February 20th, 2011

caillebotte_man at his window

R.I.P. George Shearing

The first George Shearing recordings I recall hearing were from the period in the late 1950s when he was wont to wrap the often delicate, sometimes moody, keyboard stylings he then favored in a diaphanous swirl of strings— early examples of what today would be called smooth jazz. Though rooted in jazz, these recordings crossed over to a wider audience, and were probably played more often on popular music radio stations than on jazz stations. One mark of their accessibility to the general public is the fact that many of them were licensed to the companies that provided canned music for department stores and elevators. But the comparatively wide popularity these records brought him was brief, and for the remainder of his career he was known primarily to the jazz audience.

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.

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