A prolific composer, Sir George Albert Shearing was a pianist and composer known for his accessible block chord mastery of bebop piano.
Shearing was the youngest of nine children born in Battersea, London, into a poor working class family. Blind from birth, he showed early promise by memorising tunes on the radio and picking them out on the family’s piano. He took piano lessons from a local teacher, which were continued at a school for the blind in Wandsworth.
Offered a university music scholarship, the 16-year-old Shearing instead opted for paid work as a solo pianist in local pubs.
Shearing quickly developed an interest in jazz and played in small groups and bands in the late 1930s and 1940s. Early influences included the stride-based styles of Teddy Wilson and Fats Waller. During World War II he recorded many times with Stéphane Grappelli, who was a refugee in London.
In 1946 Shearing visited a British friend in New York and recorded for the Savoy label. He emigrated the following year and formed an innovative quintet with guitar, vibraphone, bass and drums. He toured successfully over many years and included a classical element in some concerts. He experimented with a big band as well as with trios and duos.
After a fall in 2004, Shearing retired from public performances. He was knighted in 2007 for services to music. He was a two-time Grammy winner for “An evening with George Shearing and Mel Tormé”, and as a composer he’ll be particularly remembered for the standard “Lullaby of Birdland”.
Biography by John Rosie
In this first interview of two with Les Tomkins, Shearing talks in 1966 about moving to the US and his early years in Britain. He fondly recalls his piano teacher from the blind school and talks about his exploration of styles and finding his unique sound.
You can also read the original 1966 Crescendo article on George Shearing.
|Interview date||1st January 1966|
|Interview source||Jazz Professional|
|Image source credit|
|Image source URL|
As you probably know, I was born in London in 1919. I first went to America in 1946 for a three—month holiday. Then I came back, worked here for almost a year sold up my home and went back on immigration in 1947.
I got my final American naturalisation in 1956, by the way. You know, when you take out your Union card in the states, one of the papers you must be armed with is a declaration of your intention to become a citizen of the USA.
I feel this way: with no hard feelings or anything like that towards the country of your birth, if you intend to live your life in a country that has turned out to be very good for you in every way—business—wise, in particular—you adopt that country's ways and participate as a citizen. So the obvious thing to do is become naturalised.
My affiliation with England is borne out by the fact that I do come back for periodic visits. And of course, I have many happy memories of my life here. In fact, I still astound people by the details such as phone numbers, that I have retained in my mind The Royal National Institution For The Blind is still Euston 5251, and I remember it as if it were yesterday.
For instance: when I was with the Ambrose Octet—this would be about 1942—there was a little North—country guy with the band who did little comic bits acted as road manager and so on. Well he was in 'Vegas a few weeks ago with, I think The Nitwits. And he came over to me when I came off the stand and he said "Have you any idea who it is?" with this broad accent. "It's been about 25 years." So I put my hand on his shoulder, noticed he was a little guy, thought for three more seconds—and I said "Teddy Fielding." It sort of knocked him back a little bit, because it really had been all that time since our previous meeting.
And all my musical foundations, obviously, were laid here—going back to the age of three. My family tell me that I used to listen to the old crystal set, then go to the piano and pick out the tune that I just heard. I studied with a blind teacher from about five until I was sixteen, at two different schools. From the age of twelve until sixteen, I was in a boarding school—which, I believe, at that time was compulsory for blind children.
During my visit in 1962, I went to Brighton to see my old music teacher. I said to him: "Mr. Newell, when I was sixteen you told my parents and I that it was obvious that I was to become a jazz pianist. And that any further study of Braille music or classical music would be a waste of time." I told him that since then I have re—learned Braille music, which I use, in fact for the study of classical pieces to play with symphony orchestras. I have appeared with a number of the major ones—Cleveland, Rochester, Buffalo, Oklahoma City, Sacramento, Utah, Honolulu.
The way it works: the orchestra plays a few selections of its own and I terminate the first part of the programme on piano, usually with a movement from a Mozart concerto. Then, to open the second half, the strings and woodwind join the Quintet in some of the more lush things we've recorded, And either the Quintet will end alone, or I will end with something I've amplified for piano and orchestra.
So I said: "What would you do Mr. Newell, if you were faced with giving that advice today?" He's a very wise man—he said: "I would give exactly the same advice. The fact that you have studied classical music and used it to professional advantage is more credit to you.
But the fact still remains that the largest percentage of your livelihood has been jazz—for which you do not need Braille music." And I couldn't argue with him.
He's a marvellous teacher. He will take a piece of Braille music, read it in a bus—and go home and play it.
