Bach, like life, is so many things

WQXR in New York City is doing Bach 360 from now ‘til Easter. That means all Bach every day. It’s all wonderful and amazing. Bach is always so many more kinds of music and experience than I remember.

At the same time, I discovered two very different experiences of the composer’s music. The one is recounted on the WQXR website. At Stalin’s funeral in 1953, Sviatoslav Richter, one of the century’s greatest pianists, was asked to play the piano. He chose the longest and densest prelude and fugue from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. The authorities tried again and again to interrupt him to make way for another pianist, but Richter, involved in the music, could not be distracted. He was finally removed bodily by armed soldiers, certain he would be shot.

Then I ran into the very different experience of another very different musician:

“For the past eight years I have started each day in the same manner. It is not a mechanical routine but something essential to my daily life. I go to the piano, and I play two preludes and fugues of Bach. I cannot think of doing otherwise. It is a sort of benediction on the house. But that is not its only meaning to me. It is a rediscovery of the world of which I have the joy of being a part. It fills me with awareness of the wonder of life, and a feeling of the incredible marvel of being a human being.”

–  Pablo Casals, Joys and Sorrows, at the age of 93


A fugue from The Well-Tempered Clavier

When I’m 97 ….


Every so often, when I’m driving through Vermont in the afternoon, I find myself listening to the NPR program, “The Story.” Recently, host Dick Gordon interviewed Frank Glazer, someone I knew nothing about except that I remember his name on an LP somewhere in my collection. Glazer is a pianist, and one who’s had quite an illustrious career, making his debut at New York’s Town Hall and  playing with the Boston Symphony, with an extended professional career at Eastman School of Music. For the last thirty plus years he’s been “artist in residence” at Bates College in Maine.  But that’s not why Gordon was talking to him. It seems that Mr. Glazer is 97 and still teaching and performing.

Most wonderfully, from my point of view, he’s still getting better. Last year he played all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas in performance. That’s an extraordinary feat for any musician, much less one of 97.

Asked why he hasn’t retired, he responds,

“The reason I’m still doing it—all my life I wanted to be able to like what I heard when I play. Now I like it. Why should I quit now when I’m hearing what I always wanted to hear, but didn’t always hear?

My technique is as good as it’s ever been. I’m still getting better. I know better how to learn a piece, how to let it speak so that I finally get it. And the audience gets it—the essence and spirit of the music.”

What about arthritis? Nearly everyone is at least a little arthritic in their old age. He says his was never so bad that he couldn’t play through it, and now it’s gone altogether. Even the wear and tear that once affected his playing has diminished.

Glazer hopes to perform all 51 of Chopin’s Mazurkas and all of Bach’s Preludes and Fugues in eight programs in his 100th year.

And I hope to be able to enjoy hearing myself play when I reach 97.


The world as soundscape

My computer has been disabled-again-this time for nearly five days–but while the digital universe was silent, there was music, and especially last Friday night at a Warebrook concert where a flautist graced the stratosphere; a tenor declared love in German—and when the German is Richard Strauss speaking of love, it is most definitely about love; and the tenor returned to reinterpret life according to Vachel Lindsay, William Butler Yeats and local composer, Sara Doncaster. This is not to discount the delightful Irish tunes arranged by John Corigliano and rendered by the flautist and a perfect soprano. As they say, and with truth, you had to be there!

Sounds, especially organized sounds, make life so worth living.

Which brings me to the review by Jeremy Denk of “The Great Animal Orchestra, Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places,” by Bernie Krause.
We’ve all heard how nature sounds, some of us from walking in a meadow or sitting quietly in the woods, listening. Others of us from playing one of those audio tranquilizers for the sleepless. But Bernie Krause has been listening for decades, making recordings and archiving wild soundscapes:

Krause offers endless odes to sonic nuances: the timbres of waves crashing on the world’s beaches, the echo effects brought on by dew, the acoustics of night and day, the dry, hot rattles of deserts, the way baboons bounce their voices off granite outcropping, to send them deep into the forest.

He’s examined the many uses of sound in nature—from mating and hunting to self-defense and the marking of territory—all those and more. He’s listened to a wooded landscape before it was logged (selectively), and after, and while its devastation was difficult to see, it wasn’t hard to hear. He’s come to a fascinating conclusion: that “the healthier the habitat, the more ‘musical’ the creatures, the richer and more diverse their scores. Sound complexity is a measure of health.”

