Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Sir George Shearing (1919-2011)

George Shearing photographed by Bruno of Hollywood (who was, incidentally, father of Playboy Playmate of the Month for December 1966, Susan Bernard!)

Another musical hero gone yesterday in the person of Sir George Shearing, one of the very last great jazz pianists from the immediate post-War period.

Battersea born Shearing was the son of a coalman (Triple P is old enough to remember coalmen delivering weekly sacks of coal to his house when he was small) and was blind since birth.  He started to learn the piano at the age of three and by the time he was eighteen was already recording and performing on BBC radio having started performed in pubs in London at the age of sixteen.  He turned down the chance to continue his formal music studies at university.

During the Second World War he teamed up with violonist Stéphane Grappelli, who had escaped to London from occupied France.  He recorded with Grapelli again in 1976 on his album The Reunion.

He moved to the US in 1947 and became a US citizen ten years later.  He formed his  quintet in 1949 which added a vibraphone to the usual piano, bass, drums and guitar.  Shearing's distinctive style was influenced by the Glenn Miller Orchestra's reed section, Erik Satie, Claude Debussy and Frederick Delius amongst others.  Coming in at the end of the frantic be-bop era he was instrumental in ushering in the more reflective "cool jazz" of the fifties. The classical nature of much of his playing leant itself to backing by a full orchestra as well as his work with smaller ensembles.

He also worked with a number of singers over his long career, such as Mel Tormé, Peggy Lee, Sarah Vaughan and Nat King Cole.  Shearing's work with Cole on Nat King Cole sings/George Shearing Plays, especially one of Triple P's all time favourites, Let There be Love is a marvel of delicacy and laid back phrasing.

Shearing was also a composer of around 300 pieces, notably the standard Lullaby of Birdland (Birdland was a New York Jazz club) which he claimed took ten minutes to write.  At his 80th birthday celebration concert at Carnegie Hall in 1999 he introduced it by telling the audience: “I have been credited with writing 300 songs. Two hundred ninety-nine enjoyed a bumpy ride from relative obscurity to total oblivion. Here is the other one.”  Dave Brubeck, a close friend, also performed at that event and is now really the last of the great jazz pianists, who started in that period in the thirties and forties, at the age of ninety.

Shearing became the first naturalised US citizen to be knighted, by the Queen, in 2007.

He continued performing well into his eighties and, indeed, Agent Triple P saw him perfom in Toronto some years ago.

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