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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of song, "Yesterdays")

GROSS: Jazz pianist George Shearing died yesterday at the age of 91. We're going to listen back to an interview with him. He was born in London and was blind from birth. He studied classical music, but was most inspired by the records of jazz pianists like Art Tatum, Fats Waller and Teddy Wilson. In the 1940s, Shearing was one of England's most popular jazz musicians, but after World War II, he decided to move to New York - the center of modern jazz.

He became an American citizen in 1956, the decade in which he enjoyed his greatest commercial success, leading the George Shearing Quintet. It featured the distinctive instrumentation of piano, guitar and vibraphone. Shearing's best known composition is "Lullaby of Birdland." The solo piano recording we're listening to now of Jerome Kern's "Yesterdays" was recorded in 1974.

(Soundbite of song, "Yesterdays")

GROSS: When I spoke with George Shearing in 1986, he told me that as a child, he studied piano at a school for the blind. I asked him if his teachers were confident that a blind person could master the piano.

Mr. SHEARING: I don't think it's a question of whether a blind child could master the piano, as whether a blind child can make a living in anything other than playing in the pubs, which is where I started. You've got to remember one thing, Terry, and that is that if I chose, say, to be a studio musician - to be a studio musician, it's obviously necessary to read music. And yes, I can read Braille music, but that's not sight-reading sighted music. And you might find 30 pages of manuscript paper with so many notes on it, just as if, you know, flies were all over it. And we always that there are some sighted people who read so well that if a fly appeared on the paper, they'd read it, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHEARING: This is not available to the blind, but playing in the pub was, and eventually getting my own group was. And from there, I went with an all-blind band - 15 blind guys learning to play instruments, from being basket makers and chair caners. We were playing arrangements of Jimmie Lunceford and Duke Ellington and people like that.

GROSS: How did you find each other? Who organized the band?

Mr. SHEARING: The National Institution for the Blind. People used to write all the parts out in Braille. I was the only one who didn't read his part. I could pick it up by ear, because I learned a lot of the records, as well. There were a couple of people in that band - the first trumpet player and the drummer - who had everything from, oh, you know, early Miff Mole and stuff like that, all the way through Teddy Wilson and Tatum and Fats Waller. And these people kind of became my mentors, as you can imagine. So it was a - that was a really wonderful training ground.

GROSS: Just as you were really coming of age and - well, you'd already started your recording career - the war came along. How was the music scene in London...

Mr. SHEARING: During the war?

GROSS: ...changed by the war? And was there anyplace to perform, or even places to listen during the war?

Mr. SHEARING: I had more work than I could handle, because there were so many people called up. I would be doing studio work in the daytime, because there was enough of it that didn't demand reading, and they couldn't afford to be that fussy any longer. So I learned the charts and did the recordings and the jazz broadcasts and whatever was involved.

I did theater, two shows in theater, eight and 10 at night. I went on to a supper club and played from 10:30 until about 1:00 or 1:30, and then on to a nightclub and played till four, and then back in the studios the next morning at 10. I had much more work than I could handle.

GROSS: Were you ever bombed while you were performing during the war?

Mr. SHEARING: Oh, yes. First of all, my mother was bombed out three times. And I was in a cab one night going to work, and we stopped at a traffic light and we heard this tremendous blast, and the cab shook like mad. And I said boy, that was a close one, wasn't it? And there was no answer. And I said, that was a close one, wasn't it? And I put my head in front, and the driver's gone. He ducked in a doorway, and when it was all clear he came out again.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHEARING: I said thanks a lot.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Really?

Mr. SHEARING: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Well, didn't you also do some playing inside air raid shelters during the war?

Mr. SHEARING: Oh, yes. Matter of fact, I met...

GROSS: What kind of setup was that, that there'd be a piano there?

Mr. SHEARING: I met my first wife in an air raid shelter. And what we did, we played in the basement, which had been turned into a gymnasium. And there were kind of forms, you know, benches that one could sleep on or - on the floor, and there were blankets and stuff. And there would be an upright piano there. So I was living with a song-plugger at the time, and he and I would play four hands, much to the amusement of people that went, you know, down in that particular air raid shelter.

GROSS: So you think it helped pass the time for everybody?

Mr. SHEARING: Oh, yeah. Oh, well, sure. I mean, you had to make a life. I mean, you had no alternative. Fifteen hours a day the raids would be on, day and night, until we defeated the day raiders.

GROSS: Well, after the war, you decided, I guess, not to stay in London, and you wanted to at least make a few trips to the United States. What was the lure of America for you?

Mr. SHEARING: I met a few American musicians just before and a few more during the war. And all, as if they were in one voice, pretty well said man, you should go over to the States. You'd kill 'em over there. Well, I started playing as an intermission pianist in 1948. What fun that was. My goodness.

I'll never forget when I first sat in with Charlie Parker. Being a reserved Englishman, I should have said, what would you like to play, Mr. Parker? But I was a 28-year-old hippie who came from England. I never dressed like a hippie in my life. That's not the point. But the point is, I did say to him what do you want to blow, Bird?

And he thought - you know, he was a gentleman. He wasn't destructive. But I guess he felt it was necessary to put me through the paces and kind of just take me down a peg, in case I became too cocky. And I'm sure he didn't think in this, other than to be good schooling for me. So when I said what do you want to play, Bird? He said, oh, how about "All the Things You Are" in five sharps? I don't know whether you play any piano, Terry, but that's a difficult piece of music to play in B major. I did it. I had the background, and I did it. And it was passing a few of these tests and winning favor with the American musicians by ability, which stood me in good stead.