Often, sound is social. For example, he describes spadefoot toads, chorusing together to confuse predators about the location of any one individual. A jet soars overhead and the toads get out of sync. Their auditory shelter is temporarily lost and hawks swoop down, able now to locate individual singers.

Suddenly music, sound, has a deeper dimension and one more intimate to our earth and vital to its survival. Friday night’s concert was far more than it seemed. I already knew the lyrics contained birds and moonlight. I could hear that.  But the music and all of the earth’s soundings are kin. Listening is a far more delicate and ambitious task than I’d thought.


Korean drummer performing at Langley International Festival 2010. Photo by dance photographer, Brendan Lally.

Years and years ago, I had a part in producing a United Methodist Women’s Assembly in Cincinnati. There were about 10,000 people there and I can’t remember which night–it might have been the opening–but it was, at any rate, for me, a never to be forgotten event when several small Korean women drummed the opening. The sound was loud, amazing, passionate….. and I’ve never forgotten it.

Since then, I’ve seen drummers and known women who drummed, but I had no idea that drumming is spreading among seniors in centers and homes, that it’s enabled the participants to make music, to share a beat, to build muscle, to make community. I wish my mother, lost in a world misshapen by Alzheimers, had been able to drum. She’d have drummed her anger until she felt empowered again, strong, and oh, so loud.

Someday, I think I’ll go drum. I’d like it to be with a community of people of all ages. I’d like some of them to be wonderful musicians. It would be another world, like meditation, but big and noisy.

It filled the Hall and pushed the walls out into the night and lifted the ceiling up to the night sky.

Two weeks ago I was listening to music that sounded something like this picture.

I was in the Glover Town Hall with maybe 150 other people at a benefit for a woman whose house burned to the ground not long after the New Year. Glover isn’t quite like other Vermont towns because Bread and Puppet, a politically left puppet theater, has been in residence here since the 1960s. In the beginning and for some years, the theater and much of the community were at odds, but today Bread and Puppet is pretty much just another neighbor. Because the victim of the fire had been active in the theater troupe, the show that night was especially rife with talent, but as much or more came from the town: a very old fiddler, a very young fiddler and her guitar-playing little brother, some very funny skits, the singing proprietor of the general store…..

It was one of those nights. Kids ran up and down the aisles; people hugged; they shared homemade doughnuts, cookies and stories. But the most remarkable event for me was the singing of the Sacred Harp.
Twenty years ago, when I first came to this part of the world, I heard my first Sacred Harp music. Not many years later I noticed that a few young people had joined Vermont singing groups and the music had begun to spread. But only begun. A few more years and a dozen or more people had joined Elka Schumann at Bread and Puppet and were singing together every month. But now, suddenly, on a snowy night in Town Hall, half of Glover seemed to be in the front of the room, singing full out, mouths wide open, Elka Schumann, the mother of Bread and Puppet, beating out the rhythm. It was a powerful, throbbing, raw sound. It was amazing.

America’s Sacred Harp music began in the churches of New England more than two centuries ago. Four-part, it is a cappella. Not even a pitch pipe is used. The only instrument is the “Sacred Harp”—the human voice. The singers read a music that consists in “shape notes.” The circles, triangles, rectangles and diamonds correspond with the notes of the scale. They provide visual cues to help everyone sing the intervals between notes.

The music began in England, and the first shape note music in this country was written and taught by teachers of singing schools. They had marvelous names like Supply Belcher (Maine), Ebeneezer Child (Vermont), Timothy Swan (Massachusetts), Justin Morgan (Vermont)…..  They were also shopkeepers, school teachers, local government functionaries, farmers—Justin Morgan, for example, is better known as the man who bred the Morgan horse. Not surprisingly, most of the music has a religious bent and was sung in churches.
Sacred Harp music disappeared in New England as another smoother, more formal and mostly more sentimental music replaced it. But it soon took root in the rural South, and by 1900, it thrived there.  By the 1920s and ’30s, folklorists began to notice it, and in the 1960s, New Englanders, and especially Vermonters, rediscovered it. Today, it has become popular across the country and singing conventions take place from Seattle to Boston to South Carolina.

In the Glover Town Hall, the music was driving, vital, very physical, very emotional. It filled the room and pushed the walls out into the night and lifted the ceiling up to the night sky.

In the March/April 2011 issue of Vermont Magazine, there are some wonderful comments from singers and listeners of Sacred Harp. Here are a few.

