When people talk about the "George Shearing sound," they are referring to a special combination of instruments that the pianist first assembled in late 1948—and how he arranged those instruments to produce a gentle, swinging approach to jazz. The instrument mix—piano, vibes, guitar, bass and drums—tricks the ear into thinking it's listening to a much larger band. Shearing then arranged the instruments so that they all moved together simultaneously along the melody line, but in harmony, like a vocal group. [Photo by Paul Slaughter]
The result was both relaxing and invigorating. When asked by pianist Billy Taylor some years back about his inspiration for this sound, Shearing responded that he combined the exciting block-chords blues style of pianist Milt Buckner and the moody grace of the Glenn Miller orchestra, with the clarinet in the reed section.
But Shearing didn't come to the concept for this sound alone. As Buddy DeFranco told me recently, the Shearing sound was first explored when the two of them began playing together at the Clique Club in 1948, with John Levy on bass and Denzil Best on drums.
Here's what Buddy told me recently:
"George had first come over from England in 1946. He had an engagement at the Clique Club, and if I recall correctly Sarah Vaughan was headlining. At the time, George was England's biggest jazz piano star and had come to New York at the invitation of Leonard Feather.
"One day in 1947, George called me and asked if I would join his trio. He wanted the clarinet voice in there along the lines of the Glenn Miller sound. Before I could join, though, George had to arrange something with the New York local of the musicians' union. I was still waiting out a certain time period before my union card became activated. Whatever George did, he was able to get the union to activate my card early for his three-week engagement at the club. Maybe Leonard had something to do with it. I don't know.
"The sound we created featured George playing the melody with octaves—where the top notes were doubled on the bottom. At the same time, I superimposed my melodic playing on clarinet on top of his melody lines. I was playing the top notes of those double octaves—sometimes with him and sometimes without him. Then he would solo or I would solo.
"We were both following that pattern. George had that sound in his mind first, and that’s how we tailored the group. However, I do remember hearing that sound earlier on radio station WHAT in Philadelphia by a group that played the melodic octave sound with vibes. I have no idea whether George was familiar with that group or not.
"It was almost automatic how the sound came together when we were playing. It was spontaneous, and we both nailed it at the same time.
"Soon after our engagement, I was offered a contract with Capitol Records to form a sextet and George signed with MGM. So we parted ways, and George put together what would become his famous quintet. Unfortunately, we never recorded together. We meant to do so through the years but we never found the time. It would have been fun."
Tomorrow and Friday: Two groundbreaking interviews with artists who played major roles in Shearing's recording career.
JazzWax tracks: The quintet configuration that George Shearing used was based on a suggestion from Leonard Feather. Feather had originally asked pianist Mary Lou Williams to use the same instrument mix for a record session he produced for Continental nearly three years earlier.
Interestingly, all of the musicians on Williams' July 1946 date were women. The musicians were Marjorie Hyams (vibes), Mary Lou Williams (piano), Mary Osborne (guitar and vocals), June Rotenberg (bass) and Rose Gottesman (drums). Marjorie, of course, would become Shearing's first vibist when he formed his quintet in late 1948.
You'll find the Mary Lou Williams tracks (Harmony Grits, Boogie Misterioso, Conversation and Humoresque) on Mary Lou Williams: 1945-1947 (Classics). Sadly, it's out of print but available on some download sites. You can hear samples here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Billy Taylor interviewing George Shearing on the Shearing sound...