Jazz Pianist George Shearing Dies
English-born pianist and composer of “Lullaby of Birdland” was 91 years old
George Shearing, the British jazz pianist and composer who wrote the bebop standard “Lullaby of Birdland,” died on Monday, February 14 in New York City, where he had resided for many years. The cause of death was heart failure. He was 91.
The writer Alyn Shipton, who helped Shearing write his memoirs, said that Shearing had a remarkable memory. “He could reproduce whole records from memory, accurately catching the nuances of Fats, Tatum, Bud Powell and Erroll Garner among others,” said Shipton. “But his real talent was, firstly to conceptualize the ‘Shearing Sound’ - transferring the Glenn Miller orchestral voicings to piano, vibes and guitar, and secondly to apply an instantaneous musical wit and imagination to everything he did. One of his favorite party tricks which I saw him do many times was to play the Irish folk song ‘Kerry Dance’ and weave into it the ‘Kyrie’ from Bach's B Minor mass. George particularly liked that because it was a verbal pun on Kyrie and Kerry and a musical pun on mixing genres. He loved puns and wordplay and his conversation was peppered with them.”
Shearing was born on August 13, 1919 and raised in the Battersea area of London, by his working class mother and father. Shearing was the youngest of nine children. He began learning to play the piano when he was three years old. According to his autobiography, his father delivered coal and his mother cleaned trains in the evening. Blind from birth, Shearing attended the Linden Lodge School for the Blind. and later, at the age of just 16, he began working at a local pub, eventually moving on to work with Willie Lark’s dance band, Claude Bampton’s All Blind Band and the Ambrose dance band. Noted jazz writer (and JT contributor) and fellow Brit Leonard Feather was an early champion of Shearing and helped the pianist to become well-known in their home country.
Coming of age during WWII and the famous blitz years in London, Shearing continued to play professionally or at least publicly throughout his war-torn city and country, touring and recording prolifically during that intense period. A regular on the BBC, Shearing soon became a figure of great renown in the British jazz and music scene.
After the war ended, Shearing decided to come to America. Although he did not have immediate success, he eventually established himself as a jazz pianist and bandleader of note, in part due to the popularity of a quartet he co-led with clarinetist Buddy DeFranco. However, it was a group created in 1949 with vibist Marjorie Hyams, guitarist Chuck Wayne, bassist John Levy and drummer Denzil Best that became the blueprint for what was known as the “Shearing Sound,” mashing his own block-chord piano style with Glenn Miller’s orchestral voicings. Their first record, “September in the Rain,” sold nearly a million copies upon its release on MGM Records.
In an expansive interview with Les Tomkins in 1966, Shearing explained the genesis of that sound:
“When I went to the States, one of the jobs that I took was at the Hickory House, where I was told that they wanted to get away from jazz and to develop a show policy. So I turned myself into a glorified cocktail pianist for the time that I played there. But I played everything—from cocktail piano to Fats, Tatum, Wilson and what little I knew of bebop then. This was before I'd heard too much of Charlie and Diz. Then later on I tried copying Bud Powell, tried to play some of Charlie's lines on piano, went into a little bit of the Lennie Tristano school. And so on. All the time with this Milt Buckner locked hands thing in the back of my mind. Since 1946 I'd heard records of Hamp's band, where Milt was playing this style, but strictly for the blues and for jazz.
“And I started to think: ‘Well, this has been presented to the public in the form of four saxophones and a clarinet, some brass and a rhythm section under the baton of a guy named Glenn Miller.’ Now this may seem strange—to link Milt Buckner and Glenn Miller. But you can take the first three notes of the major scale—C, D and E. The chords could be C in the left hand, E, G, A, C in the right hand, D in the left, F A flat, B, D in the right, E in the left hand, G, A, C, E in the right. And, whether you play them in the form of improvised blues. or as the actual voicings of a tune like ‘Sunrise Serenade’ or ‘Roses Of Picardy’ or ‘East Of The Sun’ or whatever, it becomes a sound which people can readily identify and accept.”
