Wednesday, February 25, 2015

George Shearing and Leonard Feather

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

"Leonard Feather has dedicated his life to the development and propagation of jazz, mainly as a distinguished journalist and critic. This book, compiled from his diaries, documents his varied experiences in the jazz business as musician, songwriter and record producer. We are all fortunate that he has chosen to share his rare experiences with us."
— Benny Carter, Jazz saxophonist, composer-arranger, bandleader

I recently came across a copy of Leonard Feather’s The Jazz Years: Eyewitness To An Era. The paperback version was published by DaCapo Press in 1987. Over the years, I had misplaced mine and I found a very fine used copy on offer at a local bookstore.

The young clerk who helped me complete my purchase asked me if “He was anyone important like Bing Crosby?” “How did you learn about Bing?,” I asked. “Oh, he was featured on TV program that was broadcast on public television recently," he replied. "Whad'ya think of him?," I asked. "He was a pretty cool dude," he said. He smiled at the look of stunned amazement that must have come over my face at his response.

My reply to his question about Leonard Feather was something along the lines of this quotation by the distinguished Jazz author Gene Lees:

"Leonard Feather is the most important critic and chronicler jazz has had. He has written about the music longer—uninterruptedly since 1934—and more consistently than anyone else in the world.”

I think my description of Leonard’s importance in the world of Jazz had about as much impact on the bookstore clerk as the viewing of the Bing Crosby TV program that he had viewed as part of his studies, but I was glad to have Leonard’s book in my library so I could re-read it and share some of his singular memories with you on these pages.

I was fortunate to be in Los Angeles when Leonard was hired in 1965 by Charles Champlin, the Entertainment Editor of The Los Angeles Times, and charged with contributing regular features about Jazz to the newspaper. It was always a delight to read Leonard’s columns which appeared in that paper twice weekly and in the expanded Sunday edition as his writings were insightful and instructive. If Jazz can, as some say, be learned and not taught, then I learned a lot about Jazz from Leonard.

In addition to contributing many articles about Jazz to select periodicals beginning in the 1930’s, Leonard Feather was the author of numerous books on the subject, including his standard reference work Encyclopedia of Jazz [which has since become co-authored by Ira Gitler], Laughter from the Hip (with Jack Tracy, the former editor of Downbeat and record producer for Argo, Emarcy and Mercury), and Inside Jazz, all published by Da Capo Press.

Leonard Feather's autobiography - The Jazz Years: Eyewitness To An Era - is also the story of jazz over the last half-century. Since arriving in New York from London in 1935, he has managed to distinguish himself as a producer, composer, pianist, and one of the music's most acute critics. He was one of the first to champion the innovations of bebop in the pages of Esquire and Downbeat, also an ardent campaigner against racial barriers, and a friend to dozens of musicians. There are stories here about Feather's relationship with Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Dizzy Gillespie, George Shearing, Joe Williams, Toshiko Akiyoshi, and many others. Filled with information about the recording business and the tricky art of criticism, this earwitness account of a lifetime in jazz caps a career that has been dedicated to the best that American culture has to offer. Leonard died in 1994 at the age of eighty [80]

Regular visitors to these pages will no doubt recall that the editorial staff at JazzProfiles are huge fans of the late pianist George Shearing.

As the following remembrance from Leonard’s autobiography makes clear, those of us who are fans of George and what came to be known as “The Shearing Sound” owe a huge debt of gratitude to Leonard.


“The end of the 1940s produced irreversible changes in the course of jazz and, consequently, in the pattern of my activities.

The blues as I had known the idiom in the early to middle 1940s had begun to fade. Dinah Washington and many others were phasing out most of their blues repertoire and moving into pop songs or R & B.

Big bands also were beginning to pass their peak; by the end of the decade several of the most valuable ensembles would disband, some temporarily like Basie's, others for ever.

Overshadowing both these trends was the second Musicians Union recording ban. After experiencing, during 1946 and 1947, my most active and enjoyable years in the studios, I found it a serious blow to be shut out during all but the last two weeks of 1948.

The year was far from a total loss. I had a new radio series on WHN in addition to working, during the summer, on Duke's programmes. I presented two concerts with Dizzy Gillespie (the first including Charlie Parker) at Carnegie Hall. Bird, Joe Newman, J. J. Johnson, John Lewis, Tommy Potter, Jimmy Jones and Max Roach all played in the first of a series of jam sessions I produced on Tuesday nights at the Three Deuces.