“When I first heard [Sacred Harp], it was like someone hitting me over the head with a frying pan. The four-part harmony just does something in your head.” After he (Paul Gauthier) traveled to a National Convention in Alabama: “It was a real revelation to sing with the old barrel-chested guys who have been singing all their life. It was like being in a pipe organ.”

“It’s very emotive, even cathartic—particularly with a number of people, their voices washing through me while I am singing. It’s a fantastic feeling.” (Ian Smiley)

“Singing loud and high—it’s a moving experience… it’s about life, eternity, the big questions–joy and grief.” (Chelsea Rose Sargent)

You can hear Sacred Harp singing on YouTube. Most of the performances are poorly recorded, but you’ll begin to understand it. And next thing you’ll be singing it.

Sacred Harp music from the songbook Northern Harmony

Celebrating Black History Month with Camilla Williams

It’s a sad thing to read an obituary and discover that someone wonderful was alive for many years and you never knew it. It happens to me a lot. The only saving grace is that now, at last, I know about them and I know they made a difference and I’m grateful.

Camilla Williams. Photo by Carl Van Vechten, 1946.

Today, I’m grateful for Camilla Williams. That she died the other day, at the beginning of Black History Month, means that many people who have never heard of her will learn of her significance at just the right time. Camilla Williams was the first black woman to sing with a major United States opera company. She did that nearly a decade before Marian Anderson graced the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, only she sang with the Met’s poorer cousin, the newly formed New York City Opera.

Camilla Williams was born in 1919, the daughter of a chauffeur and a domestic worker in the then Jim Crow town of Danville, Virginia. Her family was musical,, but she might not have discovered opera if a Welsh singing teacher hadn’t come to town. He’d heard there were beautiful black voices in town: he wasn’t allowed to teach them in the white college where he worked, so the class met in a private home, and at twelve years old Camilla Williams learned to sing Mozart.

Because she had a voice that was operatic and marvelous, and despite the racism of the music business and the nation, she managed to embark on a modest concert career by the time she was in her twenties. Her big break came in 1944 at a recital in Stamford, Connecticut when she attracted the attention of one of the most important singers of the first half of the 20th century, Geraldine Farrar. Taken by Camilla Willliam’s singing, Farrar contacted an impresario with the suggestion that he manage her career. Remembered Ms. Williams, “He didn’t believe the great Farrar would take time to write a letter about an unknown little colored girl” and called Farrar to be certain the note was from her. “When [he] confirmed it really was Miss Farrar, he was dumbfounded.”



Farrar also contacted the director of the newly founded New York City Opera and suggested an audition.Two years later, when the war with Japan ended and Madame Butterfly once again became acceptable fare, Camilla Williams debuted as Cio-Cio-San, the same role Geraldine Farrar had introduced at the Met in 1907. “Raved the New York Times, “there was a warmth and intensity in her singing that lent dramatic force of no mean order to the climactic episodes, and something profoundly human and touching in her delivery ….”
Over the next eight years she sang roles like Nedda (Pagliacci), Mimi (Boheme) and Aida at New York City. She also appeared with the Boston Lyric Opera and the Vienna State Opera, and was a soloist with some of the world’s leading orchestras. She sang Bess for what was then the most complete recording of “Porgy and Bess” (Columbia Records), and toured worldwide as a recitalist.

Over the years, she crossed paths with Marian Anderson many times. At the 1963 March on Washington, she sang “The Star Spangled Banner,” just before Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, substituting for Anderson who was caught in traffic. The two women were fast friends.

