Lost amid the most of the words noting the passing of George Shearing are his influence on Afro-Cuban jazz and his zero-tolerance attitude toward racism.
For a large part of the mid-'50s through the mid-'60s Shearing led an integrated band that featured Cuban percussionist Armando Peraza. Peraza is an active member of the Yahoo! Latin jazz listserv and poignantly noted the death of his former bandleader earlier in the week. He then followed up with some facts to fill in historical gaps, as well as an inspiring story about Shearing confronting racism.
Here's his post:
I was with the Shearing group from 1954-1966 and recorded approx. 20 albums with him.
George Shearing encouraged me to write as many songs as I had in me. I was insecure about my lack of sight reading or writing but he told me not to worry. All I had to do was sing the melody to him and he would translate it from piano to paper. [Peraza's compositions are peppered throughout those 20 albums mentioned earlier. —Ed.]
When I joined Santana in the early '70s, we embarked on the band's first world tour, which lasted two years. When we arrived in Japan for the first time, there were thousands of fans waiting at the airport and there were just as many 'Welcome Armando' signs as there were for Santana. The band members were confused and were looking at me weird, thinking 'who is this guy'? This went on in city after city in Japan until I finally had to tell the guys, some of whom were not digging it, that, 'hey ... I've already had a big life in music before joining this rock and roll band.' And a major part of that life was touring the world with George Shearing.
During most of my time with George, touring the U.S. was always littered with racial land mines, not always in the South.
When we would travel by car, it didn't matter what part of the country, we would constantly get stopped and ticketed by the cops because of the mix of colors inside the car.
It was against the law in a lot of States for race mixing and the Shearing band was one of the first integrated groups in the business. Many times we'd show up at a gig and the club owner, promoter or manager would freak out because they didn't know we were a mixed race band and would refuse to let us enter the club. That's when George would mess with these people. He would ask them what was the problem. The offender would say he can't have Black people in his club and George would then ask "What is a color?"
Since George was blind from birth, technically it was true that he didn't know what the hell a color was, but George wanted to make the person explain their own racism to a person who couldn't see. The person would try and always fail to logically explain it and would eventually give in and let us play, especially when George would say "If my musicians can't enter, then neither will I."
P.S. Jazzwax has posted an interview with vibraphonist Margie Hyams, a member of Shearing's original quintet.