Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Shearing, George (Albert)



                            George Shearing Quintet at Birdland, photo by Marcel Fleiss

The "Shearing Sound" is what some call pianist George Shearing's signature mix of classical, swing and bebop at the keyboard. A regular on the concert stage as well as in jazz clubs for more than six decades, Shearing can count U.S. President Jimmy Carter and beat poet Jack Kerouac among his generations of fans.

Shearing’s technique utilizes block chords with a light, ornamental touch. George himself calls his style “locked hands,” which he first came across from pianist Milt Buckner’s early work with vibraphonist and bandleader Lionel Hampton.

George Albert Shearing was born August 13, 1919 in the London neighborhood of Battersea. He was born blind and was one of nine children. George’s father was a coal worker, and his mother cleaned trains at night while taking care of George and his siblings during the day.

By the time he was three, Shearing was already demonstrating a keen awareness of music, and began playing the piano. According to his family, George would listen to the radio and immediately go to the piano and figure out the song he just heard. His parents never dissuaded him from pursuing his interest in music, despite his lack of vision.

Shearing was given some musical training beginning at the age of twelve at the Linden Lodge School for the Blind, which he attended until his sixteenth year. In high school, George began to emulate the jazz pianists he had come to admire, such as Teddy Wilson and Fats Waller.

By age sixteen, Shearing’s music teacher gave up on trying to teach him classical music. The teacher later told his parents, “Further study of classical music for this young man would be a waste of time.” Regardless of this calculation, George later became a devotée of classical composers such as Bach, Debussy, Mozart, Satie and Stravinsky.

Upon graduating high school, Shearing was offered scholarships to a number of universities, but decided to forgo a university education and perform in a neighborhood pub called “Mason’s Arms” in the London neighborhood of Lambeth, where he also occasionally performed on accordion. In the 1930s, George joined “The Claude Bampton Dance Band,” an all-blind band that was sponsored by the National Institution For The Blind. The band’s repertoire included saxophonist Jimmie Lunceford’s “Stratosphere” and pianist Duke Ellington’s “Caravan,” amongst others.

During this time, Shearing developed a friendship with jazz producer, author and critic Leonard Feather, who encouraged him to record his first session in 1937 and helped him book his first appearance on the BBC radio service.

After his first appearance on BBC radio, George became a star in England and began performing for the BBC on a recurring basis. In 1940, he began to perform with bandleader Harry Parry and worked as a sideman for violinist Stephane Grappelli. George proved to be such a success that Melody Maker magazine voted him “Top British Pianist” for seven successive years.

Shearing first went to America for a three-month vacation in 1946. At the urging of Feather, George sold his home in England and moved to New York City in 1947, hoping to expand his fame to the United States. Upon his arrival, he began to perform at the Hickory House on 52nd Street, where pianist Art Tatum, a major influence of his, also often held court. There, he performed music by Tatum and his other heroes on the piano, Waller and Wilson. He also became interested in the powerful technique of bebop pianist Bud Powell.

During this time Shearing worked as an “intermission” pianist opposite singers Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. On some occasions, George would perform with the Fitzgerald group with bassist Ray Brown and drummer Charlie Smith.

George began to be engrossed by the bebop approach that was sweeping the New York cene, and he replaced pianist Erroll Gardner in the Oscar Pettiford Trio. Soon after, George began to lead a quartet with clarinetist Buddy DeFranco.

Shearing’s first recording session in the United States was on February 3, 1947, which yielded the song “So Rare.” On this track Shearing's cool demeanor easily comes through in his performance. His technique fully illustrates the harmonic intensity of his playing while effortlessly blending into the instrumentation.

By 1949, Shearing was beginning to make a name for himself and formed his first and most famous quintet, which included drummer Denzil Best, vibraphonist Marjorie Hyams, bassist John Levy and guitarist Chuck Wayne. The quintet recorded “September in the Rain” for MGM Records, which ended up selling nine hundred thousand copies. Upon their debut, the quintet became an instant success and began to perform in famous clubs, such as Birdland and became a popular recording ensemble in the United States.

On December 12, 1949, the quintet recorded the song “I’ll Remember April.” On this track, Shearing, Hyams and Wayne perform the introduction and melody in unison adding a strong foundation to the form. On his solo, George demonstrates a flurry of exciting runs that are easily contrasted by the return to the melody from Hyams and Wayne. The rhythm section of Best and Levy fully support the three melodic segments by laying back and adding subtle inflections.