Even though Camilla Williams never achieved the fame of her friend, she enjoyed a life in music. Her voice is very different from the Anderson’s dark contralto. It’s a lyric soprano’s voice—light, bright and shimmering at the top. You can hear it on a recording of an early recital on YouTube. There’s also a brief speech that she gave at a tribute for singer Giulio Gara. Talking about some of the problems she’s encountered because of race over the years, she tells a wonderfully funny story of a tenor whose racism made it difficult for him to sing with her. Ah, but she inadvertently got her revenge when they did a love duet and “he touched me and something happened to his body—his face got so red and he was so embarrassed but I paid no attention….”
Of the racism she struggled against for most of her life she said, “There is no place for bitterness in singing. It works on the cords and ruins the voice. In his own good time, God brings everything right.”
Ms. Williams was married to a civil rights attorney for 19 years until his death in 1969. She taught singing first in New York City and then at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music at Bloomington, where she retired in 1997.
Which takes me to the part of the story I like best because it’s about the elderly Camilla Williams, who continued to charm everyone. She was always outgoing, vivacious, critical and “a consummate diva.” Recalls a friend, “She’d always dress as if she was going to be soloing at an opera. She never went out without a gorgeous hat, a beautiful umbrella, heels and a mink stole.”
In 1947, she had met Bulgarian-born pianist, Boris Bazala, who became her accompanist. The two traveled and concertized together for many years, and remained friends for the decades after. Bazala remembered the challenges she faced because of  her race. He insisted on riding in the back of the train when she was only permitted to ride in front; often, they couldn’t sit together in restaurants. After his wife died, the two friends lived together and continued making music together until he died at 100 last year. Every day was a celebration of their friendship— the refugee from Eastern Europe and the woman who “opened the door for Marian Anderson.”.

The world is alive with revelations in art, economics (!) and music

Life is full of surprises and even revelations, and I’ve received several of those lately. Instead of writing a long blog about any one of them, I’m going to tell you who, what and where and fill it all in with a few quotations.

Lucian Freud. Self Portrait, Reflection, 2002.

In Art

The first is an article about Lucian Freud, someone I’ve never known much about. I was aware he died recently, and as is the case with far too many of this world’s wonders, it took the man’s death to bring him to my notice. There’s a terrific article in the February Vanity Fair about Freud. Written by David Kamp, it’s worth reading from top to bottom, but I’d like to quote just a little from the beginning because it has to do with an artist in old age, which is what this blog is supposed to be about—at least occasionally!

Lucian Freud’s final portrait is of a naked man and a dog. It is unfinished but otherwise betrays no sign of the agedness of its creator, who died last July 20, halfway through his 89th year. The scale is big, a square canvas of about five feet by five feet, and the brushwork is as sure and layered as in any painting he had ever done—smooth and free around the man’s shoulders, crusty and impastoed along the arms. The palette is Caucasian-fleshy from afar but remarkably varied and intricate up close: purples and greens in the man’s legs, vivid streaks of yellow in his right hand, rust and blue at the naughty bits.

For the last 57 years of his life, Freud painted standing up rather than sitting down; the physical restrictions of seated painting, he said, had begun getting him “more and more agitated” in the 1950s, so he kicked the chair away. Painting on his feet required extraordinary stamina, given Freud’s self-imposed work schedule: a morning session with one model, an afternoon break, and an evening session with another model, seven days a week, all year round. What’s more, these sessions had a tendency to stretch on: a deliberate worker, Freud took 6, 12, 18 months or longer to complete a painting, marathoning into the night if the mood struck. But he had stamina in spades. Painting was his workout; he took no other exercise, and yet photographs of him working shirtless in 2005, when he was 82, show him to be lean and all sinew, a jockey-size Iggy Pop.

But by June 2011, Freud recognized that his body was finally failing him, and that he had only so many brushstrokes left. The naked man in the portrait was completed, but the dog, a tan-and-white whippet, would never get its hind legs. Freud prioritized its head and face, adding a little dart of terre verte (“green earth”) mixed with umber to depict the tip of the animal’s pricked-up right ear. In early July, Freud was addressing the painting’s foreground: the folds and ripples in the sheet that covered the low platform upon which his two models sprawled. Here and there, as his energy permitted, he applied quick strokes of flake white, a thick, lead-heavy paint, to the lower part of the canvas.

That was as far as he got. Able to stand no longer, he at last retired to his bedroom, one floor up from the studio he kept in his Georgian town house in West London. As he lay in bed, friends and family gathered to pay their respects. There were many visitors from both categories. Freud had an otherworldly magnetism that his intimates struggle to put into words. Deborah Cavendish, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, once ascribed to him “a sort of starry quality … an extraordinary sort of mercurial thing. He’s like something not quite like a human being, more like a will-o’-the-wisp.” Over the course of his life he fathered 14 acknowledged children with six women. Among his nine daughters are the fashion designer Bella Freud and the novelist Esther Freud. Two weeks into their bedside vigil, he was gone.
Freud simply did great work as an old man, some of his greatest. “In a sense, I think he knew this was his last big push at making some remarkable works. I could just see that he was really ambitious, pushing as hard as he could,” says the naked man in that final painting, David Dawson, the artist’s longtime assistant and the owner of Eli, the whippet star of several late paintings. ….
This overdrive work ethic was at once an acknowledgment of pending mortality and a hedge against it. Dawson marvels at what his boss managed to achieve. “The sheer volume, the scale,” he says. “He never rushed the work. But, my God, one great painting after another came out. He felt he could do it and he was able to. And this was his last chance.”