Best of all the events that year was my final citizenship hearing: I became an American at 9.15 a.m. 26 April 1948 after duly recalling the correct answers to a number of questions about the country's history, most of which might stump me if I were asked them again today.

Unhappily, I was involved for some time in a rather disagreeable job. Late in 1947 I had been hired as a programming consultant for a daily record show hosted by Tommy Dorsey. It was one of the very few times in my life when I had to report for work at a certain hour and stay all day. This would not have mattered if I had had even a token measure of artistic freedom, but on the occasions (fortunately few) when I had to deal directly with Dorsey, he would quench whatever enthusiasm I might have mustered with some remark such as: Take out that Dizzy Gillespie record. You know I don't want any of that bebop shit on my show.' Musical opinions aside, Dorsey was one of the least pleasant people I ever worked for.

Consequently, it came as a source of relief when, later in the year, I stopped working for Dorsey and was hired to write for a similar show with Duke Ellington as the host. There were no problems with Duke except for the minor one that because he was too vain to wear glasses and had trouble reading the scripts, they had to be transferred to a machine with extra-large type. Duke's show did not enjoy as much commercial success as Dorsey's, but he and I enjoyed the process of putting it together.

Undoubtedly the most auspicious event during those last two years of the decade, in terms of the gratification it gave me rather than the financial reward, was the slow but inexorable rise to prominence of George Shearing.

George and I had first met late in 1938, when I was conducting a meeting of the No.l Rhythm Club in London. After some of my recently imported American records had been played, the time arrived for a session of live music, and someone brought in the nineteen-year-old alumnus of Claude Bampton's band, all of whose members were blind except the leader.

In a country where live jazz from America was almost nonexistent and even records were in relatively short supply, one did not look to domestic talent for creativity or originality; but when this blind teenager began to offer his impression of how jazz should sound - clearly inspired by the records of Meade Lux Lewis, Earl Hines, Art Tatum, Joe Sullivan, Teddy Wilson and whoever else he had heard on imported records - there was a minor commotion in the room. Here was a young man clearly wise beyond his years. I also found out a little later that he was an accomplished jazz accordionist. Since I had been recently engaged in a running battle with the magazine Accordion Times, claiming that 'jazz accordion' was a contradiction in terms, I felt obliged to write a follow-up confessing that George Shearing had proved me wrong.

It might have been better if I had left it at that; instead, when I was able to set up a Decca recording session for George a few weeks later, one of the tunes was an ad lib accordion solo, 'Squeezin' the Blues', for which I provided the very inept piano accompaniment.* [*I was not the first record to George. Vic Lewis, an old friend with whom I co-produced a session in 1937, had him at the piano on several small-group dates in 1938-9, released on Lincoln Rhythm Style and Days Rhythm Style 78s.]

George soon established himself solidly in England, playing on his own radio series, working often with Vic Lewis and Stephane Grappelli, and appearing as a guest with the popular Ambrose orchestra. By the time he had won the Melody Maker poll for several years, it began to become clear to him that there was no place to go above the top, except by moving to the US.

We had kept in touch, and by 1946 George's wife, Trixie, wrote to tell us that they and their daughter, Wendy, would come to New York, strictly for a visit, later in the year.

The Shearings' first visit was purely exploratory. George's records had not been released here, which meant that he was totally unknown in this country. Much of the time during this three-month visit was taken up inspecting the New York jazz scene, particularly along 52nd Street. One night we ran into Teddy Reig, of Savoy Records, who arranged to produce a date in February 1947, with Gene Ramey on bass and Cozy Cole on drums.

Having tested the water, the Shearings returned home. He worked a variety of jobs (in London that summer, to my surprise, I found him playing accordion in a band led by Frank Weir), but before the year was out he came back to New York, this time for good, and Teddy Reig gave him another date, using Curly Russell and Denzil Best.

Once again, though, George found that the assurance he had been given in London that the American public would greet him with open ears was wildly exaggerated. At least one club owner whom I approached told me that a blind artist would be too depressing a sight (this despite the huge success of another British artist, also blind and now living in the States, Alec Templeton). George played a Monday off-night at the Hickory House, then settled in for a long run at the Three Deuces, where the scale was $66 a week.

At the club George slowly built a local following, working at first solo, then with Oscar Pettiford or John Levy on bass, J. C. Heard on drums and, for a while, Eddie Shu on alto sax and trumpet. By late 1948 he was hired for the Clique Club, on the site of what later became Birdland. With him were John Levy, Denzil Best and the incomparable clarinettist Buddy De Franco.

