George Shearing, piano master, composer of ‘Lullaby of Birdland‘ and hero to a whole generation of jazz fans and musicians has died at the age of 91. His quintet became world-famous in the ’40s and ’50s for its cool, sophisticated sound, and Shearing patented a much-imitated ‘locked hands’ piano style.
Shearing’s life was an incredible journey from working-class South London to the centre of the jazz scene, New York. He was born on 13th August 1919 in Battersea. Blind from birth, he was the ninth child of a coal-delivering father and train-cleaning mother. At the age of three, Shearing began picking out melodies on a piano and was soon able to play any tune by ear. He went to the Lindon Lodge School for the Blind where he began playing classical music and later joined an all-blind jazz orchestra. He also started to study the music of his heroes Art Tatum, Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson and Earl Hines.
Shearing became friends with esteemed jazz writer Leonard Feather who helped him make his recording debut in 1937. In his early 20s, Shearing was one of England’s most popular jazz pianists, a poll-winner in Melody Maker magazine seven times in a row. During World War II, he frequently duetted with French violinist Stephane Grappelli who spent the war years in London. Grappelli recalled to writer Feather in 1976 that he and Shearing would ‘play during air raids’!
Shearing came to New York for the first time in 1946. So the legend goes, on meeting bebop alto sax legend Charlie Parker, he asked if they could play something together. Parker suggested ‘All The Things You Are‘ in the difficult key of B. Shearing passed the test with flying colours, telling Bird: ‘I really love those awkward keys…’ After playing gigs in a few New York clubs, Shearing assembled a quintet that was remarkable for its mix of instruments and personnel – the vibraphonist was female (Marjorie Hyams), the drummer (John Levy) and bass player (Denzil Best) were black and the guitarist (Chuck Wayne) was white.
Shearing’s 1949 hit ‘September in the Rain‘ sold more than 900,000 records and broadened his popularity beyond jazz to a wider audience. Other early hits were ‘East of the Sun‘, ‘I Remember April’ and, of course, ‘Lullaby of Birdland‘, which became a standard. The song, written as the theme music for the famous jazz club’s radio show, came to him ‘literally in 10 minutes’. At his 80th birthday celebration at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1999, Shearing introduced it by joking, ‘I have been credited with writing 300 songs. 299 enjoyed a bumpy ride from relative obscurity to total oblivion. Here is the other one.’
He disbanded the quintet in 1978 and returned to playing mainly solo piano in the clubs of New York. He also recorded ballads with the jazz singer Mel Torme and piano duets with Marian McPartland, another British transplant in New York, proving his versatility in a range of tempos and styles including the bossa nova compositions of Antonio Carlos Jobim.
Shearing’s touch was ‘feathery, bright, gentle’, wrote Whitney Balliett in the New Yorker magazine, adding that he was ‘forever tipping his hat’ in little musical nods to pianists he admired. In some ways, Shearing’s early success disguised his ability to play hardcore bebop, and his piano style hinted also at the influence of classical composers such as Debussy, Satie and Delius. Indeed, Shearing played Mozart concertos with many American symphony orchestras.
After stints with MGM and Capitol Records, he formed his own Sheba label which was managed by his first wife, Trixie. Shearing became an American citizen in 1956 and lived in Manhattan, though he called London ‘home’ whenever he performed there. He received a knighthood for services to music in 2007.
Shearing was immortalised in Jack Kerouac‘s infamous stream-of-consciousness novel ‘On The Road‘. This excerpt describes seeing him playing at the Birdland club in 1949:
‘Shearing began to play his chords; they rolled out of the piano in great rich showers, you’d think the man wouldn’t have time to line them up. They rolled and rolled like the sea. Folks yelled for him to “Go!” Dean was sweating; the sweat poured down his collar. “There he is! That’s him! Old God! Old God Shearing! Yes! Yes! Yes!” When he was gone, Dean pointed to the empty piano seat. “God’s empty chair,” he said…’
Shearing is survived by his wife, Ellie Geffert.
Sir George Shearing, 13th August, 1919 – 14th February, 2011