Sir George Shearing: Musician and composer hailed as one of the finest pianists in the history of jazz
Wednesday 16 February 2011
"Have you been blind all your life?" an interviewer asked.
"Not yet," said George Shearing.
His conversations were peppered with sardonic wit. Blind from birth, he was to become Britain's leading jazz pianist, and he won the Melody Maker Poll in that category seven times before he emigrated to the United States in 1947. Once there, he rose to be a jazz superstar. No stranger to hit records throughout his career there, he wrote "Lullaby of Birdland", which became a jazz standard, in 1952. "I have to confess," he said, "that it only took me 10 minutes to write it."
Shearing liked to emphasise that he was not a jazz pianist, but a pianist who played jazz. He had a huge repertoire of classical music, learned both by ear and from Braille editions. He disliked being described as a blind pianist, but considered himself to be a pianist who happened to be blind.
Born in Battersea into a coalman's family of nine children, he had begun playing the piano at the age of three, picking out tunes that he heard on the radio, and by the time he was five was fluent on both piano and accordion. He studied classical music at the Linden Lodge School for the Blind in Wandsworth, where he was a pupil between the ages of 12 to 16.
Although he was well on the way to qualify for university with the offer of several scholarships, his family couldn't afford the expense and instead he became a pub pianist when he was 16. By now he was listening to the records of all the great jazz pianists of the time. Within the year he'd joined Claude Bampton's big band. Made up from blind musicians, it specialised in the music of Jimmie Lunceford and Duke Ellington.
A friendship with the jazz writer Leonard Feather helped to get Shearing his first recording date under his own name for Decca in 1937. He was given his first broadcast for the BBC when he was 19. He was by then so good that he was snapped up by the bandleaders, working for Carlo Krahmer, Harry Parry and Bert Ambrose.
During the war years he toured with the violinist Stephane Grappelli and worked in London throughout the Blitz. The trumpeter Tommy McQuater remembered playing and drinking with Shearing in London clubs and then coming out into the total blackout. Shearing would lead the sighted musicians through the pitch-black, rubble-strewn streets and set them on their respective routes home. A case of the blind leading the blind-drunk, as McQuater had it.
He was encouraged to emigrate to the States by American visitors to Britain like Fats Waller, Mel Powell, Glenn Miller and Coleman Hawkins. "I expected to slay everyone when I got here, because I could play in the style of Art Tatum, Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson and Bob Zurke," he said. Well, the people started to say 'Oh, that's nice. What else can you do?' My wife at the time was kind of annoyed and she'd say, 'What do you want him to do, stand on his head?'"
Shearing's first US job was at the Onyx Club in New York, playing when Sarah Vaughan, the headliner, took an interval. He moved over the road to The Two Deuces, where he did the same job for Ella Fitzgerald. He worked intensively for the next two years in clubs as a solo and intermission pianist. However, working shoulder to shoulder with the idols of his youth made him feel as though he "had died and gone to heaven."
It wasn't until he put together his famous Quintet in January 1949 that he created his own identity. The line-up of the group was piano, guitar, vibraphone, bass and drums. The music was delicate and original. With the quintet Shearing used block chords, or locked hands. The nimble style, with both hands in parallel octaves, involved "a four-note chord in the right hand with the left hand doubling the little-finger melody played in the right hand," and it gave him an instantly recognisable trademark. The upper melody note was doubled by the vibraphone and the lower by the guitar.
This highly original style, bland and uniquely palpable, became knownas "The Shearing Sound", and itwas copied by pianists across the world. His soft and cool toucheschewed hot jazz and his powerfully attractive melodies overcame what the public saw as the bleakness ofthe Bebop of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. The jazz writer RichardCook described the Quintet soundas ""Bop relaxing in the lounge with an aperitif".
A fine example of how the Quintet matured is to be heard when it backs Peggy Lee on the 1959 Capitol album Beauty and the Beat. Applause was added to make this studio recording sound like a live one, but none the less it remains one of the finest examples of jazz meeting popular music in a resounding triumph of artistry.
It was around this time that Shearing started working as a soloist with symphony orchestras. Always keen to emphasise his classical prowess, he'd play a concerto in the first half and use the orchestra to back the quintet in the second.
He used the quintet formula until 1978, by which time he had tired of it. From then on he appeared mainly as a soloist or with accompaniment only from a virtuoso bass player such as Neil Swainson or Brian Torff.
This setting placed the accent acutely on the piano and his playing matured and mutated. Away from the quintet, it became apparent that he was able to swing more than any other British pianist could, and he ranked only slightly behind Hank Jones and Oscar Peterson in his improvising skills.
His albums with Nancy Wilson and Nat "King" Cole, and particularly with Mel Tormé, proved him to be one of the finest of all accompanists to singers. He formed a musical partnership with Tormé that lasted for 10 years, playing concerts and recording in the US and Asia. Each had the highest opinion of the other, and Tormé was more than irritated that the two Grammy awards that their work won in 1983 and 1984 were awarded to him alone and not shared with the pianist.
Shearing's work continued toimprove as he became older. "I'mnot sure that technique and improvisational qualities improve with age," he said. "What improves is your sense of judgement, of maturity. I think you become a much better editor of your own material."
He spent much of his time in England, every year, living in a house that he bought in Chipping Campden in the Cotswolds. He returned here to celebrate his 80th birthday when he played in concert with John Dankworth and Cleo Laine. He was made OBE in 1996 and knighted in 2007.
In 2003 Shearing's amusing and vivid memoir, inevitably titled Lullaby of Birdland and written with Alyn Shipton, was published. However, he never recovered properly from a fall at his home that year, and virtually gave up public performance.
George Albert Shearing, pianist, bandleader and composer: born London 13 August 1919; OBE 1996; Kt 2007; married 1941 Trixie Bayes (divorced 1973; one daughter), 1975 Ellie Geffert; died New York 14 February 2011.
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