In 1963, having heard only his plush music from the late 1950s and early 1960s, I was one astonished 18 year old on reading in Kerouac's "On the Road" those passages in which real life wild man Neal Cassady, in the guise of fictionalized wild man Dean Moriarty, waxed rhapsodic over Shearing's music and referred to him as God. The rather genteel Shearing tracks of my experience didn't seem at all the sort of thing that would appeal to a pot-loving prototypical beatnik.
So after reading Kerouac I sought out some recordings from the late 1940s, when Shearing, only recently arrived in the United States from his native England, was one of the hottest jazz musicians of the period, and closely associated with the then-radical form known as bebop. It was during that period that Shearing had composed what became a jazz anthem, Lullaby of Birdland. He composed some 300 songs during his long career, but only Lullaby became famous.
The recordings he made with his quintet in those early years were revealing, and after hearing them I had to reconsider my view of the music he was making a decade later. What I had taken to be a rather bland variety of chamber jazz revealed a hitherto unnoticed subtlety in the light of the work from the bop period. Through later years in which he explored a great variety of music, Shearing always retained the vitality of his bop recordings, whether he was playing popular ballads, his own classically influenced compositions, mambos from his Latin period, or simply backing the major jazz singers of the day.
Mel Torme, Peggy Lee, Nat Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, and Carmen McRae, among others, recorded with Shearing. He was both a musician's musician and a singer's musician, and many vocalists did some of their best work when he accompanied them. It's a mark of the respect Shearing commanded that Nat Cole, an accomplished pianist who nearly always accompanied himself, and who often deprecated his own vocal abilities, chose to do an album on which he simply sang, and George Shearing played the piano. It was a brilliant moment in two brilliant careers.
George Shearing continued to perform and record into his eighties, even making a few forays into the concert hall where he performed works by such classical composers as Bach and Mozart, but his public musical career came to an end a few years ago after he suffered a fall in his New York home. He died on February 14, 2011, at the age of 91.
In lieu of Sunday Verse, here are links to a few George Shearing recordings (these links will NOT open in a new window or tab unless you right click and select your desired choice.) First, from the early years of the quintet, a performance of one of his own bop-influenced compositions, Conception.
As an example of Shearing's slick, string-heavy period, here is his loungy recording of Eddy Haywood's 1950s pop hit, Canadian Sunset.
Displaying Shearing's skill as an accompanist for a singer, here he and Carmen McRae breathe new life into the hoary 1932 Victor Young-Ned Washington-Bing Crosby ballad I Don't Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You.
Shearing was no singer, though he did a couple of vocal duets with Mel Torme and with Peggy Lee, and on a very few occasions he sang solo in live performance or on recordings. Perhaps the most unexpected Shearing recording I've heard is one of the few renditions of Stephen Sondheim's darkly sentimental Send In the Clowns which has aged well.
An example of his solo piano work, recorded live at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, is a version of Johnny Green's 1933 piece I Cover the Waterfront, a jazz standard which Shearing underpins with extracts from Debussy, one of his own favorite composers. Although this recording has a flaw near the end, the performance is one of Shearing's legendary best.
I'll end this selection with something upbeat. Before emigrating to the United States, Shearing had for some time been Great Britain's most popular jazz pianist, and Stomp in F is one of the pieces he performed during that period. It shows the strong influence of the American pianists such as Art Tatum and Fats Waller who inspired him, and also displays the inventiveness and technical skill that he would sustain through a professional career lasting some three quarters of a century.