Perfect retention. I don't think I could do that—I've never disciplined myself to do it And I suppose a lot of it is a question of discipline. Which improvisation is not.
You can't say that improvisation is something that you can train yourself to do. It's a question of gift and personal creativity. You can learn what it takes to improvise—all the necessary techniques. But you cannot learn improvisation itself.
It's like saying: can anybody be given a great degree of creativity? No. They can be given the equipment to develop it—if they have it in them in the first place.
So as I say, I have never applied myself to learn a piece of music away from the instrument I sit down at the piano, read a bar, then play it. Read another bar and play the two bars Read another couple of bars and play those, then play the four bars. It's dependant largely on the complexity; of the music.
My first—ever professional job was in a pub—the Mason's Arms in Lambeth. I got 25 bob a week, and had a box on top of the piano for any extra gratuities. From there I went to work with a friend of the family who was a semi—pro bandleader. I was playing accordion with his band and, after a time he got to realise and accept that I could memorise most of the stock arrangements. And in a lot of cases, instead of employing, say, three saxophones and one trumpet, he would employ the saxophones and use me on accordion. Or employ me as an extra man, so that I would share the lead with the trumpet. Then, when he had augmented bands at Masonic dinners and such I'd play accordion features like "Light Cavalry" and the "Zampa Overture." After that I joined Claude Bampton's All—Blind Band, which was sponsored by the National Institution For The Blind, as it was then called. I'd been gradually getting to know more about jazz and now in this band we were playing arrangements such as Jimmy Lunceford's "Stratosphere' and Ellington's "Caravan". Also Raymond Scott's "Toy Trumpet" I think. The way it worked: there were a couple of really go—ahead guys in the band, who would take these scores off records or have them dictated to them. In fact, your Leslie Evans was one of the guys who used to dictate the orchestrations to the blind people.
In Braille you write your flat sign first and then your note, so he became so accustomed to this. He'd say things like: "Flat B, third line." About the only fully—sighted member of the band was a trumpet player named Ben Dudley. There were some myopic people with a little bit of sight—Carlo Krahmer was one of them. Most of them were completely blind. Carlo Ben and a guy named Chips Littlewood would go out and buy all the new, as they used to call them in those days, "senders" every month when they came out. And Carlo has always had a collection of three or four thousand records, as long as I can remember. We would sit around and listen to Earl Hines, Benny Carter and so on. As a pianist I listened to Pinetop Smith, Meade 'Lux' Lewis and Albert Ammons and copied them. Then I started listening to Art Tatum and copying him.
While we're on the subject of Tatum—he was one of the first people I sought out and met when I went to the States. And you know how we have a habit over here of elevating American jazz greats beyond all justification—not because they don't have tremendous and, in many cases, superior ability—but because we tend to think of them as something other than human beings sometimes.
Then again, you know what Tatum is to any jazz pianist.
He's God So when I first met him, I said: "Mr. Tatum, I've been listening to your records for years, and I've copied so many of your things. I'm really overjoyed to meet you.
And he said: "Glad to meet you, son. Gonna buy me a beer?" He really brings you right down to earth. This is what I mean when I say you can overdo it and become too effusive.
Through the years I tried really hard to copy what I heard even above evolving and developing an original style. While I was over here I was given such titles as "the English Teddy Wilson", "the English Art Tatum" and so on.
When I went to the States, one of the jobs that I took was at the Hickory House, where I was told that they wanted to get away from jazz and to develop a show policy. So I turned myself into a glorified cocktail pianist for the time that I played there. But I played everything—from cocktail piano to Fats, Tatum, Wilson and what little I knew of bebop then. This was before I'd heard too much of Charlie and Diz. Then later on I tried copying Bud Powell, tried to play some of Charlie's lines on piano, went into a little bit of the Lennie Tristano school. And so on. All the time with this Milt Buckner locked hands thing in the back of my mind. Since 1946 I'd heard records of Hamp's band, where Milt was playing this style, but strictly for the blues and for jazz.
And I started to think: "Well, this has been presented to the public in the form of four saxophones and a clarinet, some brass and a rhythm section under the baton of a guy named Glenn Miller." Now this may seem strange—to link Milt Buckner and Glenn Miller. But you can take the first three notes of the major scale—C, D and E. The chords could be C in the left hand, E, G, A, C in the right hand, D in the left, F A flat, B, D in the right, E in the left hand, G, A, C, E in the right. And, whether you play them in the form of improvised blues. or as the actual voicings of a tune like "Sunrise Serenade" or "Roses Of Picardy" or "East Of The Sun" or whatever, it becomes a sound which people can readily identify and accept.
