Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b 13 August 1919, London; d 14 February 2011, Manhattan) Pianist, composer, leader; blind from birth. Studied classical piano at a school for the blind, learned jazz from records; toured with a band of blind musicians, played with Ambrose, on BBC radio, etc. He began recording in 1936 and won UK polls '39-46; he went to the USA c.1948 with the help of Leonard Feather, played in the Oscar Pettiford Trio (replacing Erroll Garner), led a quartet with Buddy DeFranco '48 and formed his own quintet '49, originally with Marge Hyams on vibes, Chuck Wayne on guitar, John Levy on bass, Denzil Best on drums. He became world famous, playing rich block chords ('locked hands' style popularized by Milt Buckner), the guitar and vibes blending prettily in unison.      

He mined this vein to exhaustion, but was cheerful about it, remarking (about another blind pianist) that 'Lennie [Tristano] would never be happy compromising as I'm doing' (quoted by Ira Gitler in Jazz Masters Of The 40s); but it was a uniquely pretty sound at first and kept him working and in the charts for decades. He occasionally worked solo, led a trio, once led a big band, but had mostly a quintet format through the '70s; Cal Tjader, Toots Thielemans, Gary Burton, Joe Pass, others passed through. He wrote many tunes, the best-known being 'Lullaby Of Birdland'; Bud Powell thought well enough of 'Conception' and 'Consternation' to play them. But he would introduce 'Lullaby' saying, '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.'      

He recorded for Decca in the UK, Discovery and Savoy in USA, then MGM '49-55 (compilations later on Verve). 'September In The Rain' '49 (a film song by Harry Warren and Al Dubin) was an international hit. You're Hearing George Shearing was a chart album '50; other LPs: An Evening With Shearing, A Shearing Caravan, Touch Of Genius. He switched to Capitol until the early '70s for chart LPs Velvet Carpet '56, Black Satin '57, Burnished Brass '58, White Satin '60, Satin Affair '61; others included Deep Velvet, Latin Escapade, Here And Now!, New Look!, and many more including Beauty And The Beat with Peggy Lee, In The Night with Dakota Staton, The Swinging's Mutual with Nancy Wilson, Nat King Cole Sings/George Shearing Plays, On Target '79-80 with the Robert Farnon orchestra, The Reunion '76 with Stephane Grappelli. The Complete Capitol Live Recordings Of George Shearing '94 on Mosaic (seven LPs or four CDs) captured the quintet '58-63.

He also recorded '61 with the Montgomery Bros, album later on Fantasy; formed Sheba label for Music To Hear, The Heart And Soul Of Joe Williams And George Shearing; The Young George Shearing compiled early tracks. A whole new career with less compromising began on Concord Jazz, delighting old fans: duos Blues Alley Jazz '79 and On A Clear Day '80 with bassist Brian Torff, Two For The Road accompanying Carmen McRae, First Edition with Jim Hall and Alone Together with Marion McPartland '81. Four albums with Mel Tormé '83-5 included two consecutive Grammy-winners for Tormé, An Evening With George Shearing and Mel Tormé and Top Drawer with Don Thompson on bass; Tormé scolded the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences for not nominating Shearing either time. There was a duo with Thompson, Live At The Cafe Carlyle '84; trio Breakin' Out '87 with bassist Ray Brown and Marvin 'Smitty' Smith on drums; In Dixieland with the Dixie Six (Kenny Davern, Ken Peplowski, Warren Vaché and others); more including solos Grand Piano and More Grand Piano. On Telarc: I Hear A Rhapsody and Walkin' '92, both trios live at the Blue Note; quintet How Beautiful Is Night '93, trio Paper Moon '95 (leaning on Nat Cole tunes), introspective solo Favorite Things '96 (featuring an eclectic group of tune-writers: Dave Brubeck, Artie Shaw, Robert Farnon etc; he sang creditably on 'It Amazes Me'). Shearing may have compromised compared to Tristano, but he made a lot of fans happy for many years.