In Economics

My next discovery, comes from the January 27 issue of  the Wall Street Journal. where Dalibor Rohac writes about Deidre McCloskey, an economist. Why have I never heard of her? McCloskey is out to bring moral values back to the history and practice of economics. Apparently, she’s funny and charismatic, as well as brilliant. She’s also someone who changed her gender mid-career, which may not be relevant to her economic philosophy, but somehow makes her very, very human.

In 2006, Ms. McCloskey published a 600-page book, “Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce.” In a meticulously documented volume, drawing from a range of philosophical traditions, she asks whether one can participate fully in the modern capitalist economy and still be a moral person. Ms. McCloskey is a free marketeer and used to be a close personal friend of Milton Friedman, as she eagerly points out. Her answer is therefore an emphatic yes. It would be ill-advised, she thinks, to claim that profit-seeking makes one inherently corrupt, especially if it is balanced by other virtues.

Four years later, she completed a 600-page sequel, “Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World.” “I’ve forgotten how to write short books,” she says apologetically, adding that she would like both to be part of a four-volume series on the bourgeois era.


The danger of our era is that the bourgeois deal is slowly crumbling away. It is under attack from the political left and also from economists whose work revolves around one sole virtue—prudence—thus eroding the public understanding of markets and economic life. Looking at the West’s current economic woes, it is easy to share Ms. McCloskey’s concern that unless we revive a sense of dignity and approbation for entrepreneurship and innovation, we might easily kill the goose that lays the golden eggs of our prosperity.

Oddly, I had just finished reading about McCloskey when a friend on Facebook alerted me to another article, this one in US News Today. It’s an interview with the founder of the Davos World Economic Forum, Klaus Schwab.

Capitalism is out of whack, the founder of the World Economic Forum says, welcoming critics’ ideas of how to fix it — even those camped out in protest igloos near his invitation-only gathering of global VIPs.


“I’m a deep believer in free markets, but free markets have to serve society,” he said in Davos, the ski resort tucked away deep in the Swiss Alps. He lamented excesses and “lack of inclusiveness in the capitalist system.”

“We have sinned,” he said, adding that this year’s forum would put particular emphasis on ethics and resetting the moral compass of the world’s business and political community.

He even invited protesters from Occupy to share their thoughts with the Davos participants.

Maybe, just maybe there’s something stirring that will make real change possible.

Patricia Racette and Beth Clayton

In Music

The last of my revelations comes from another arena altogether. On Saturday, I was listening to the broadcast of Tosca from the Metropolitan Opera. The soprano was Patricia Racette. I had read something about her before, probably even heard her sing. She was wonderful. My curiosity was piqued and I googled her—what else?—only to discover that she was not only very lovely, she was a lesbian in a thirteen plus year relationship with another fine opera singer who was equally beautiful, Beth Clayton.  An interview with the two of them in the April 2008 issue of Afterellen was refreshing and enchanting. And also well worth reading.

I know the world is a scary place and getting scarier but my God, it’s still full of magic!

Will music save the planet?

I wrote a story not too many years ago about an old man who, except for doing a bit of clogging now and again, was unused to hearing music. The only pianist he’d ever heard, except on an incidental elevator ride or TV show, was at church. The pianist wasn’t much good and he wasn’t much of a churchgoer. Still, he had this fresh, uncluttered ear and mind where music was concerned, so when he found himself in the same room as an exceptional pianist playing an exceptional piece of music, the experience was soul-stirring. He was transformed by it.

I think a lot of us probably don’t hear as well as we should because music has become the background to our lives, a little like movie music. If we’re musicians, at least of the amateur kind, we may deepen our understanding of it by performing it over and over, but we also risk dulling our experience of it. My mother struggled to play the classics well, but was afraid, I think, to hear anything played by a real pianist. She didn’t want to know how far off the mark she was. I remember her dazed, almost frightened look, when I took her to hear Murray Perahia.

