03/30/12

Marian McPartland Remembers George Shearing

One legendary pianist honors another

I first heard George Shearing when I was just a teenager going to my first dance at a very fancy nightclub called Hatchett’s in London. He was a very impressive piano player, and he had a great musician with him—violinist Stephane Grappelli; that’s what I remember about the whole evening. It was only after years later, when I was married to Jimmy McPartland, that we heard his records and also found out that he was coming to New York to live. Jimmy and I were very eager to hear him in person. Soon he arrived in Chicago with his group, composed of John Levy on bass, Marjorie Hyams on vibes, Chuck Wayne on guitar and Denzil Best on drums. We went to hear him and immediately became aware of the special voicing and block chords that made him famous. He had a big hit with “September in the Rain” and later composed “Lullaby of Birdland,” written for the club of the same name. The song is still very popular and he played it wherever he went.

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Tad Hershorn

Ella Fitzgerald, Joe Williams, George Shearing and Oscar Peterson at the February 12, 1990, "Hearts for Ella" tribute concert at Avery Fisher Hall in New York City.

As time went on, George and I became friends and we jammed together whenever there was a chance. Meanwhile, I invited him to be on Piano Jazz and he agreed happily. He had such a wonderful personality and was such a funny guy. He would play jokes, like changing key in the middle of a tune, or going into a Dixieland number and other things calculated to throw me off, and they often did. Thinking about it now makes me realize it was one of the best shows we’ve ever done. We also did a record together, appropriately called Alone Together, which was great fun and a hit, but nothing could top the Piano Jazz we did together.

The fact that we both received the Order of the British Empire from the Queen, and that George was knighted, makes us two Brits with all these great things going for us. I will always remember his wonderful harmonies and his compositions, including “Lullaby of Birdland” and “Conception,” plus his incomparable sense of humor, which made his music that much more meaningful and heartfelt. He will be greatly missed by all.

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