Wednesday, June 15, 2011

George Shearing, 1919-2011: A Tribute

[c] –Steven A. Cerra, Introduction, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

For a variety of reasons, February 14th is a very significant date around our place. 

Unfortunately, this year added another basis to its significance as pianist George Shearing died on February 14, 2011.

George has been the subject of two previous features on JazzProfiles which you can locate by going here and here.

Sir George Shearing [he was knighted in 2007] had been one of our Jazz heroes for many years, again, for a variety of reasons including the unusual [for the times and since then, too] instrumentation of his quintet with its front-line of vibraphone and guitar, the block chording of what came to be known as “The Shearing Sound” [explained both in the previous features and in the following obituary], his wonderful wit, often applied at his own expense, his engaging way with an audience [he actually talked to them, although he could never see them as he was blind at birth], his intricate and intriguing compositions including Lullaby of Birdland, Conception and From Rags to Richards [a play on words involving the surname of his long-time vibist, Emil Richards], his marvelous albums with vocalists including Peggy Lee, Nat King Cole, Mel Torme and John Pizzarelli, his longevity and his humanity.

The phrase “what a guy” becomes an understatement when applied to Sir George Shearing.

In the 1940s and 1950s, his early years in Jazz, George was often criticized for limiting the length of the solos played by his group.

At a time when many soloists were “stretching out,” sometimes to the point of playing lengthy and utterly boring solos, George would state the theme, give each member of the group one chorus, himself two, re-state the theme and end the tune.

In some cases, if the tune was taken at a very fast clip [tempo], the recorded track would be over in two or three minutes.

In talking with musicians who have worked in George’s quintets over the years, to a person, each of them stated that George’s shortened approach to soloing was a challenge that they welcomed.

Creating a good solo in a short period of time is not the easiest thing to, but when it is done well, it becomes a musical gem.

You can hear an example of George’s attenuated style of playing Jazz in the soundtrack to the following video tribute to George.  The tune is pianist Ray Bryant’s “Pawn Ticket.” Sadly, Ray, also died this year on June 2nd.

I think that the musicians on this recording comprise one of the very best quintet that George ever put together: Jean “Toots” Thielemans on guitar, Emil Richards on vibes, Al McKibbon on bass and drummer Percy Brice.

The video is followed by George’s obituary as it appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald March 22, 2011. It is a modification of one that appeared earlier in The Los Angeles Times.

[c] –Steven A. Cerra, Introduction, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“George Shearing started playing piano at the age of five but didn't receive formal training until his teenage years at a school for the blind. Shearing, the elegant pianist who expanded the boundaries of jazz by adding an orchestral sensibility and a mellow aesthetic to the music, has died aged 91.

A prolific songwriter, Shearing once introduced Lullaby of Birdland - written in 1952 in celebration of the fabled New York nightspot and its radio show - by saying: ''I have been credited with writing 300 songs. Two-hundred-and-ninety-nine enjoyed a bumpy ride from relative obscurity to total oblivion. Here is the other one.''

Shearing, who was born blind, first came to the US from England in 1946. His first job was intermission pianist at a New York club during a Sarah Vaughan engagement. He took a similar post at another club during an Ella Fitzgerald engagement and sometimes filled in for her pianist, Hank Jones.

He continued as a struggling, unknown until early 1949, when he hit on a formula that would establish his jazz identity.

Leonard Feather - the jazz critic, producer and composer who discovered Shearing in 1937 - suggested the pianist add a guitarist and a vibraphonist to the standard rhythm section to make up a quintet. The personnel in that first group were diverse, both in race and gender, and included John Levy on bass, Denzil Best on drums, Marjorie Hyams on vibraphone and Chuck Wayne on guitar.

The group went into the recording studio and came out with September in the Rain, which sold nearly 1 million records. Their first New York engagement came in April 1949 at the Cafe Society Downtown. They then went on a national tour and by the end of the year, Shearing's group was voted the No.1 combo in a reader poll by jazz magazine Down Beat.

With this group, Shearing developed what came to be known as ''the Shearing Sound'', which involved not only the make-up of the band - vibes and guitar generally were not both found in quintets - but also the style in which he played the piano. He used the ''block chords'' technique to create a big, lush, orchestral sound.

In his book The Jazz Years: Earwitness to an Era, Feather wrote that Shearing ''developed a new and unprecedented blend for his instrumentation''.

In that technique, a New York Times writer noted some years ago, ''both hands play melodies in parallel octaves with a shifting cloud of chords in between''.

Shearing worked primarily with his quintet for much of the next three decades. The personnel shifted but over the years included some of the finest names in jazz, including Cal Tjader and Gary Burton on vibes and Joe Pass and Toots Thielemans on guitar.

From the early 1950s on, Shearing had steady work in recording studios, first with MGM, where he was under contract from 1950 to 1955, and then with Capitol Records for 14 years. With Capitol, he recorded albums with some of the best singers of the day, including Peggy Lee, Nancy Wilson and Nat King Cole, and achieved substantial chart success in the late 1950s and early '60s.

Though the commercially successful quintet was his bread and butter, Shearing began to feel limited by it and grew tired of life on the road. At one point, he told New Yorker jazz critic Whitney Balliett that his quintet played 56 concerts in 63 days.
''George drives himself harder than you notice,'' bassist Al McKibbon once told Feather. ''One night in Oklahoma City, I saw him literally fall asleep in the middle of a chorus of Tenderly. He woke up with a start and carried right on.''

Shearing disbanded the group in 1978. For most of the rest of his career, he appeared mainly in solo, duo or trio settings.

His work in duos and recording contracts with Concord Records and then Telarc in the 1980s seemed to revitalise him. He recorded five albums with singer Mel Torme that were successful both critically and commercially.

His autobiography, Lullaby of Birdland, was published in 2004.

Born August 13, 1919, in the Battersea district of London to working-class parents, Shearing was one of nine children. He started playing piano and accordion at the age of five but didn't receive any formal musical education until he spent four of his teenage years at Linden Lodge, a school for the blind.

It was there that he learnt Bach, Liszt and music theory. It was also during this time that he became interested in jazz, listening to recordings by American pianists Meade Lux Lewis, Earl Hines, Art Tatum and Fats Waller.

At Linden Lodge, Shearing showed enough potential to earn a number of scholarship offers from universities. But after graduating, he went to work in a local pub where he earned about $5 a week and tips for his playing. Within a year, he joined Claude Bampton's big band, a 15-piece unit made up of blind musicians.

Feather discovered Shearing playing as a swing accordionist in a London jam session. He quickly arranged for Shearing to record for English Decca and, although that recording date was not Shearing's first, it was the one that set his career in motion.

With Feather's help, Shearing got a regular radio program on the BBC. He had a Dixieland band and was also his country's leading boogie-woogie pianist. He was soon being called Britain's answer to the great American pianist Teddy Wilson and for seven consecutive years was chosen most popular jazz pianist by Melody Maker magazine.

While playing in an air-raid shelter, Shearing met his first wife, Beatrice Bayes. They married in 1941 and had one daughter before divorcing in the early 1970s. He later married Eleanor Geffert, who survives him, as does his daughter.

Over the years, he played for three US presidents - Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan - as well as the Queen. He was knighted in 2007.

An anecdote he related to Feather said much of his sharp wit: ''When we were preparing to be received [by the Queen], I was told the directive is: 'Do not extend your hand until the Queen extends hers.' I said, 'Well, either somebody's going to have to cue me or she'll have to wear a bell.' But somebody did cue me.'”