 I, on the other hand, listen to it and thank God for it at the same as I long for one of those freak accidents that happen to the brains of Oliver Sack’s patients in Musicophilia, Tales of Music and the Brain, where suddenly someone finds they can play like Rubenstein-come-back-to-life. Of course, brain damage is more likely to have a terrible outcome, like never being able to hear music again. One of Sack’s most fascinating conclusions is that playing and listening to music happens in a very different part of the brain than speaking, writing and reading do.

To me, music has always been a mystery, as well as something I can’t imagine living without. It’s not always highly valued. Why else would it so often be relegated to the “arts and entertainment” pages of newspapers and magazines? Why would music and the arts be the first subjects to go when schools must make budget cuts? I recently ran into a wonderful speech by Karl Paulnack, the Music Department head at Boston Conservatory. The talk was given to incoming freshmen and their parents.

According to Paulnack, the ancient Greeks were the first people to understand how music works. They paired it with astronomy. “Astronomy was seen as the study of relationships between observable, permanent, external objects; and music was the study of relationships between invisible, internal, hidden objects. Music has a way of finding the big, invisible moving pieces inside our hearts and souls and helping us figure out the position of things inside us.”

He gives a number of examples. One of the most striking is the important place of music in the Nazi concentration camps when it seemed that food, water, warmth and keeping safe, would have consumed all the prisoners’ energies. Music, it turned out, was also basic to survival. He describes the aftermath of 9/11 in New York City when he wondered, briefly, whether playing the piano was relevant. That evening, he found that one of the first things people in his neighborhood did together was to sing (“We Shall Overcome”). The first public event he heard of in the city was a concert.

Why does that make so much sense? Music, in fact, all the arts, are “the study of invisible relationships between internal objects.”

The conclusion of Paulnack’s speech is well worth quoting verbatim:

You’re not here to become an entertainer, and you don’t have to sell yourself. The truth is you don’t have anything to sell; being a musician isn’t about dispensing a product, like selling used Chevys. I’m not an entertainer; I’m a lot closer to a paramedic, a firefighter, a rescue worker. You’re here to become a sort of therapist for the human soul, a spiritual version of a chiropractor, physical therapist, someone who works with our insides to see if they get things to line up, to see if we can come into harmony with ourselves and be healthy and happy and well.

Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music; I expect you to save the planet. If there is a future wave of wellness on this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual understanding, of equality, of fairness, I don’t expect it will come from a government, a military force or a corporation. I no longer even expect it to come from the religions of the world, which together seem to have brought us as much war as they have peace. If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there is to be an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that’s what we do. As in the concentration camp and the evening of 9/11, the artists are the ones who might be able to help us with our internal, invisible lives.

A blind Englishman playing cool piano jazz – George Shearing

George Shearing died a week ago, and for reasons I don’t really understand, the mainstream media just barely noticed. I listened, read, and wondered. There were a few obituaries. Just not very many for a man who’s been so central to American music.

As soon as I learned about music—as soon as I got away from home and discovered the wide, wide musical world beyond “Lucky Lager Dance Time” and “Your Hit Parade”—George Shearing was someone I heard. He was always there, a blind Englishman playing cool piano jazz, and he’s been there ever since.

Shearing was born, one of nine children, in the Battersea district of London in 1919. His father delivered coal and his mother cleaned trains at night after caring for her brood during the day. He began playing music at age 3 (some biographies say 5), but it wasn’t until he went to the Linden Lodge School for the Blind in his teens that he really learned about music. Because of his family’s economic problems, he refused scholarships and went on to earn his first musician’s salary, $5 a week, at a neighborhood pub.

Shearing became one of England’s favorite piano players during World War II. He and jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli played not only in clubs, concert halls and on the radio, but in bomb shelters. Apparently, his blindness was a blessing for others: in an NPR interview he described seeing people back to their hotels during air raids.

Inspired by American jazz, he came to the United States to stay in 1947 and  by 1949 established the quintet whose sound and style made him famous. The group—by adding vibraphones and a guitar to the traditional bass and drums, and Shearing’s piano—soon made itself famous with an arrangement of “September in the Rain.” Shearing’s sound was unusual, not only because of the makeup of the group, but because he consciously looked for a soft, romantic jazz, one that was at the same time cool and sophisticated. He combined a dance band sound (he always cited Glen Miller) and a “blocked hands” style of piano playing, borrowed from the blues piano of Milt Buckner, to the mixture. The best description of his piano playing that I’ve read comes from a New York Times critic of many years ago and is quoted by Jon Thurber in a Los Angeles Times obituary: “both hands play melodies in parallel octaves with a shifting cloud of chores in between.”

