As a British jazz musician who rose to became something of a household name in the US, George Shearing belongs to a small but elite club that includes clarinettist Acker Bilk (who scored a No.1 hit single in America with ‘Stranger On The Shore’), saxophonist and club owner Ronnie Scott, saxophonist/composer John Dankworth and guitarist John McLaughlin. But Shearing was the first of these to make his mark, which was undoubtedly aided by his emigrating to the US in 1947. And it was there, two years later, where he put together his groundbreaking quintet (combining piano, vibraphone, guitar, bass and drums) whose distinctive sound combined elements of bebop with swing, Latin and classical music to usher in a new age of modern chamber jazz.
A byword for cool jazz sophistication
As the 40s rolled into the 50s, George Shearing’s name became a byword for cool jazz sophistication. His fame at that point offered a sharp contrast with his humble London working-class roots. Blind from birth, Shearing came into the world on Wednesday, 13 August 1919, to a father who delivered coal and a mother who cleaned trains for a living. He was brought up in Battersea, in south-west London, and was drawn to music at a young age, thanks to the presence of a piano in his home.
Despite his visual impairment, Shearing had a natural flair for playing the piano (he started lessons at age five) and was able to memorise tunes he learned from listening to the radio. He studied music at Linden College, a residential school for blind children, where he stayed until he was 16, at which point he began working as pub pianist. From there, while still a teenager, he auditioned for a band of all-blind musicians led by Claude Bampton and got a job playing accordion with them.
“The Shearing sound”
Shearing made his first recording, aged 18, in 1937. In the war years, he played as a member of Harry Parry And The Radio Rhythm Club Sextet before joining forces with French violinist Stéphane Grappelli. In terms of his piano style, Shearing was initially influenced by US musicians such as Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson and Fats Waller, but was able to distil those inspirations and filter them through his own sensibility to eventually arrive at a unique sound defined by elegance and the use of block chords.
Once he got to America, Shearing made a few sides for the Discovery and Savoy labels, but his popularity took off with a single he recorded with his quintet for MGM, ‘September In The Rain’. Its sales reached almost a million copies and the song came to define what was called “the Shearing sound”.
In his 2004 autobiography, Lullaby Of Birdland, Shearing revealed the origins of this style: “It came about by combining two distinct musical elements – the voicing of the Glen Miller saxophone section and the so-called ‘locked hands’ piano style of a man named Milt Buckner, whom I heard playing with Lionel Hampton’s big band on my first visit [to the US] in 1946.”
‘Lullaby Of Birdland’: his signature song
In 1952, Shearing wrote a tune that not only became his signature song but also a bona fide jazz standard. It was called ‘Lullaby Of Birdland’ and was originally written to advertise music publisher Morris Levy’s New York jazz club, Birdland, on the radio. The song quickly became popular after its release, via MGM, and spawned countless cover versions, including instrumental ones by Erroll Garner and Coleman Hawkins, and vocal renditions (with lyrics penned by George Weiss) by Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Eartha Kitt and, in more recent times, Chaka Khan and Amy Winehouse.
In the mid-50s, Shearing left MGM for Capitol Records, where his quintet’s albums became more adventurous and showcased the group in a variety of musical contexts. “There were settings with brass, strings, brass and woodwinds, vocal groups, Latin sounds, in fact a whole range of different elements with which the quintet was able to work quite amicably,” Shearing recalled. The pianist also embarked on a couple of orchestral projects with Frank Sinatra’s arranger Billy May, and recorded collaborations with several singers, including Dakota Staton (In The Night), Peggy Lee (Beauty With The Beat), Nancy Wilson (The Swingin’s Mutual!) and, most famously, Nat “King” Cole (Nat King Cole Sings/George Shearing Plays). The latter album, with lush arrangements by Ralph Carmichael, featured the popular tunes ‘Let There Be Love’ and ‘Pick Yourself Up’.
“Not bad for a kid from Battersea”
Shearing stayed with Capitol until 1969, then founded his own short-lived label, Sheba. By that time, his quintet seemed to be running out of gas and he disbanded it in 1978. In later years, he recorded many titles for Concord Jazz (including four albums with singer Mel Tormé, one of which, An Evening With George Shearing And Mel Tormé, won a Grammy) and, later, Telarc.
Shearing was much honoured during his long career. He played for three different US presidents (Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan) and was awarded an OBE in 1996 before receiving a knighthood from the Queen in 2007. “In the quiet moments when I reflect on all this,” wrote Shearing in his autobiography, “I can’t help thinking, Not bad for a kid from Battersea!”
Though Shearing became an American citizen in 1956, in later years he spent a lot of time at his home in the Cotswolds, England. A bad fall in 2004 put an end to his performing career and he died seven years later, on Valentine’s Day 2011, aged 91.
George Shearing is undoubtedly one of the UK’s greatest jazz musicians and his success is even more remarkable given the personal hurdles and disadvantages he had to overcome. He left behind a much-valued legacy of recordings that remain popular today and which guarantee that he’ll always be fondly remembered.