Weekend Chops Builder: Piano Giants of Jazz - George Shearing

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[Originally published in Contemporary Keyboard in 1977.]

Jazz today is so internationalized that nobody gives a second thought to the presence in our midst of Marian McPartland, Joe Zawinul, Jan Hammer, and a dozen others from as many countries. At the time of George Shearing's rise from obscurity it was a very different story.

George and I had some background in common: We both came up in London, getting all our jazz knowledge second-hand from American records. But George, who had studied music at Linden Lodge School for the Blind, put his knowledge to better use than I did mine. He listened to Fats Waller, Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, the boogie-woogie pianists. One day, when I was running a Rhythm Club meeting at which we played records and occasionally added live music, George came in and astounded us with his considerable, if immature and eclectic, knowledge and feeling for the beat.

My secondary career as a record producer having recently gotten under way, I persuaded English Decca to give him a date. On that first session, the 19-year-old prodigy played a few piano solos, but on one track (happily now unavailable) I accompanied on piano while George played accordion!

After a time-lapse of six years, George wrote to me from London (I was now in New York) announcing his intention of coming to America as a tourist. During his three-month visit we recorded one date for Savoy Records. By the end of that year, 1947, he was back again, this time to stay. Most of 1948 was spent looking for jobs; though a celebrity in England (he had often teamed up with violinist Stephane Grapelli), he was an unknown quantity in the U.S. One nightclub owner told me audiences did not want to watch a blind performer. But another generously agreed to take him on as relief pianist, at Union scale—$66 a week. He took the job, and remained for several months.

By the end of the year, despite a Union ban that had kept him from recording, George was happily ensconced at a place called the Clique Club (later known as Birdland), heading a quartet with Buddy De Franco on clarinet. Soon after the record ban was lifted, I engineered a date with a new company, Discovery Records. But De Franco was under contract to Capitol.

In a hasty phone call I suggested to George that he try an instrumentation I had used on a couple of sessions with Mary Lou Williams: piano, vibes, guitar, bass, and drums. My suggestions were Chuck Wayne on guitar and Margie Hyams on vibes. Along with bassist John Levy and drummer Denzil Best, they became part of what was soon known around the world as the George Shearing Quintet.

The date was Jan. 31, 1949. On Feb. 17, I produced the first of a long series of sessions George was to make under a contract with MGM Records; that initial MGM date produced his style-establishing hit, "September In The Rain," in which the octave unison sound and the special blend between piano, guitar, and vibes helped to provide one of the most commercially accessible sounds in the contemporary jazz of the day.

Shearing at that point became the first British musician ever to exert a major influence on American jazzmen. Though others had tried it before (notably Phil Moore and Milt Buckner), his locked-hands technique or block-chord style, in which the left hand duplicated the right-hand melody line (see music below), or even the entire chord, took on a very personal character as George employed it.

Of course, he was never limited to that one device; George had become an ardent disciple of Bud Powell (who returned the compliment by recording one of Shearing's compositions), and was capable of creating long, superbly articulated single-note bop lines.

New facets were added to the Shearing reputation when he wrote his best-known composition, "Lullaby Of Birdland." in 1952 (it has become one of the most recorded standards in jazz history); when he added an Afro-Cuban touch by including percussionist Armando Peraza, who toured with the Quintet for a decade; and when he took out a short-lived big band for a concert tour with Cannonball Adderley in 1959.

Shearing's group was as popular in its early years as, say, Weather Report is today, and his piano style had as much impact at that time as those of McCoy Tyner and Keith Jarrett have had on our present scene. Several alumni of the Quintet went on to achieve considerable reputations of their own: vibraphonists Cal Tjader and Gary Burton; guitarist and harmonica soloist Jean "Toots" Thielemans; John Levy, who gave up playing and became a successful manager; and eminent guitar virtuoso Joe Pass, who spent two years with Shearing in the 1960s. By that time George and I had both continued on our inexorable westward trail by moving to California. A few years ago he moved from Toluca Lake, near Hollywood, to San Francisco.

The Quintet still exists, the only jazz combo to have remained alive over such an extended period. But George often plays dates with a duo (piano and bass) or trio (drums added), and has earned the respect of the classical world through numerous appearances with leading symphony orchestras. Usually he combined a classical concerto with a set by the Quintet with orchestral backing.

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It is notable that many of the Shearing dates nowadays are concerts, sometimes at colleges, played for audiences many of whose members were not born when that first quintet session took place. Yet his improvisational style in 1977 is only a subtler and more adroit extension of what he was doing in 1949. By attracting large audiences to this smooth, subtle branch of melodic and purely tonal music, he is conducting, in effect, a successful propaganda campaign for values that have tended to become lost in the electronic shuffle of contemporary sounds.

George Shearing - September in the Rain

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