George Shearing, a British-born pianist whose blindness at birth gave him a heightened sense of time and harmony, and whose fondness for elegant swing and bebop led to the development of an enormously successful quintet sound in 1949, died of heart failure yesterday, February 14, in Manhattan. He was 91.
A professional musician since the late 1930s, Shearing became England's top jazz pianist by the end of World War II. He was encouraged to come to the U.S. in November 1946 by Metronome editor Leonard Feather, a fellow Englishman. Shearing's technique was so powerful that initially he was cast in New York clubs on 52nd Street as the English Art Tatum, albeit a more delicate one.
Quickly tiring of being positioned as the white versions of Tatum, Fats Waller and Teddy Wilson, Shearing returned to London and arranged for English big-band leader Ted Heath and among others. But with bebop's surge in popularity in New York in 1947 and greater recording opportunities with the emergence of small labels, Shearing returned to the U.S. that year, this time as a bop pianist and accordionist.
In 1948, Shearing teamed with clarinetist Buddy De Franco [pictured], bassist John Levy and drummer Denzil Best. The bop quartet played New York's Clique Club, which would become Birdland the following year.
John Levy not only was the bassist in Shearing's quartet and quintet, he also became his manager starting in the early 1950s. I spoke to John yesterday about Shearing and the early sound:
“Originally our group was set up for George to play with clarinetist Buddy De Franco, me on bass, and Denzil Best on drums. We played mostly at the New York’s Clique Club. Then Buddy landed a big contract with Capitol and George was signed by MGM. The two could no longer record together. With Buddy gone, Leonard Feather, who was close with George, suggested he substitute vibes and guitar for the sound of the clarinet. [Pictured: John Levy]
“George had been a band arranger in Britain, so he knew all about writing and voicing instruments. The sound of Buddy and George together was great but limited. How much of a sound could you really have with a quartet? It was basically a rhythm section with a lead horn. George, of course, would be voicing things on the piano with his block-chord thing, and his harmonic ideas were so great. But he’d take a solo or Buddy would and that was it.
“When George formed the quintet in late 1948 with Marjorie [Hyams] on vibes, Chuck [Wayne] on guitar, me and Denzil, the sound was amazing. Playing inside that group was really something. I felt so moved as a listener and as a player contributing to that sound. George was like a tasteful orchestra on that keyboard. Most people don’t realize that those quintet pieces weren’t written out. They were rehearsed over and over again until everyone knew their parts. I used to write out my part because I couldn’t remember all of that the way those guys could.
“Because George was blind, he had a stronger sense of hearing and feel. I remember he had this blind fellow from England who helped him with the arrangements. Both of them had seeing-eye dogs. Now dogs are pretty much dogs to most people when they’re walking around in the house on their padded feet. Yet George could tell these two dogs apart just by the way they walked.
“When we played in Detroit, we used to walk from the hotel where we were staying to the club. It was a short walk. But during a stretch on one block, there was a tree in the middle of the sidewalk. We’d be walking and George would instinctively pull off to one side even before reaching the tree. He could tell the difference in the air current, he said. The same was true with the spaces between parked cars. For George, it was all feel and hearing.
“When I think back on George, I think of a pianist with such a beautiful touch. His feeling on the keyboard was so special. It would grip you. I was always concerned with trying to listen to what the group was doing so I could keep time and fit in between the action. I didn’t want any solos. That wasn’t my thing. If I had four bars here or there, that was enough for me. And that was fine with George.
“What many people didn't know about George was his courage. Remember, in 1949, this guy had formed an integrated group with two white guys, two black guys and a white woman on stage together. Today, this might seem like so what. But back then, you just didn't do that, especially in some cities. [Pictured: John Levy and George Shearing in the early '50s]
"Many people told George that he’d do better if all of his musicians were white. He didn’t know what they were talking about. He’d get pissed and say, 'I don’t know what color they are. All I know is that they play what I like to hear and I love their intonation.' Only a few people had the nerve to come up to him and say stuff like that.
“We played mostly in New York but we toured a bit. We’d have to be careful in places like Salt Lake City, Kansas City and St. Louis where audiences were segregated by law. We’d play some clubs where blacks couldn’t even get in. But the white audiences loved the music we played. Funny, I think the fact that he was blind made them blind, too. They unconsciously put themselves in his position—caring only about the music, not who was playing. [Pictured: George Shearing with New York disc jockey William B. Williams in 1951]
Rather than jam everything in on this post, I think I'll write about George Shearing for much of this week. I hope you don't mind.
JazzWax tracks: Probably the finest George Shearing collection is the four-disc Proper Box from the U.K., George Shearing: From Battersea to Broadway. It captures Shearing's recordings from 1939 to 1951. You'll find it here.
Want to dig Shearing's big band writing? He wrote two arrangements for England's Ted Heath that I know of: A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square and Ladybird, recorded by Heath in 1947 and 1949, respectively. You'll find them on a dynamite collection of Heath's recordings here. Sample the tracks.
JazzWax clip: Here's one of my favorite clips of the George Shearing Quintet in 1950, with Shearing on piano, Joe Roland on vibes, Chuck Wayne on guitar, Denzil Best on drums—and dig John Levy on the white bass...