Shearing added that, “Our first hit record, ‘September In The Rain,’ was as accidental as it could be. I don't think you can contrive any sound. You can't say: ‘This will be fashionable in a few months. It's not what we normally play—but let's do it.’ I could be wrong, but I believe that the people that really make it—including any of the Top Ten sounds of today—are sincere about it.”
Levy left the group not long after the group took off, replaced by Al McKibbon, and began a long and successful second career as artist manager, overseeing the careers of Cannonball Adderley, Nancy Wilson, Joe Williams and, of course, Shearing. Over the years, Shearing would play or collaborate with many legendary figures in jazz, including Wes Montgomery, Tito Puente, Marian McPartland, Jim Hall, Hank Jones, Toots Thielemans and Ray Brown. He was also a deft accompanist to singers such as Joe Williams, Carmen McRae, Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee and Mel Torme.
In the fine liner notes for Shearing’s album Lullabies of Birdland—A Musical Autobiography, Shearing told Shipton that he had a particularly strong working relationship with Torme. “Both Mel and I felt that we were one musical mind contained in two separate bodies,” said Shearing to Shipton. “He is the only person I’ve ever worked with where I always knew we could go on stage and do a show at the very highest level, without any rehearsal at all. It really was a case of having one musical mind.”
In the early ‘50s, Shearing wrote his best-known composition as the theme song for a nightly radio broadcast from the club Birdland owned by Morris Levy, who had initially asked Shearing if they could use a different tune from his catalog for that purpose. Shearing told Levy that he could write something better. And he did, quickly. “I rushed over to the piano,” he recalled to Shipton, “and said to my wife, ‘How’s this?’ I sat down and played right through ‘Lullaby of Birdland.’ It just came to me, the whole thing, just like that. Within ten minutes I’d got the entire song worked out.” The song became a bebop standard. The prolific Shearing would go on to write hundreds of more songs—over 300, according to the bio on his website.
Shearing was also an active champion of and collaborator with Afro-Cuban and Latin jazz musicians, including Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaria and Willie Bobo. Cal Tjader is said to have gotten interested in Latin jazz during his stint with Shearing.
During his 70+ year career, Shearing recorded more than 100 albums and had a particularly fruitful relationship with Carl Jefferson’s Concord Records, for whom he recorded well over a dozen records. He also recorded for Telarc, Verve, Blue Note and Capitol. Over the years he toured nearly constantly with a working band that often included the Canadian bassist Neil Swainson. Comfortable with classical music as well as jazz, he also made regular appearances with orchestras. He won two Grammys, was honored with a lifetime achievement award from the British Academy of Composer and Songwriters and received the insignia of the Order of the British Empire (OBE). In 2007 he made a special trip to London, in spite of a recent fall and illness, in order to be dubbed as a Knight of the British Empire (KBE) by Queen Elizabeth and henceforth be known as "Sir George."
Shipton, who grew close to Shearing in his later years, said that Shearing was a uniquely warm, funny and straightforward man. “Being blind, he always said he had no knowledge of racial or color issues,” explained Shipton. “He listened to musicians and accepted them for how they played, not who they were. When we agreed to write the book together, we did it on a handshake, no contract, just mutual trust. And George was also extremely generous. When the book we wrote together was finished, and we'd just signed off the proofs, he treated me to an hour's solo recital in his Manhattan apartment. Just me, George and his piano. I wondered if he recalled a particular Teddy Wilson solo, and he played it to me note for note from memory, even though it must have been years since he heard it. It was a privilege and pleasure beyond words.”
One of the great loves in his life besides his family was his seeing eye dog, a Golden Retriever named Leland whom he called “Lee.” The two traveled together for well over ten years and after the dog’s death, Shearing devoted himself to the cause, by doing benefit appearances on behalf of Guide Dogs for the Blind, the organization which had provided him with Lee originally.
Shearing is survived by his wife, Eleanor (known as Ellie), and daughter, Wendy Ann.