The recording ban, which had begun 1 January, ended 15 December, and I at last succeeded in landing a date for George with his own group, for Discovery Records, run by Albert Marx, whose Musicraft company had brought so much durable jazz to the studios.

We planned to use the Clique Club personnel, but a hitch developed: De Franco was under contract to Capitol.

Some years earlier I had experimented with a quintet sound, using piano, vibes and guitar, first at a Slam Stewart session using Johnny Guarnieri, Red Norvo and Chuck Wayne, then in 1946 on the all-woman Mary Lou Williams date with Margie Hyams on vibes. 'Why not,' I suggested to George, 'get Chuck and Margie, and try out a group along the same lines?'

George liked the idea. We set a studio for 31 January 1949; but meanwhile, MGM Records had expressed interest in signing George to an exclusive contract.

Preferring to save his own music for this major record label, George had me write most of the originals for the Discovery date.

That maiden voyage came off remarkably well. George displayed his locked-hands technique in my 'Life with Feather' and 'Midnight in the Air', played accordion on 'Cherokee' and a blues, and distinguished himself throughout this auspicious day.

By the time we were due to make the first MGM recordings on 17 February, George had developed a new and unprecedented blend for this instrumentation. He would play four-note chords in the right hand, with the left hand doubling the right hand's top-note melody line, the guitar doubling the melody, and the vibes playing it in the upper register. This was the basis for 'September in the Rain', the big hit of the first session, as well as for Til Remember April', 'Ghost of a Chance' and most of the other ballads.

For the jazz instrumental the formula would usually consist of a unison theme statement, followed by guitar and vibes solos and a two-stage statement by George, beginning with rapid single-note lines and evolving into sumptuous, brilliantly executed 'locked-hands' or block-chord improvisation.

Though this sound remained essentially unchanged through the years, the personnel underwent many changes. In 1953 George began adding Latin percussion. But the 'Shearing Sound' by now was so well established that the group became one of the most popular in jazz, with a reputation that was soon worldwide.

With Harry Meyerson of MGM, I produced all the sessions for the first two years of the five-year Shearing contract. The pattern for the group had been so firmly set, and in such continuous demand, that George was reluctant to make any changes. Not long after I had moved to Los Angeles, the Shearings also decided to make their home on the West Coast, where we lived only five minutes apart.

At one point I tried to interest George in a new concept, using two horns and accordion; we even made some trial tapes, but nothing came of it. The quintet went on its way, occasionally with such illustrious sidemen as Joe Pass, who toured with George from 1965-7. On the twentieth anniversary of the quintet's formation, George was working at the Hong Kong Bar in Century City, which gave me an opportunity to spring a surprise on him. I called several former members of the group to drop in at the room. During one number Colin Bailey quietly eased on to the bandstand and took over from Stix Hooper; Al McKibbon replaced Andy Simpkins on bass; Dave Koonse turned over his guitar to Joe Pass, and Charlie Shoemake handed his mallets to Emil Richards.

'I knew something strange was going on,' George said later, 'and when I heard the vibes played in octaves, which was Emil's style, I had a pretty good idea of what had been happening. That was one of the nicest surprises of my life.'

Another nine years elapsed before George finally decided that enough was enough. He began phasing out the quintet in 1978; the time had come to work within a more intimate framework, a duo that would leave room for more freedom of expression. 'I said when I gave up the quintet,' he told me recently, 'that I'd never do it again except for Frank Sinatra or Standard Oil. Well, Standard Oil never came through, but Sinatra wanted a quintet for two weeks at Carnegie Hall in 1981, and I did it. That was all.'

During the early years of the quintet George was often treated with disdain, or at best faint praise, by many of the critical establishment. Ironically, today he is enjoying more acclaim than ever; in his mid-sixties, he seems to have reached a new level of creativity. It's an encouraging thought that this is the same artist whose very appearance was once considered 'too depressing' even for a one-night stand on 52nd Street.

A few years ago George moved back to New York, where he lives on the upper East Side with his second wife, Ellie, a group singer. He records for Concord Jazz, and was teamed with Mel Torme, his frequent concert partner, for a Grammy award-winning album. Almost forty-eight years after he sat in at that Rhythm Club session in London, our friendship survives.

Not long ago I was a guest on his WNEW radio programme; we played four hands for a couple of minutes, and George said 'Let's play "Mighty Like the Blues".' That was the theme song on his British radio series. Who said nostalgia isn't what it used to be?”

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