Let me say here that I had no conception whatever of "the Shearing sound" before going to the States. Also, in spite of the fact that I was very taken with this locked hands style, I still continued to emulate certain people during the year or two which I spent as intermission pianist opposite such wonderful artists as Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and so on.
Playing with Ella, by the way, were Hank Jones on piano, Ray Brown on bass and Charlie Smith on drums.
Following them, it was a case of: "English piano player—go play your intermission piano when they come off." This is just the way anyone would describe it over there. I don't mean that this would be a disparaging remark—but how are you going to follow , a thing like that? You can imagine—I used to sit there all the time and listen to these people. So what I used to do—when Hank Jones had his night off, I would get somebody to take my place as intermission pianist and I'd play the show with Ella, so I would get a chance to play with Ray Brown and Charlie Smith as well. And we'd do the other "Flying Home"—you know, the alternate or counter—riff. With Ella, Ray and Charlie—we'd just go with this time thing.
Sit down on the tempo for fifteen or twenty minutes.
I mean, this is really musical ecstasy. Repetition and redundancy, if you like, but sheer ecstasy because of the feel we used to get.
So during this period the "sound" was not in my mind at all. Then Buddy De Franco, John Levy, Denzil Best and I formed a quartet. John, Denzil and I were going to have a trio—then the guy said: "Well, I think I can get Buddy De Franco fairly reasonably. Would you mind?" Would I mind? Buddy to me is just about the most wonderful thing on clarinet And so we would get a lot of intricate ideas going on—thirds and sixths and all kinds of things——between Buddy and me.
Naturally, we wanted to record what we were doing.
But Buddy and I were negotiating separate recording contracts—he with Capitol, me with MGM. The ironical thing is later on he was to go with MGM and I was to go with Capitol. When such negotiations are in progress, there is no way of recording a group and thus letting lots of people know that it exists.
And, needless to say, both our wives were interested in the survival of the fittest. my wife would maintain it should be called the George Shearing/ Buddy De Franco Quartet, and his wife would say it should be vice versa. I mean, this is very natural.
So, although Buddy and I have always remained very close friends, we did pursue our individual musical careers But I wanted to keep that subdued rhythm section, and that Milt Buckner thing was still in my mind. And the more I thought about it, the surer I was that the way to commercialise this would be to bring it to the Glenn Miller level and play tunes that the public would know.
Leonard Feather, the English jazz critic, who had long since been in the United States, said: "How about Marjorie Hyams on vibes and Chuck Wayne on guitar?" I'd heard both of them with their own groups.
We got together for a rehearsal. Marjorie played in one octave, Chuck played an octave below. I played in both octaves. with the locked hands business going on in between. And it was purely and simply by accident that we happened upon this sound. This was 1949.
It may not be generally known, but prior to the successful MGM recordings, the Quintet made some sides for the Hollywood label, Discovery. However, I wouldn't say they represented the finished product in the same way as "East Of The Sun" or "Roses Of Picardy". They were certainly more relative to jazz than some of the later ones.
But if you ask anybody, even now, what the Shearing sound is, they wouldn't say "Moon. Over Miami" or "Cherokee". They'll say "I'll Remember April" or "For You". Partly because this was the final culmination, which decided what the sound would actually be.
We had fluctuated between using the accordion, as on "Cherokee", then a sort of a Goodman Sextet type of unison, as heard on "Moon Over Miami". Or a different kind of locked hands with "Midnight On Cloud 69" (a beautiful Leonard Feather tune)—not the 1, 3, 5, 6, 8 style. There were bigger chords than that. Although some of the choruses were in that close locked hands style, and there may have been a couple of other tracks that were somewhat in that vein among those Discoveries. But the actual style didn't really fall into place until the MGM releases.
Our first hit record, "September In The Rain," was as accidental as it could be. I don't think you can contrive any sound. You can't say: "This will be fashionable in a few months. It's not what we normally play—but let's do it". I could be wrong, but I believe that the people that really make it—including any of the Top Ten sounds of today—are sincere about it.
Sure, having a set popular formula does inhibit you.
When I was stuck for a vibe player for a while, I tried two guitars—a "Four Brothers" sound. But people said: "Where's the vibes player? Play 'Roses Of Picardy'." I had a big band—for about a month. You know, when you've established a certain thing, what can you do? You're stuck with it. I mean, can you imagine Morgan and Ball suddenly deciding they're going to sell steaks? I've always felt that it's necessary for me to add to the sound, as on the Capitol albums with strings or brass, rather than to change it entirely. And, saleswise, it's been very consistent throughout. So whether or not I want to maintain the "Shearing sound" formula, I think I have to.
Copyright © 1966, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.