George Shearing

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'Lullaby of Birdland' Original Recordings 1947-1952

When George Shearing burst on the Americanjazz scene in 1949, he had everything goingagainst him. First of all, Shearing was English,and few European jazz musicians had everbecome popular in the United States. Add tothat the fact that he was blind, white, andplayed the piano and you can begin to realizethe odds against making it in the competitivejazz scene on 52nd Street in New York, whensuch powerhouses as Art Tatum, Bud Powell,and Thelonious Monk were changing the wayjazz was played. Despite all of these factors,George Shearing not only created a sound of hisown, he became a huge commercial success,inventing a sound that helped make jazzaccessible to a variety of audiences in the 1950s.

Born in London on 13 August 1919, GeorgeAlbert Shearing was blind from birth. Heattended the Linden Lodge School for the Blind,and although he studied classical piano, heshowed an aptitude for improvisation from thestart. In the late '30s, Shearing toured with anall blind band led by Claude Bampton. He wasslowly learning about jazz by listening toAmerican records such as \Stratosphere" byJimmie Lunceford and "Caravan" by DukeEllington. After a stint with Bert Ambrose's octetin the early '40s, (where he absorbed elementsof the Glenn Miller saxophone sectionharmonies), he joined noted French swingviolinist Stephane Grappelli. A friendship withfellow Englishman composer and jazz criticLeonard Feather led him to visit America in1946. In 1947, he went to stay.

Shearing listened incessantly to Americanjazz pianists, from stride kings Fats Waller andEarl Hines to Teddy Wilson and Meade 'Lux'Lewis. But the pianists who were the greatestinfluence on Shearing were Bud Powell, ErrollGarner, Hank Jones, and Art Tatum. ThroughPowell, Shearing learned the explosive andaggressive technique of one of bebop's pioneers.

Garner and Jones's music taught him that hecould play bebop without being raucous. ButTatum's awesome abilities were what proved tobe the most influential of all.

Consequently, when he arrived in America, itwas Tatum, another blind musician, whomShearing sought out. Many pianists were in suchawe of Tatum's unbelievable technique, that hewas referred to as 'God'. According to Shearing,'When I first met him, I said, "Mr. Tatum, I'vebeen listening to your records for years, and I'vecopied so many of your things. I'm reallyoverjoyed to meet you". And he said, "Glad tomeet you, son. Gonna buy me a beer?" He reallybrings you right down to earth.'In the States, Shearing got a job at theHickory House, where he played everything fromcocktail piano to bebop. At The Three Deuces,he replaced Erroll Garner in a trio led by OscarPettiford. Eventually he began listening to LionelHampton's piano player, Milt Buckner, whoplayed in what was known as the 'locked hands'style, in which the left hand played block chordsin unison with the right hand, rather thanplaying repeated rhythm figures as stride orboogie pianists did. With the locked chordsound came a unique combination ofinstruments, focusing on the sound of piano,vibraphone, and guitar, playing in unison but indifferent octaves.

Although Shearing played with manydifferent musicians over the years, his mostfamous group was a quintet featuring MarjorieHyams on vibraphone, Chuck Wayne on guitar,John Levy (who would later be Shearing'smanager) on bass, and Denzil Best on drums.

The unusual horn-less quintet was made evenmore unique because of its racially integratedmakeup (both Best and Levy were black) and theinclusion of a woman, Hyams, in a major role.

Shearing's sound could be as elegant as that ofthe Modern Jazz Quartet (which had similarinstrumentation), or it could swing with thefervor of the hardboppers of 52nd Street. Onpiano, Shearing exhibited the influences of all ofhis heroes, from the dazzling runs of Tatum andOscar Peterson to the bebop of Bud Powell andthe lyricism of Erroll Garner.

This compilation shows the early developmentof Shearing's sound, beginning with a triorecording he made for Savoy in early 1947, in asession produced by Feather. On Have You MetMiss Jones, Shearing begins with a bebop solo inthe right hand (without stating the melody)before settling into the locked hands style for theremainder of the record. A return trip to Londonin November 1948 saw Shearing still in the triomode, although by this time, he had begunwriting bebop-flavored compositions, includingConsternation.

Back in the States, Shearing met clarinettistBuddy DeFranco, with whom he formed aquintet. But when they went to record,DeFranco's contract with another labelprohibited him from participating. At LeonardFeather's suggestion, Shearing hired MarjorieHyams, a 25-year old bop vibraphonist who hadplayed with Woody Herman's 'First Herd'. Theurbane sound of the piano and vibraphonebecame Shearing's trademark, and the quintetmade their first recordings for the Discoverylabel on 31 January 1949. On one of the songs,Ray Noble's Cherokee (a favourite for bopmusicians), Hyams moved over to the pianowhile Shearing played accordion, an instrumentnot normally associated with jazz.

Shearing's love of outrageous puns wasreflected in many of his song titles, as evidencedby two Leonard Feather compositions herecorded at this session: Bebop's Fables and Lifewith Feather (the latter a nod toward the thenpopular Broadway play, Life with Father).

The next month, Shearing signed with MGM,for which he earned his greatest fame. At hisfirst session for the label, Shearing recorded anold Tin Pan Alley standard that had been writtenby Al Dubin and Harry Warren for a 1937 moviemusical called Melody for Two. September in theRain proved to be a huge hit, introducing thesophisticated and accessible sound of theShearing quintet to jazz audiences, andbeginning Shearing's years of greatest influenceand popularity. Most of the rest of this CDconsists of recordings made with this unit. Mostnotable among these is Lullaby Of Birdland,which Shearing wrote as a theme song for theNew York nightclub named for Charlie Parker.

Later, after George David Weiss added lyrics,the vocal version was made famous by EllaFitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan.

When Margie Hyams retired fromperforming to get married, Shearing kept thesame instrumental lineup intact, using othervibraphonists including Don Elliott, Joe Roland,and Cal Tjader, with whom he popularized anAfro-Cuban-influenced variation on his sound.

Shearing would keep the quintet format until1979, when he began touring and recordingwith other groups, most notably with singer MelTorme. Although Shearing has slowed downconsiderably, he is, in his late eighties, still activeon the jazz circuit, outliving nearly all of hiscontemporaries with his musicality, sense ofhumour, and love for entertaining.

Cary Ginell

- a winner of the 2004 ASCAP/Deems TaylorAward for music journalism
Disc: 1
Lullaby Of Birdland
1 Have You Met Miss Jones?
2 I Only Have Eyes For You
3 Consternation
4 Cherokee
5 Bebop’s Fables
6 Life With Feather
7 September In The Rain
8 Bop, Look And Listen
9 Nothing But D. Best
10 East Of The Sun (And West Of The Moon)
11 In A Chinese Garden
12 Carnegie Horizons
13 I’ll Remember April
14 Jumping With Symphony Sid
15 Tenderly
16 Pick Yourself Up
17 Roses Of Picardy
18 There’s A Lull In My Life
19 We’ll Be Together Again
20 Lullaby Of Birdland
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