pianist seven years in a row.

With Britain at his feet, America beckoned and Shearing emigrated to the United States in 1947 at the age of 27.

In New York, he quickly formed a jazz quintet and the first of several international hits came two years later with his recording of "September in the Rain."

His quintet became a fixture on the jazz nightclub circuit and Shearing went on to collaborate with top singers through the years, from Billy Eckstine and Nat King Cole to Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra.

Signed by MGM in 1950 and then by Capitol in 1955, he was asked to the White House to perform by three presidents, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.

It was another Englishman, jazz critic and pianist Leonard Feather, who helped Shearing develop his "locked-hands" style that produced his winning, melancholic sound.

"When the quintet came out (in) 1949, it was a very placid and peaceful sound, coming on the end of a very frantic and frenetic era known as bebop," Shearing said in a 1995 interview with music critic Steve Capra.

"I used the vibraphone to play the melody on the top, the guitar to play the melody an octave below, and I played those two melodies an octave apart and three or four other notes in between, making a full block sound, which, if it was scored for saxophones, would sound like the Glenn Miller sound."

While the personnel of the quintet changed over the years, the sound remained and Shearing continued to perform into his eighties, winning two Grammy awards.

On receiving his knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II in 2007, he said: "I don't know why I'm getting this honor. I've just been doing what I love to do."

Shearing is survived by his wife Ellie and daughter Wendy.

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