In 1952, Shearing recorded his most famous song “Lullaby of Birdland,” which referred to alto saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker and the Birdland nightclub which bore his name. On this track, George demonstrates his glaring technique that is weightless in execution, though fully supported harmonically. Shearing fills the entire track by slowly building up subtle motifs into fully expressive patterns and textures.

Shearing began a brief association with Discovery Records before signing a worthwhile deal with MGM Records, from 1949-1955 and later Capitol Records from 1955-1969. Throughout his association with Capitol, George recorded with singers Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee and Nancy Wilson. In 1956, he became a naturalized citizen of the United States.

In 1961, Shearing released an album for Jazzland Records with the guitarist Wes Montgomery, bassist Monk Montgomery and vibraphonist Buddy Montgomery under the title George Shearing and the Montgomery Brothers. Additionally, he began to perform with symphony orchestras, eventually performing with orchestras in Buffalo, Cleveland and several others.

In 1969, Shearing left Capitol and began to slowly dissolve his quintet, ultimately breaking up in 1978. His reason was that it was time to branch out and experiment with different orchestration and instrumentation. Before he broke up the quintet, George started his own label called Sheba, which lasted until the early 1970s. Though still prolific at this time, George’s profile diminished in the 1970s in comparison to his previous efforts.

In 1979, Shearing signed with Concord Records and recorded several acclaimed albums with singer Mel Torme, including An Evening with Mel Torme & George Shearing, a 1982 Grammy Award winner for best jazz vocal performance. The duo earned a second Grammy Award the subsequent year in the same category, with Torme garnering the award for their Concord album Top Drawer.

Shearing began several collaborations in the late 1970s including the 1979 album Blues Alley Jazz and the 1980 album On A Clear Day with bassist Brian Torff. In 1981, George recorded the album Alone Together with pianist Marion McPartland. The same year, he recorded the album First Edition with guitarist Jim Hall. In 1984, Alfred Publishing released a collection of Shearing transcriptions entitled The Genius of George Shearing.

Shearing remained an important voice in the jazz community well into the 1990s, and signed with Telarc Records in 1992. That year, he recorded the album I Hear A Rhapsody: Live at the Blue Note with bassist Neil Swanson and drummer Grady Tate. The same live date yielded a second album, Walkin: Live at the Blue Note in 1995. In 1997, he released a solo album entitled Favorite Things. In 2002, Shearing’s quintet recorded the album The Rare Delight of You with guitarist John Pizzarelli.

Shearing’s productive career has been honored with several awards. In May of 1975, he received an honorary doctorate from Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Utah. In 1978, he was the recipient of the Horatio Alger Award for Distinguished Americans. In 1993, he was given the Ivor Novello Award for Lifetime Achievement from the British Academy of Composers and Songwriters. In May 1994, he received a second honorary doctorate from Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. Shearing has also performed for former presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.

On November 26, 1996, Shearing was named an Officer of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II for his dedication to music and service in encouraging the relations between America and England.

In the late 1990s, Shearing resumed performing on select dates. In 1999, George celebrated his eightieth birthday with a performance at the Birmingham Symphony Hall with the BBC Big Band, members of the London Symphony, saxophonist John Dankworth and singer Dame Cleo Laine. BBC Radio, who first broke George into the mainstream all those years ago, acknowledged his birthday with a two and a half hour program, entitled “Salute to Shearing.”

On June 1, 2002, Shearing received an honorary doctorate from DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. In 2007, he was knighted for his services to music and achieved the ranking of Officer of the British Empire. Shearing and his wife Ellie divide their time between New York and the English town of Cotswold.

Select Discography

As George Shearing

Piano Solo (1947)

Midnight on Cloud 69 (1949)

You’re Hearing the George Shearing Quartet (1950)

I Hear Music (1952)

Latin Escapade (1956)

Blue Chiffon (1958)

White Satin (1960)

Deep Velvet (1964)

Out Of This World (1970)

Continental Experience (1975)

Live (1979)

I Hear A Rhapsody: Live at the Blue Note (1992)

Walkin: Live at the Blue Note (1992)

Favorite Things (1997)

Swinging in a Latin Mood (2006)

With Jim Hall

First Edition (1981)

With Nat King Cole

Nat King Cole Sings/George Shearing Plays

With Marion McPartland

Alone Together (1981)

With the Montgomery Brothers

George Shearing and the Montgomery Brothers (1961)

With John Pizzarelli

The Rare Delight of You (2002)

With Mel Tormé

An Evening With Mel Torme & George Shearing (1982)

Top Drawer (1983)

An Elegant Evening (1985)

RELATED LINKS:

The Dozens: Jazz For The Birds by Alan Kurtz

Contributor: Eric Wendell