Although Shearing was a composer, only one of his tunes became truly popular. It took him only ten minutes to write “Lullaby of Birdland,” an ode to the famous jazz New York City jazz club where he was appearing at the time. At an 80th birthday celebration at Carnegie Hall in 1999, he joked “I have been credited with writing 300 songs. Two hundred ninety-nine enjoyed a bumpy ride from relative obscurity to total oblivion. Here is the other one.”

But it wasn’t his song-writing that made him important. His influence on jazz musicians like Dave Brubeck, and in fact his impact on the sounds we hear in all sorts of contemporary music, was central.

Through the years Shearing played for and with singers like Dakota Staton, Peggy Lee, Nancy Wilson, Nat King Cole and Mel Torme. His work with Torme won him Grammies in the 1980s. That was after he disbanded his quintet and began to play mostly as a soloist or with a bassist—a move that allowed him more room for improvisation. Listening to his work with Torme is a moving experience. The two men found musical soul mates in each other. Said Shearing after Torme’s death in 1999, “We literally breathed together during our countless performances.”

Photo by Piano Piano! Photo by hans thig's. Creative Commons.

Like Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles, Shearing almost never called attention to his blindness, but I think one of my favorite Shearing jokes is his response to question that was put to him one time too many: “When people ask me how is it I was a musician, I facetiously say that I’m a firm believer in reincarnation and in a previous life I was Johann Sebastian Bach’s guide dog.”

About age he said: I’m not sure that technique and improvisational abilities improve with age. I think what improves is your sense of judgment, of maturity. I think you become a  much better editor of your own material.”

Blue Note NY flyer. 1993. Photo by Chames Richalds (chimsrichalds007) Creative Commons license.

George Shearing performed into his late 80s when a fall incapacitated him. But even then he kept playing the piano. In 2007 he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth. “I don’t know why I’m getting this honor,” he said. “I’ve just been doing what I love to do.”

He was 91-years-old when he died last Monday.

Explaining music in a materialist age


The close relation that music has to the true nature of all things can explain the fact that, when music suitable to any scene, action, event, or environment is played, it seems to disclose to us its most secret meaning, and appears to be the most accurate and distinct commentary on it. Moreover, to the man who gives himself up entirely to the impression of a symphony, it is as if he saw all the possible events of life and of the world passing by within himself. Yet if he reflects, he cannot assert any likeness between that piece of music and the things that passed through his mind. For music differs from all the other arts by the fact that it expresses the metaphysical to everything physical in the world….

Why do I find that paragraph so persuasive? It describes my experience of music — that it seems to me to make the world meaningful. I’m enlarged and enlivened by it. When I truly listen I’m in the presence of Truth with a capital T, Reality with a capital R. And yet I can’t say what its actual content was. Not really.

Music “expresses the metaphysical to everything physical in the world,” says Schopenhauer. What exactly does that mean? At the very least, he’s trying to say that music is about something terribly fundamental to our existence.

Years ago, when I studied philosophy, I remember that metaphysics was a serious pursuit. We were still looking for the nature of reality, and we weren’t at all certain that it was made up of matter rather than mind. Oh, I suppose even then, in the dark days of the 1950s and ’60s, materialism was winning out, had already won. Science was triumphant. But to me the outcome of the debate was still uncertain.

I’m bringing this up because last spring’s issue of Lapham’s Quarterly on the theme of “Arts & Letters” included the paragraph above from the 19th century philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), and although I don’t remember much about Schopenhauer — he’s not the kind of thinker most of us keep close for reference today — I was reminded when I looked for him in Wikipedia, that he theorized that the world was essentially to be found in the human will. Reality was mind and not matter. The world of phenomena we experience isn’t made up of atoms; it’s a product of our will. Of our minds.

In our materialist age, scientists have never been more excited about the human mind than they are today. Listen to one of Charlie Rose’s Friday night conversations on the subject: prepare to be full of wonder. And yet, I haven’t heard anything as meaningful from them about music as what Schopenhauer said nearly two centuries ago. Nor do I think I will. Science is busy looking at the human brain, not the mind. The brain is the ultimate reality. Mind is, loosely speaking, only its reflection.

Descriptions of patterns of activity in the human brain will never explain music to me. At least not as well as this recondite nineteenth century philosopher does.