George Shearing: In Search of a Sound

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George Shearing
By Jimmy Katz

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George Shearing is seated at the beautiful Bösendorfer in his living room on New York’s Upper East Side. He depresses the keys so gently that the ensuing sound is barely audible. He then lightens his attack even more, so that each note is somewhere between a whisper and silence. “You can’t do that on every instrument,” he says approvingly, adding: “I’ve spent my life on touch and sound, and very little on Hanon exercises.

There were so many great technicians in jazz. What’s the point of me trying to play like Art Tatum? I’ve done it on several occasions, and I’ve lost every time!” A surprising statement, for the self-effacing Shearing came as close as anyone to duplicating the dazzlingly clean runs of Tatum, one of his early idols. But perhaps not so surprising, for the 83-year-old pianist has spent some seven decades seeking a sound. And whenever critics and fans thought they could pigeonhole him, that quest led him in new directions.

Shearing, who is proud of his American citizenship, retains his British accent, with its hint of the Battersea streets where he grew up. Whether speaking or playing, he seems incapable of emitting a clumsy phrase. He laughs easily, and frequently reveals his self-deprecating sense of humor.

George Shearing’s rise to fame is remarkable given the obstacles he faced. Born in 1919 the youngest of nine children of a coalman, he was raised in Battersea, a working-class district of London. Blind since birth, Shearing remembers the 1920s and 1930s as a far less enlightened era for those with a disability: “The accepted trades for the blind in those days were chair caner, basket maker or brush maker.” Young George was fearless, however, and engaged in all the normal activities, including riding a bike and sports: “I loved cricket and I used to go out on the street and play with the sighted kids. I’d hold the bat with one of the local boys. Sometimes I hit the ball, and sometimes it hit me!”

Educated at various schools for the blind, Shearing was drawn to music, although there was no particular musical tradition in the family. “As a matter of fact,” he chuckles, “a friend who is a serious genealogist went back 500 years in my family and there was not one musician to be found!” Nevertheless, the youngster displayed a remarkable ear and an uncanny sense of harmony, and was able to play on piano practically anything he heard. He recalls listening to the leading British dance bands—Roy Fox, Harry Roy, Ambrose, Jack Payne and Henry Hall—on his crystal radio set. Although he received formal classical training, by age 16 his career path was already clear: “My teacher told my parents that further study of classical music would be a waste of time because it was obvious I would become a jazz pianist.” Shearing’s epiphany came when he heard a 1937 recording by Teddy Wilson: “Just a Mood.” By age 17, he was touring with a big band led by Claude Bampton comprised entirely of blind musicians. “We would play Jimmie Lunceford and Benny Carter arrangements that a couple of the guys transcribed off the records,” Shearing remembers.

1938 was a watershed year for the young pianist. He made a big impression at a jam session at London’s No. 1 Rhythm Club. Among those present was the young critic/record producer Leonard Feather, who became a major supporter. Feather later recalled the event in his autobiography, The Jazz Years: Earwitness to an Era: “In a country where live jazz from America was almost nonexistent and even records were in relatively short supply, one did not look to domestic talent for creativity or originality; but when this blind teenager began to offer his impression of how jazz should sound...there was a minor commotion in the room.” That same year, Shearing got to meet one of his idols, Fats Waller, who was on tour in Britain. “He had some hands,” Shearing recalls. “He could stretch 13—from the C below middle C to the A above middle C.” The American star was so impressed with the young Britisher that he encouraged him to come to the U.S. as soon as possible.

In April of 1939, Feather wrote a feature on the 22-year-old Shearing in the influential British Melody Maker, calling him “the most remarkable pianist of his kind this country has produced.” Feather was also taken with Shearing’s proficiency on the accordion: “I don’t mind saying that I have always been violently prejudiced against the accordion as a medium for jazz, and have never minced my words on this subject, so you can imagine my embarrassment on finding myself forced to admit that the blues played by Shearing on the accordion is very good jazz indeed.” That same year, Shearing recorded his “Squeezin’ the Blues” on accordion, accompanied by Feather on piano.

