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George Shearing
Produced by Paul Conley

George Shearing  

Pianist, composer and bandleader George Shearing has been making joyful music for six decades. He is as comfortable playing blues, stride, boogie woogie or bebop as he is playing a beautiful ballad or a great classical composition. Plus, he has a natural ability to blend elements from these vast musical genres with a sound that is distinctively his own.


Blind from birth, Shearing was born in London on August 13, 1919, the youngest of nine children. He received classical musical training at Linden Lodge, a school for the blind, where he also displayed his double threat abilities. Not only could he quickly memorize scores, he could effortlessly play by ear any tune he heard. A teacher at Linden introduced him to jazz.

While sill in his teens, Shearing joined Claude Bampton's all-blind big band. He cultivated a friendship with noted jazz critic Leonard Feather which led to the pianist's first recording sessions in 1937. Violinist Stephane Grappelli, who chose to live in London after France fell to the Germans, regularly tapped Shearing for his groups in the early 1940s.

Before long, Shearing was considered Britain's most popular jazz pianist, winning seven consecutive polls in the British magazine, Melody Maker and composing and arranging for numerous performers and groups.

But the birthplace of jazz beckoned and after a 1945 visit, Shearing settled in New York City in 1947 where he dined on a steady diet of bebop. He drew his inspiration from pianists such as Bud Powell, Erroll Garner and Hank Jones. "Through Hank I discovered how to present jazz without being a hard-driving, raucous pianist," Shearing recalls.

Milt Buckner  

Shearing was also influenced by pianist and jazz organ pioneer Milt Buckner (left), who introduced him to the technique of "locked hands" or parallel chords -- the method produces an accessible sound for which Shearing would become famous.


Locked hands calls for a clear piano melody of closely knit, harmonized block chords, with other musicians playing along in unison. The melodies are strengthened as band members think and work together like a single instrument.

In 1949, Shearing's fate was sealed with the release of his album September in the Rain from his debut session for MGM. The title track was a huge hit, and his quintet, featuring featuring vibraphonist Margorie Hyams, guitarist Chuck Wayne, drummer Denzil Best, and bassist John Levy, introduced a whole new sound and approach to modern jazz.

Listen to bassist John Levy describe September in the Rain

In 1952, Shearing wrote his most famous composition that would become a popular jazz standard, "Lullaby of Birdland."

Listen to Shearing humorously recall the day he wrote "Lullaby of Birdland"


For the next three decades, the George Shearing Quintet enjoyed consistent popularity. Shearing also recorded with various small groups that included Joe Pass, Toots Thielemans, Cal Tjader, Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee and Mel Tormé, among others. He is noted as being one of the first artists to champion small-combo Afro-Cuban jazz in the 1950s.

Listen to Mel Torme describe improvising with Shearing

George Shearing  

In 1978, Shearing disbanded the quintet he had led for an amazing 29 years and began to tour extensively in other group formats and record with friends. He remains active and is still considered one of the best-known musicians in jazz -- with a gift for pleasing the public with joy and humor, and playing good music at the same time.



SHOW PLAYLIST

View the George Shearing show playlist

NPR RESOURCES

ListenListen to the NPR Basic Jazz Record Library entry for Verve Jazz Masters 57, a Shearing greatest hits collection

More InfoBrowse the NPR Jazz Web site -- NPRJazz.org

OTHER RESOURCES

More InfoBrowse the George Shearing page on Telarc