GROSS: We're listening to a 1986 interview with jazz pianist George Shearing. He died yesterday at the age of 91. Here's one of his most popular recordings, "September in the Rain," recorded in 1949, featuring the George Shearing Quintet.

(Soundbite of song, "September in the Rain")

GROSS: The group headed in pop directions in a lot of its records. What was your reason for choosing that?

Mr. SHEARING: Capitol Records wanted it. They wanted me to add strings and add this and add that, and there were a number of very successful records because of that. But we started to lose favor with the critics, as you can imagine. And in retrospect, the critics were right, because there was a lot less creativity involved in the more commercial side of my music.

GROSS: Is that why you broke up the quintet?

Mr. SHEARING: I just got tired of it. I was on automatic pilot. I'd go to sleep playing the show. And I tried several things. I surrounded it with brass. I surrounded it with Latin sounds, and people loved that. But I could work all day long on a fugue or a very intricate piece of music. When I came to work, will you play "Roses of Picardy"? Or play "I Remember April"? You could work all day, and this is what they wanted. And I'm glad they wanted it, but it's tiresome and it's confining. It's as if you have fetters around your neck. You just can't move, you know. And so I finally wanted to address myself to the proposition of being a complete pianist, rather than a Band-Aid who rests on his laurels until he gets tired enough to go to sleep.

GROSS: We're listening back to a 1986 interview with jazz pianist and composer George Shearing. He died yesterday at the age of 91.

We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We're remembering jazz pianist and composer George Shearing. He died yesterday at the age of 91. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with him in 1986.

It seems to me that in the last few years, you've been adding more and more popular songs to your repertoire, playing with singers like Mel Torme, singing yourself. You've recently - I think it's recently, began singing your...

Mr. SHEARING: Yeah, within the last 10 or 15 years, you know, recently, yeah - by comparison with my career. This is my 50th year in show business.

GROSS: What attracts you to a song when you're getting it...

Mr. SHEARING: Lyrics. Lyrics, and how the lyrics fit with the music. You know, and being able to make literary sense out of the song. For instance, everybody - and I do mean everybody that I've heard - when they do "Send in the Clowns," they sing...

(Singing) Isn't it rich? Isn't it queer, losing my timing this late in my career?

Now would you say it that way? Losing my timing this late in my career? You would say: losing my timing this late in my career, wouldn't you? But it's partly Sondheim's fault, and I love him. I love him dearly. We had a long talk one night in the Carlisle about Bach. He's a great Bach enthusiast. But people have to use a little bit of imagination, a little bit of ingenuity.

(Singing) Isn't it rich? Isn't it queer, losing my timing this late in my career?

This is why I love songs.

GROSS: I see what you mean with that.

Mr. SHEARING: Yeah.

GROSS: Did Sondheim agree with you?

Mr. SHEARING: I think so. In fact, I know he did, yes. Yes, he agreed with me completely.

GROSS: You've written songs, as well, and I think your best-known piece is "Lullaby of Birdland." Can you tell us the story behind writing that?

Mr. SHEARING: Birdland needed a theme song for a six-hour disc jockey show that they had in the early '50s.

GROSS: And Birdland was a club...

Mr. SHEARING: A club. Yeah.

GROSS: ...in New York in the '50s?

Mr. SHEARING: Right. Yes.

GROSS: Mostly bop musicians played that...

Mr. SHEARING: Right. Yeah. Well, it was named for Charlie Parker, see, whose nickname is Bird. So I wrote this thing. I heard it in my head. I wrote it in 10 minutes - I always say 10 minutes and 35 years in the business - over a steak in my dining room when I lived in New Jersey. I went back to that same butcher a thousand times trying to get that same steak again.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHEARING: Charlie liked it, and they played it every hour on the hour - which is, of course, why it became my best-known song because -in fact, it was my only well-known song. You know, when I go on as a composer, I say I'd like to play you medley of my hit, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHEARING: But the thing is that when something is hammered through people's heads, of course it's going to - if it's got any substance at all that people can hang onto, of course it's going to become a hit, you know. And that's what happened with "Lullaby." And, of course, we got over a hundred people recording it.

GROSS: The - I don't know if you wrote it with a lyric in mind or not, but I...

Mr. SHEARING: No.

GROSS: I have heard it sung.

Mr. SHEARING: Yes.

GROSS: And the first line is - I'm not going to sing it. Maybe you'll do it. but they sing the first line of "Lullaby of...

Mr. SHEARING: Birdland.

GROSS: ...Birdland" in it.

Mr. SHEARING: Yes, they do.

GROSS: Do you want to just single line, just to...

Mr. SHEARING: Yeah. Well, if you read it and you read it as if you were dividing the lines, it's lullaby of Birdland, that's what I always hear when you sigh. Never in my word-land could there be ways to reveal in a phrase how I feel.

Well, doesn't mean anything, does it, really? So...

(Singing) Lullaby of Birdland, that's what I always hear when you sigh. Never in my word-land could there be ways to reveal in a phrase how I feel.

Now, it means something, because it's being read.

GROSS: George Shearing, recorded in 1986. He died yesterday at the age of 91.

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