A.B. SPELLMAN, National Endowment for the Arts: That's George Shearing, Murray Horwitz. It sounds like elegance for its own sake.
MURRAY HORWITZ, American Film Institute: Well, it really does, A.B. If you had to come up with a musical definition of elegant, you would go for that sound — the guitar, vibes, and piano tripling the melody statement. But it's easy to ignore what's beyond that, what's behind that music. It's got such a perfect sheen to it, that I think a lot of times people don't give The George Shearing Quintet the credit that it deserves.
SPELLMAN: I remember George Shearing as a musician who I thought would have a very limited run, because his sound seemed like it would sort of play itself out, but it never did. I never got tired of him.
HORWITZ: No, it never did. I think the reason is because he really had a solid grounding in jazz. He is British, and didn't emigrate to the United States until he was almost 30 years old, but he had a solid foundation in the blues, and he was a good swinging pianist.
He hit on this formula (the jazz critic Leonard Feather takes credit for having suggested it). He was working on a quartet in the late '40s. Buddy DeFranco was the clarinetist and there was Shearing's piano, a bassist and drummer. For a recording session — I don't know if Buddy DeFranco couldn't make the date or what — Shearing put a vibraphonist, Marjorie Hyams, and a guitarist, Chuck Wayne, in place of the clarinet. And with the piano, those three stated the melody. Backed by a very propulsive rhythm section of Denzil Best on drums and John Levy on bass, they form one of the really great ensembles in the history of jazz.
SPELLMAN: The choice of colors, the choice of harmonies is a very distinctive one, isn't it?
HORWITZ: Well, this is a group that could not have existed before this particular time. They use the harmonies of bebop, but it didn't have a lot of the wildness that some of the bebop horn lines had, and it was much more accessible. And that's why this music was enormously popular. "September In The Rain," which was their first recording, sold a million copies worldwide.
SPELLMAN: The CD that you've selected is Verve Jazz Masters 57. Why this particular choice for Shearing?
HORWITZ: It's the best all-around collection of Shearing that I could find on one CD, A.B. It's got the important numbers from the classic quintet, "September In The Rain," "Pick Yourself Up, Dust Yourself Off," and "I'll Remember April." And in addition, it's got some very good examples of Shearing's piano playing. It's got a piano solo on "Summertime," and it has him in a very swinging accompaniment to the vocalist Teddi King in a song called, "Wished On The Moon."
SPELLMAN: And so for your NPR Basic Jazz Record Library, we're recommending Jazz Masters 57. It's on Verve, and it's featuring George Shearing, an anthology of his work. For NPR Jazz, this is A.B. Spellman.
HORWITZ: And, I'm Murray Horwitz.