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.”
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.”
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.