George Shearing (now – sadly – the late SIR George) continues to en-joy an international reputation as a pianist, arranger and composer. Equally at home on the concert stage and in jazz clubs, he remains rec-ognized for inventive, orchestrated jazz. He wrote over 300 composi-tions, including the now-classic Lullaby of Birdland, which has become a jazz standard, and had multiple albums on the Billboard charts over the 5 decades from the 1950s to the 1990s.
George Shearing was born in 1919 in the Battersea area of London, the youngest of nine children, and congenitally blind. His father delivered coal and his mother cleaned trains at night. He started to play the piano at the age of 3, but his only formal musical education consisted of 4 years of study at the Linden Lodge School for the Blind. Though his talent gained him offers of a number of university scholarships, he elected to refuse them in favour of a more financially productive pur-suit . . . playing piano and accordion in The Mason’s Arms (a neighbourhood pub) for the handsome salary of 25 bob a week!
In 1947 he immigrated to America (in 1956, he became a naturalised US citizen). The “Shearing Sound” achieved national attention in 1949 when he formed the first ‘George Shearing Quintet’, a group that in-cluded Toots Thielemans (listed as John Tillman) and made numerous recordings, including the immensely popular single “September in the Rain”, which sold over 900,000 copies: “my other hit to accompany Lullaby of Birdland.”
He credited Glenn Miller’s reed section of the late 1930s and early 1940s as an important influence. Shearing’s interest in classical music resulted in some performances with concert orchestras in the 1950s and 1960s, and his solos frequently drew upon the music of Satie, Delius and Debussy for inspiration.
He became known for a piano technique referred to as “Shearing’s voicing,” a (type of double-melody block chord, with an additional fifth part that doubles the melody an octave lower. (This style is also known as “locked hands” and the jazz organist Milt Buckner is generally cred-ited with inventing it.)
He disbanded the quintet in 1978, but one of his more notable albums during this period was “The Reunion, with George Shearing” (Verve 1976), featuring Stéphane Grappelli, the musician with whom he had debuted as a sideman decades before.
His U.S. reputation was permanently established when he was booked into Birdland, the legendary jazz spot in New York.
Thereafter, he became one of the country’s most popular performing and recording artistes, and in 1982 and 1983 he won Grammy Awards with recordings he made with Mel Tormé.
Such was his acclaim that no fewer than three U.S. presidents invited him to play at the White House: Ford, Carter and Reagan, and he also performed at a Royal Command Performance for Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip.
Shearing was married twice: first to the former Trixie Bayes, from 1941 to 1973; and two years after his divorce he married his second wife, the singer Ellie Geffert.
His awards and honours were many. He received honorary Doctor of Music degrees, including May 1975 (Westminster College, Salt Lake City); May 1994 (Hamilton College in upstate New York); and June 1, 2002 (DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana). He received the prestigious Horatio Alger Award for Distinguished Americans in 1978, and a community recreational facility in Battersea, south London, was named the after him in his honour. In May of 1993 he was presented with the British equivalent of the Grammy…the Ivor Novello Award for Lifetime Achievement. In June 1996, he was included in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List, and on November 26, 1996 he was invested by Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire – OBE – for his “service to music and Anglo-US re-lations.” He was presented with the first American Music Award by the National Arts Club, New York City, in March of 1998.
In 1999, his 80th birthday was celebrated in England where he played to a sold-out house at the Birmingham Symphony Hall. Also appearing with him were the BBC Big Band, the strings of the London Symphony, and the husband-and-wife team of John Dankworth and (Dame) Cleo Laine. BBC Radio 2 presented a 2½-hour “Salute to Shearing” in hon-our of his birthday. The following year another sold-out house at Car-negie Hall was treated to his birthday celebration featuring the George Shearing Quintet with Nancy Wilson, Dave Brubeck, Dr Billy Taylor, the John Pizzarelli Trio, Tito Puente, and Peter Schickele (who brought a special greeting from PDQ Bach!). He never forgot his native coun-try, and in his last years would split his year between living in New York and Chipping Campden, Oxfordshire, UK, where he’d bought a house with Ellie. This gave him the opportunity to tour the UK, where he gave numerous concerts, often with his long-time friend and collabo-rator, Mel Tormé, backed by the BBC Big Band.
George Shearing’s autobiography, Lullaby of Birdland, was released in February of 2005. In conjunction with the book release, Concord Records issued a composite of Shearing recordings in a 2-CD set enti-tled Lullabies of Birdland: A Musical Autobiography; this was immedi-ately followed up by Hopeless Romantics with Michael Feinstein. (Author’s note: does anybody out there have a copy of this that they would care to share with me? I can’t find it available commercially. Offers via the editor, please!)
Shortly after the publication of his memoirs he suffered a fall at his home and retired from regular performing.
In November 2006, he was informed that “The Prime Minister . . . has it in mind, on the occasion of the forthcoming list of New Year Honours, to submit your name to The Queen with a recommendation that . . . a Knighthood be conferred upon you.”
When the letter was read to him, George simply said, “I don’t know why I’m getting this honour…..I’ve just been doing what I love to do.” And when asked by the press how he felt about receiving the highest honour the Queen can bestow, he replied, “My mind keeps flashing back [to] my beginnings as pianist playing in a pub for the equivalent of $5.00 a week. What a journey it has been – from that pub to Bucking-ham Palace. Receiving such an honour as a Knighthood might also show young people what can be achieved in life if one learns his craft and follows his dreams.”
So: George Shearing, the poor, blind kid from Battersea, the youngest of nine, whose father once delivered coal to the Palace, with but four years of formal musical training to his name, travelled with his then wife, Ellie, to London to claim his honour. On June 13, 2007 the Queen first touched him on each shoulder with the sword her father had used, and he became Sir George Shearing “for his contribution to music”, as the Lord Chamberlain put it. And as George himself put it: “Now that’s a fairy tale come true!”
George Shearing joined the Celestial Jazz Community on February 14, 2011, survived by his second wife, Ellie Geffert. Apart from having composed over 300 songs, he left behind him a legacy of over 100 al-bums, which still provide as much pleasure as when they first appeared, and epitomise the artistry of a supreme jazz pianist.