George Shearing, the jovial jazz pianist who wrote the standard "Lullaby of Birdland” died on February 14th 2011. He was blind since birth and passed at 91.

 

In 2007, Shearing was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his contribution to music. When the honor was announced, he said it was "amazing to receive an honor for something I absolutely love doing."

 

Shearing's bebop-influenced sound became identified with a quintet - piano, vibes, guitar, bass and drums - which he put together in 1949. More recently, he played mostly solo or with only a bassist. He excelled in the "locked hands" technique, in which the pianist plays parallel melodies with the two hands, creating a distinct, full sound.

 

During World War II, the Shearing teamed with Grappelli, the French jazz violinist, who spent the war years in London.  Grappelli recalled to writer Leonard Feather in 1976 that he and Shearing would "play during air raids." After World War II, Shearing came to the U.S., where he was relatively unknown despite his great fame in England. 

 

The original George Shearing Quintet, formed in 1949, was a then unique lineup musically, racially and in gender. They were John Levy on bass, Denzil Best on drums, Marjorie Hyams on vibraphone and Chuck Wayne on guitar, later replaced by Toots Thielemans. Levy gradually took on the role of manager, one of the first African-Americans to become a music manager.

 

"He had listened to people like Fats Waller and Art Tatum and all kinds of different people before he ever came over here musically because he was a very popular musician in England and did very well," Levy said. "He had no sense of racial identity."

 

In 1952, Shearing wrote his biggest hit: "Lullaby of Birdland," an ode to the famous New York jazz club. He acknowledged composing it in just 10 minutes. "But I always tell people, it took me 10 minutes and 35 years in the business."

 

At an 80th birthday celebration at Carnegie Hall in 1999, Shearing introduced "Lullaby" by joking: "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."  

 

Pianist, Dave Brubeck, who was among those who performed at the Carnegie Hall event, said he had lost "a dear friend" whose photo adorns Brubeck's piano.

 

Brubeck said, "I consider him one of the greatest musical minds I've ever been around. In the '50s, George paved the way for me and the (Modern Jazz Quartet), and even today jazz players, especially pianists, are indebted to him."

 

Among other songs recorded by the George Shearing Quintet: "I'll Never Smile Again," "Mambo Inn," "Conception," "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" and "East of the Sun (and West of the Moon)."

 

The landmark albums he and the quintet made include "The Swingin's Mutual," backing up vocalist Wilson, and "Nat King Cole Sings/George Shearing Plays."

 

One of his later collaborators was Mel Torme.  When Torme won Grammys two years in a row in 1983-84, for "An Evening With George Shearing and Mel Torme" and "Top Drawer," he blasted the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences for failing to nominate his partner, Shearing, either time.

 

Michael Stokes
Makin' Music Network

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