Early press notices referred to Shearing as a boogie-woogie pianist, and his first recordings as a leader include several examples of that genre which was then enjoying a revival. Early Shearing is a fascinating compendium of stride, swing and boogie, played with great conviction and polish, and an uncanny ability to replicate the styles of his idols. There are snatches of Teddy Wilson, Earl Hines and Fats Waller, as well as Jess Stacy, Joe Sullivan and Bob Zurke. But this often brilliant stylistic amalgam was not a recognizable Shearing sound; that would come later.

From the very beginning, Shearing also demonstrated his talents as a composer, recording several of his own boogie-woogie and stride creations. He went on to compose memorable pieces in many genres, including such modern jazz classics as “Conception” (recorded by Miles Davis and Bud Powell, among others), and “Consternation.” His best-known piece, “Lullaby of Birdland,” has become one of jazz’s true anthems. “I get tired of playing it,” Shearing confesses, “but not of collecting the royalties!”

By 1946, Shearing had fulfilled Feather’s prophecy and had become Britain’s leading jazz attraction. Despite his successes throughout England both on his own and in partnership with violinist Stephane Grappelli, the pianist felt the time had come to test the musical waters in the United States. After a brief exploratory visit in December, Shearing settled in New York a year later. He was far from an instant success. Work was hard to come by, at least in part, Shearing feels, because club owners were reluctant to hire a blind artist. One proprietor felt he was an insurance risk, while another, according to Leonard Feather (who had moved to the U.S. in 1939), feared that patrons might find the sight of a blind pianist “too depressing.” Shearing went from perennial poll winner in Britain to intermission pianist in New York.

Despite his struggles, Shearing remembers his first few months in America as “very interesting and educational.” He got to meet many of the musicians whose records he had been studying from afar. Eventually, Shearing wound up playing intermission piano at the legendary Three Deuces on 52nd Street, opposite the trio of Hank Jones, Ray Brown and Charlie Smith who were backing Ella Fitzgerald. Shearing, who soon had memorized the show, was able to fill in on occasion for Jones, who became a mentor to him.

Shearing was also introduced to the daring new sounds that were changing the course of the music. “I was only vaguely aware of bebop before I came over here, but I really got into it. I remember listening to those frightening unison things Charlie and Diz used to play and saying, ‘Good grief!’” The former boogie-woogie specialist embraced the new music, which was made to order for his technical facility and sophisticated harmonic vocabulary.

By 1949, Shearing graduated from intermission piano to leading a trio and then a quartet with clarinetist Buddy DeFranco at the Clique Club, which later became Birdland. “It was called the Buddy DeFranco–George Shearing Quartet or the George Shearing–Buddy DeFranco Quartet, depending on whose wife you were talking to,” he jokes. When Discovery approached the group to record, DeFranco was unable to take part for contractual reasons. Rather than simply replacing him with another clarinetist, Feather suggested that Shearing add Marjorie Hyams on vibes and Chuck Wayne on guitar to the trio, which consisted of Shearing, bassist John Levy and drummer Denzil Best. This seemingly innocuous change in instrumentation resulted in the birth of one of jazz’s most popular and enduring groups: the George Shearing Quintet. Shearing had finally found his own musical identity. “There was never a ‘George Shearing sound’ before the Quintet,” he says.

Shearing tapped several sources to create that sound. One ingredient was the “locked-hands” piano style of Milt Buckner. Next, Shearing adapted the harmonies he heard in the Glenn Miller orchestra’s reed section to his new instrumentation: “The vibes would play the clarinet lead, the guitar would play the bottom saxophone part and I would play all five voices,” he explains. The unison voicings produced a rich and polished blend that proved irresistible to audiences. The group was quickly signed by MGM, and at its first session came up with a hit version of “September in the Rain” that came to symbolize Shearing’s new concept. “I had no inkling whatsoever that it would be a hit,” he recalls. “Looking back at my career, I’ve always played things because I love the tune or the harmony or both. I’ve never once said, ‘Let’s play this because I think it will appeal to the buying public.’”

