George Shearing

The Sweet Jazz Sound That Will Last Forever

By Tony Parker

In 1952, and in common with almost every other callow, 13‑year­ old schoolboy, it was a time that could best be described as being informative: a period when we were deep into learning about the many aspects and styles of music of that era. In fact, when we should have been concentrating our efforts on such mundane yet important subjects as maths, English, history and geography, the minds of the majority were centred on, among other things, an infectious new sound and an equally haunting instrumental melody of the time called 'Lullaby of Birdland.'

George Shearing
The original Shearing Quintet, with John Levy playing bass, Margie Hyams on vibes, Chuck Wayne on guitar, and Denzil Best on drums.

This composition heralded not only a new area in the field of jazz (which we were rapidly learning about), but over the decades since it was penned it has proved to be one of the greatest and most enduring jazz standards of all time. One can only hazard a guess as to how many records it has sold worldwide. It was a number that was easy to hum and whistle, and, because of its sheer simplicity, it was no surprise that almost every pupil could be heard quietly humming it. What was surprising, at least to the teachers, was the number of pupils who suddenly took music lessons seriously and wanted to learn the piano.

The name of George Shearing suddenly became one that elevated him to cult status. He was the hero of the hour, and every self-­respecting jazz lover either couldn't wait for his next release to be issued, wanted to see him in concert, or, more audaciously, attempt to actually meet him. In those days that was the stuff of dreams, not reality.

Shearing's musical style became instantly recognisable: quiet and smooth and comprising a quintet of piano, vibraphone, guitar, double bass and drums. With it was a sound that scored a hit not only with us classroom rebels, but with jazz lovers worldwide.

Born in Battersea, London on August 13, 1919, and blind from birth, George Shearing, the youngest of nine children, began playing the piano at the age of three. But his only form of training in music was at the Linden Lodge School for the blind, which he attended from the ages of 12 to 16. His immense talent earned him many university scholarships, but he was forced to refuse them in favour of a more financially rewarding pursuit ‑ playing the piano in a neighbourhood pub for the princely sum of £1 a week! Later, Shearing joined an all blind band in the 1930s, and developed a friendship with the noted jazz critic and author, Leonard Feather. This contact with Feather enabled him to make his first radio appearance on BBC.

By 1936 he was listening to the recordings of such luminaries as Earl Hines, Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum. His absorption of jazz music was so rapid and convincing that for seven consecutive years he was voted the top British pianist by the Melody Maker, which was then regarded as the jazz lovers' weekly bible.

In 1947, George Shearing moved to America and settled in New York, and became strongly influenced by the bop style of music, and in particular that played by pianist Bud Powell. It took just two years for George to establish his famed 'Shearing Sound', courtesy of the Discovery record label and which featured his now‑famous quintet. By popularising this quintet sound, Shearing achieved commercial success on a scale rarely known in the world of jazz, and in 1949 his recognition in the States was firmly consolidated with his recording of 'September In the Rain' for MGM.

Below you can hear George Shearing in 1990...

The record proved to be an overnight success and sold more than 900,000 copies. It also led to his US reputation becoming permanently sealed when he was booked into Birdland, New York's legendary jazz spot. It was his appearance there that prompted him to write 'Lullaby of Birdland' as a theme for the famous jazz club and its radio shows. Since then he has become one of the world's most popular performing and recording artists, with classics such as 'East Of the Sun,' 'I Remember April,' 'One Note Samba' and 'Stardust' to further add to his unforgettable portfolio.

But although George Shearing is still very much a musician of the people, and not forgetting his humble beginnings in London, he has in the past been invited to play for no less than three US Presidents at the White House ‑ Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, plus also performing at a Royal Command Performance in London for the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh.

In April, 1996, while recovering from the first of two heart attacks, I received a telephone call from my very dear friend, London‑based concert promoter, artist manager and boss of Horatio Nelson Records, Derek Boulton. What he had to say proved to be one of the biggest tonics imaginable, and, with due respect, certainly better than any medication that my GP could prescribe!

His words brought back memories of those long‑gone schooldays, and the difference between dreams and reality. 'Have I got a treat in store for you!' enthused Derek. 'I'm putting on a George Shearing concert next month at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall. It's the only one in the country. There's a couple of tickets reserved for you, and I've told George he'll be meeting you.

George would be meeting me! This just couldn't be for real!
Now I've known Derek for a number of years: it was he who, on many occasions, supplied me with guest tickets for concerts by the Ted Heath Hand, which he had promoted, and who was also instrumental in my writing Ted's biography, 'The Greatest Swing Band in n the World.'

I also know what his sense of humour is like, and he knows mine. He's an Arsenal supporter, it's true, but then nobody's perfect! And I know for a fact that in no way was he trying to be patronising when he mentioned the meeting. What he was trying to do was accelerate my recuperation, and it has to be said it worked like a charm.

On the night of the concert, Sunday, May 6, we arrived early at the Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool, and there was Derek waiting in the foyer to greet us. 'Come on,' he said, 'we're going to have tea and cakes in the restaurant. George is waiting to meet you.' Derek saw the questioning look on my face. 'Shouldn't that be the other way round?' I asked.

Derek put a friendly and reassuring hand on my shoulder. 'Listen, don't put yourself down,' he said. 'In your own way you're both in the same line of business.' I have to admit that despite Derek's line of reasoning I was in awe of George for the whole of the time that I was in his company. Naturally, it was both a night and a concert that will live with me forever, with those early days at school in the 1950s at the forefront of my mind.

These days, George Shearing and his wife Ellie divide their time between their New York apartment and an idyllic country cottage, deeply hidden away in the heart of the Cotswolds. There at the tender age of 83, he is currently working on his autobiography, in between long walks and listening to cricket and tennis matches. However, every now and then, and in breaks in his busy schedule both at home and abroad, George follows his own personal belief: 'Why should a man work when he has the health and strength to lie in bed?'

Surely a maxim for every jazz‑loving schoolboy to take to heart?

This great reminisce comes from Memory Lane and we are grateful to Tony Parker and to Memory Lane.

Jazz; A Musical Passion