The Quintet formula managed to appeal to both jazz and pop audiences, insinuating elements of bop into a more melodically accessible context. “I think the secret is starting with something they know, and if their attention leaves for a little while, you bring it back by returning to something they know.” Indeed, “September in the Rain” and countless other Shearing classics adhered faithfully to this pattern. Each performance begins and ends with a distinct melody statement using the singularly attractive Quintet voicings. Sandwiched between are the solos—often complex and uncompromising. As frequently happens when a jazz artist achieves a modicum of popular acclaim, Shearing was accused of selling out, of commercializing bebop. “Sometimes I felt it was pure jealousy,” he admits. “I wasn’t catering to anybody. I simply felt at the time that, with those particular instruments, it was time to play something less frantic. I just had had enough of one thing, and settled on something else.”

To this day, the “commercial” millstone continues to surface occasionally in appraisals of Shearing’s career. For example, Ted Gioia writes in The History of Jazz, “If musicians were evaluated on native talent and raw potential, rather than on their actual body of recordings, Shearing would undoubtedly rank as one of the finest musicians of his generation. As it stands, much of his recorded output only hints at the depth of his musicality.” To counter this frequently expressed position, one need only point out that Shearing’s recorded oeuvre is so vast and varied that one can find enough examples of straightahead jazz discs at all stages of his career to satisfy even the most stringent purist. Even during his Capitol period (1955-1969), arguably his most “commercial” body of work, there is always something worth hearing in a Shearing performance—from the often-fleeting examples of his brilliant improvisations to the sheer beauty and varied tonal colors of his orchestral arrangements. (The Complete Capitol Live Recordings of George Shearing on Mosaic, unfortunately out of print, contains some superb jazz performances from this period.)

In addition to critical attacks, Shearing’s original Quintet faced another problem: racial prejudice. Two of the group’s members, bassist John Levy and drummer Denzil Best, were black. Taking an integrated band on the road in 1949 took some courage, and Shearing and his associates experienced their share of ugly incidents. “Although some of the West Indian musicians in London had their problems,” Shearing recalls, “the situation in the U.S. was very new to me. Being blind made it seem even more absurd because I look at human beings as all the same. I can’t tell if they’re black or white.”

John Levy notes in his recent autobiography, Men, Women and Girl Singers, “George wouldn’t stand for discrimination and he fought it wherever he could.” Levy later became Shearing’s manager, and describes the significance of that move: “Trust between people is difficult enough to come by, but for a white man to empower a black man, even as ‘recently’ as 1950, was news.” In a February 1952 article and photo spread on the Quintet, Ebony took note of Shearing’s refusal to play where blacks were barred, quoting the pianist: “I don’t see a man’s color. I hear his music.”

The Quintet’s personnel over the years included such stellar members as Don Elliott, Cal Tjader, Gary Burton, Toots Thielemans, Joe Pass and Israel Crosby. Shearing was particularly impressed with the 21-year-old Burton, who sought an audition by telling the leader, “You can’t afford not to hear me!” Shearing later insisted that Capitol devote an entire album (Out of the Woods) to the young vibraphonist’s compositions. Shearing also played a key role in advancing Afro-Cuban jazz, adding Latin percussion and rhythms to the Quintet as early as 1953 and fluently assimilating them into his own playing.

By the late 1970s Shearing felt it was time for a change, and in 1978 he disbanded the Quintet in favor of duos or trios: “I thought the sound had kind of worn itself out and would rather let the Quintet die than have someone else decide to put it to sleep!” He continues to assemble the group on occasion, however, drawing upon his current musical associates Neil Swainson (bass), Don Thompson (vibes), Reg Schwager (guitar) and Dennis Mackrel (drums).

With the phasing out of the Quintet, Shearing was able to pursue other musical interests, including renewing his ties to the classical world. Learning the repertoire by reading the pieces in Braille and then memorizing them, Shearing has made many appearances with symphony orchestras. “I went through a period of playing two or three different Mozart concerti, but my nervous system got the better of me. I played a few times with [Boston Pops conductor] Arthur Fiedler, and he would make silly statements to me just before we went on because he knew I was a bit nervous. One night, he said, ‘You know, George, I think it might be time to change my socks. When I took them off last night, I threw them at the ceiling and they never came down!’ And then we went on and played Mozart!” Despite Fiedler’s best efforts, Shearing recalls suffering a memory lapse during one performance: “That’s the thing about being a jazz musician—I just improvised in the style of Mozart for about 30 bars until I could get back. Only the conductor and my wife noticed!”

Ellie Shearing noticed because she is a former music teacher and a professional choral singer. The Shearings met in 1971 at a party at the pianist’s home but were not married until 1984. While Ellie is a great help to him, he has always been very independent, and she knows when to step back. Moreover, they seem to genuinely enjoy each other’s company. George simply calls Ellie “this century’s Florence Nightingale.”

Shearing ended a 15-year association with Capitol Records in 1969, and after recording several albums for his own Sheba label (including Out of This World and The Heart and Soul of Joe Williams and George Shearing, which were reissued recently by Koch), he moved on to MPS and then to Concord. His many Concord releases returned him to a more straightahead jazz setting, highlighting his still formidable improvisational talents. Since 1992, Shearing has recorded for Telarc, which has featured him in a wide variety of contexts—from solo piano to a 29-piece orchestra arranged by Robert Farnon. His latest release for the label, The Rare Delight of You, pairs him with a true musical soul mate, John Pizzarelli. “We think a lot alike,” says Shearing. “I enjoy working with vocalists if they have ears and, of course, John is a musician. It was a real joy.”

For Shearing, the album is the latest in a long line of collaborations with distinguished singers, including classic encounters with Peggy Lee, Nat King Cole, Nancy Wilson and Joe Williams, not to mention the nearly telepathic communication he shared with Mel Tormé (“I miss him as much as anybody can”). “I think of the piano as an orchestra behind the vocal; I like to think of myself as laying down some strings,” he explains. The Shearing touch and his arranging talents are well displayed on the new album. As a sometime singer himself (“My voice is not what it used to be, if it ever was!”), as well as a serious student of lyrics, the pianist knows a song’s nooks and crannies and how to fill them with imagination and taste.

Although much of Shearing’s fame derives from his work with the Quintet and larger ensembles, his solo piano performances may best reveal his musical essence and the crystalline touch he has spent a lifetime perfecting. His rendition of Dave Brubeck’s “Summer Song” (from the 1997 solo album on Telarc, Favorite Things), for example, has an almost stark simplicity that goes directly to the core of a melody and makes the listener believe that this is the way it was meant to be played. “When I play solo,” says Shearing, “I think of the impressionists—Ravel, Debussy, Delius.”

As far as the future is concerned, Shearing doesn’t plan to retire but has cut down considerably on traveling. “I remember one tour—56 cities in 63 days! I don’t want that anymore.” Considering his impeccable technique, Shearing spends very little time practicing: “I must have been home for three or four months,” he said early in 2002, “and I don’t think I’ve spent an hour at the piano. Why should a man work when he has the health and strength to lie in bed?” On a serious note, he adds that he would like to do continue his work with larger orchestras and do more choral writing. (Shearing’s “Songs and Sonnets from Shakespeare” was recorded in England by John Rutter and the Cambridge Singers and released last year on the Collegium album Feel the Spirit.)

Shearing has never viewed his blindness as a handicap—just a series of problems that have to be solved. He even has a storehouse of blind jokes, some crossing the line of political correctness. He is a prolific reader, both in Braille and by means of talking books. “The machines now have made things much easier,” he says. He demonstrates his “Braille Lite” note taker that contains his address book and calendar. “It can store about 500 pages. And these,” he holds up some disks, “contain all of Gershwin’s lyrics and the St. James Bible in Braille.” He moves deftly around the apartment, from his office to his sound room to the living room. Thousands of cassettes, CDs, DATs and reel-to-reel tapes are shelved and identified with Braille labels. After the tour, he remarks, “You know, since accessibility is a little more difficult for us than for the sighted, when we have good memories we tend to hold on to them.”

Undoubtedly, George Shearing has collected many good memories during his extraordinary career. But, at 83, he’s still searching for that sound.

Originally published in May 2002

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